BY LUCAS KWONG
Let me guess: you’re in engineering, right?
The first time I hear this question, I’m at an orientation for incoming international students. This being an era in which an African-American senator can become President, I snicker instinctively, thinking I’ve stumbled into the sequel to Borat. The second time I’m asked, I shrug it off again, but this time in crabby disbelief. Then, someone asks me where I’m from. When I answer Canada, they press me further. Not what country I was born in, but where I’m really from (read: Korea, Japan, China or Taiwan). I am stunned. Put aside WWJD for a moment, and another question comes to mind: what would Margaret Cho say?
Essentialisms: those classed, gendered, and racialized assumptions that have weathered the vagaries of the P.C. dispensation. For the fortunate privileged, like myself, such assumptions practically translate into little more than the odd bemusing question at a cocktail party. And yet, as I meditate on the role of the scholar in honoring Micah 6:8, I can’t help but think that the task of the 21st century Christian intellectual is to aim his slingshot at the remaining camouflaged Goliaths lurking in our ivory towers: the religious essentialisms that conspire against understanding world Christianity.
Only now, after decades of Boomer-inspired indifference, is the academy making baby steps towards a nuanced understanding of faith. Columbia’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life represents one such move, while Tony Blair’s nascent Faith and Globalization Initiative at Yale represents another. Yet such organizations still have the tough work of convincing legions of skeptical scholars to abandon that old Marxist canard about the opiate of the masses. In a recent online discussion of Chinua Achebe’s postcolonial classic Things Fall Apart, a text I admire for carefully distinguishing between missionary ecclesiastical structures and the Gospel they represented, one student typified the class reaction with the blanket statement, “Christianity was able to deconstruct traditional social networks through individual conversions, each of which had negative ramifications for the whole community.” In the same class, my lament about academic misrepresentations of Christianity evoked surprise from another student, who had assumed that Christianity’s status as a “religion of the establishment” ensured a fair shake. Meanwhile, in an era when the Christian message is crossing all manner of ethnic, national and cultural borders, one of my professors called for an even tighter conflation of ethnic and religious identities. Indeed, when one considers that the average college or graduate student usually encounters Christianity as a facet of the old God-guns-gold imperialist triumvirate, it’s no surprise that the academic landscape is still about as sensitive to matters of belief as Bill Maher’s Religulous.
If the cloistered life of seminar papers and library loans has any sort of obligation to the global community, though, such presumptions constitute more than a mere chronic annoyance. While the academy continues to focus on the colonialist phase of Christianity, the former colonies of the world have moved on. Scholars such as Phillip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh have, through such books as The Next Christendom and Whose Religion is Christianity?, have brought world Christianity to our attention: at last count, Latin America boasts roughly 480 million believers; Africa, 360 million. The fact that the latter continent’s Christian population numbered 10 million in 1900 indicates that the end of colonialism has given rise to an acceleration, not a deceleration, in conversions to the faith.Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3. Furthermore, as Sanneh points out in Whose Religion is Christianity?, those conversions tend to take place among marginalized populations in states of limited political influence.Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 27. Thus, contrary to the presuppositions of the dominant postcolonial narrative, Christianity is flourishing not in centers of white affluence, but among the impoverished populations that the religion has allegedly ruined forever.
Ironically, by fixating on the hegemonic and colonialist connotations of Christianity, most academics end up reinscribing the very essentialism that imperial Spain used to justify wholesale slaughter of the New World’s native populations: the Other was not, is not, and can never be Christian. The Spaniards justified this fallacy by noting that the original apostles never preached to the Indians; we moderns, by arguing that their European successors had no right to do so. In both cases, the autonomous will of the populations in question, along with their ability to freely appropriate and indigenize foreign beliefs, is effaced. The subaltern, to tweak Gayatri Spivak ever so slightly, cannot pray.
So far as I can see, world Christianity can go overlooked no longer, for three main reasons. First, our academic institutions’ commitment to the notion of a global university hinges on its response to this phenomenon. A devout Burundian villager who wins a scholarship to an Ivy League school will encounter, in the seminar discussions and lunch table debates of her home away from home, a Christianity that scarcely resembles the faith she has grown up with at home, a caricature engendered by postcolonial guilt and an Americentric perspective on right-wing religiosity. When we place world Christianity at the center of our research, reading responses, and classroom discussions, we help create a space in which religious, economic, and ethnic subjectivities can flourish, in all manner of combinations.
Moreover, the academy must acknowledge world Christianity as a force of progress in the developing nations of the world. For example, aspiring diplomats looking to tackle the African aids epidemic must face facts: statistics such as those gathered by the cia’s World Factbook display a negative correlation between aids incidence and Catholic presence among African nations. Most dramatically, Uganda, at 33% Roman Catholic and 33% Protestant, boasts an impressively low 4.1% aids rate. Indeed, Uganda’s government has done this precisely by means of the very abstinence platform vilified by most NGOs.White, Hilary, “While Critics blame Catholic Church for AIDS deaths, stats show just the opposite,” Lifesite News, http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2007/mar/07030610.html At face value, such facts signal that the African Christian movement represents a powerful ally in the fight against aids, yet they are more likely to elicit anger or denial amongst our non-religious colleagues, who usually dismiss Christianity as the ideological apparatus of the American empire, if not worse. To be productive, research into African aids must instead proceed with sensitivity and generosity of spirit towards the religious commitments of victims, doctors, and governmental officials. It falls to our generation of Christian scholars to effect this about-face in attitude.
Finally, if God truly became a marginalized carpenter from the backwaters of the Roman Empire, we Christians must make this issue a priority. In bringing to light the Christianity of Brazilian slums and Indonesian house churches, we represent to the world the Christ who separates the sheep and the goats, the Christ who so identifies with the prisoners, the hungry, the naked, and the thirsty that citizenship in the Kingdom is contingent on the treatment of such persons. In doing so, we will give our skeptical classmates cause to reconsider the claims of the homeless prophet we call the Messiah. Our professors and peers need to know that, while the bride of Christ may wear white, her skin color is anything but.