If there is one thing we can reliably predict about the 21st century, it is that an increasing share of the world’s people is going to identify with one of two religions, either Christianity or Islam, and the two have a long and disastrous record of conflict and mutual incomprehension. For the sake of both religion and politics, and perhaps of simple planetary survival, it is vitally necessary for Christian and Jewish Northerners to gain a better understanding of Islam. But odd as it may sound perhaps the more pressing need is to appreciate that other religious giant, the strangely unfamiliar world of the new Christianity. Southern Christianity, the Third Church, is not just a transplanted version of the familiar religion of the older Christian states: the New Christendom is no mirror image of the Old. It is a truly new and developing entity. Just how different from its predecessor remains to be seen.
Studying Christianity in a predominantly Christian society can pose surprising difficulties. I teach in a religious studies program which, like most of its counterparts in universities across the United States, introduces students to the global dimensions of religious experience. In practice, that means providing a wide range of courses on the World Religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, and so on. The main religion that tends to suffer in this package is Christianity, which receives nothing like the attention it merits in terms of its numbers and global scale. Whatever the value of Christian claims to truth, it cannot be considered as just one religion out of many: it is, and will continue to be, by far the largest in existence. A generation ago, the neglect of Christianity in academic teaching made more sense than it does today, in that students could be expected to absorb information about the faith from churches, families, or society at large. Today, though, that is often not a realistic expectation, and one encounters dazzling levels of ignorance about the basic facts of the religion.
If Christianity as such receives short shift, the situation is still worse when it comes to the religion outside the West. Normally, textbooks discuss the faith in African and Asia chiefly in highly negative ways, in the context of genocide, slavery, and imperialism, and the voices of autonomous Christianity are rarely heard. Given the present and future distribution of Christians worldwide, a case can be made that understanding the religion in its non-Western context is a prime necessity for anyone seeking to understand the emerging world. American universities prize the goal of diversity in their teaching, introducing students to the thought-ways of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, often by using texts from non-Western cultures. However strange this may sound in terms of conventional stereotypes, teaching about Christianity would be a wonderful way to teach diversity, all the more so now that particular non-Western religion is returning to its roots. Significantly, though, few Religious Studies departments in public universities offer courses in Pentecostalism, say, compared with the substantial numbers teaching on Buddhism or Islam. Partly, this reflects political prejudices: at least in the humanities, most academics are strongly liberal, and take a dim view of Pentecostalism and fundamentalism. While colleges do discuss Catholicism, the issues involved in these courses are very much those of interest in the liberal West, rather than the lived realities of Catholic practice in Latin America or Africa.
Considering Christianity is a global reality can make us see the whole religion in a radically new perspective, which is startling and, often, uncomfortable. In fact, to adapt a phrase coined by theologian Marcus Borg, it is as if we are seeing Christianity again for the first time. In this encounter, we are forced to see the religion not just for what it is, but what it was in its origins and what it is going to be in the future. To take one example of these startling rediscoveries, Christianity is deeply associated with poverty. Contrary to myth, the typical Christian is not a White fat cat in the United States or western Europe, but rather a poor person, often unimaginably poor by Western standards.
African and Latin American Christians are people for whom the New Testament Beatitudes have a direct relevance inconceivable for most Christians in Northern societies. When Jesus told the “poor” they were blessed, the word used does not imply relative deprivation, it means total poverty, or destitution. The great majority of Southern Christians (and increasingly, of all Christians) really are the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, even the dehumanized. India has a perfect translation for Jesus’ word in the term Dalit, literally “crushed” or “oppressed.” This is how that country’s so-called Untouchables now choose to describe themselves: as we might translate the biblical phrase, blessed are the Untouchables.
Knowing all this should ideally have policy consequences, which are at least as urgent as redistributing church resources to meet the needs of shifting populations. Above all, the disastrous lot of so many Christians worldwide places urgent pressure on the wealthy societies to assist the poor. A quarter of a century ago, Ronald J. Sider published the influential book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which attacked First World hypocrisy in the face of the grinding poverty of the global South. The book could easily be republished today with the still more pointed title Rich Christians in an Age of Hungry Christians, and the fact of religious kinship adds enormously to Sider’s indictment. When American Christians see the images of starvation from Africa, like the hellish visions from Ethiopia in the 1980s, very few realize that the victims share not just a common humanity, but in many cases the same religion. Those are Christians starving to death.
Looking at Southern Christianity gives a surprising new perspective on some other things that might seem to be very familiar. Perhaps the most striking example is how the newer churches can read the Bible in a way that makes that Christianity look like a wholly different religion from the faith of prosperous advanced societies of Europe or North America. We have already seen that Southern churches are quite at home with biblical notions of the supernatural, with ideas like dreams and prophecy. Just as relevant in their eyes are the book’s core social and political themes, like martyrdom, oppression, and exile. In the present day, it may be that it is only in the newer churches that the Bible can be ready with any authenticity and immediacy, and that the Old Christendom must give priority to Southern voices. If Northern churches cannot help with clergy or missionaries or money, then perhaps they can reinterpret their own religion in light of these experiences.
As an intellectual exercise, modern Westerners can understand the historical circumstances that led to this emphasis on bloodshed and confrontation, but the passages concerned have little current relevance. Nor, for many, do the apocalyptic writings that are so closely linked to the theme of persecution and martyrdom, the visions of a coming world in which God will rule, persecutors will perish, and the righteous be vindicated. In recent decades, some New Testament scholars have tried to undermine the emphasis on martyrdom and apocalyptic in the New Testament by suggesting that these ideas did not come from Jesus’ mouth, but were rather attributed to him by later generations. The real Jesus, in this view, was a rational Wisdom teacher much more akin to modern Western tastes, a kind of academic gadfly, rather than the ferocious “Doomsday Jesus” of the Synoptic Gospels. Rom this perspective, Jesus’ authentic views are reflected in mystical texts like the Gospel of Thomas. For radical Bible critics like the Jesus Seminar, Thomas has a much better claim to be included in a revised New Testament than the book of Revelation, which is seen as a pernicious distortion of Christian truth.
For the average Western audience, New Testament passages about standing firm in the face of pagan persecution have little immediate relevance about as much perhaps as farmyard images of threshing or vine-grafting. Some fundamentalists imagine that the persecutions described might have some future reality, perhaps during the End Times. But for millions of Southern Christians, there is no such need to dig for arcane meanings. Millions of Christians around the world do in fact live in constant danger of persecution or forced conversion, from either governments or local vigilantes. For modern Christians in Nigeria, Egypt, the Sudan, or Indonesia, it is quite conceivable that they might someday find themselves before a tribunal that would demand that they renounce their faith upon pain of death. In all these varied situations, ordinary believers are forced to understand why they are facing these sufferings, and repeatedly they do so in the familiar language of the Bible and of earliest Christianity. To quote one Christian in Maluku, recent massacres and expulsions in that region are “according to God’s plan. Christians are under purification from the Lord.” The church in Sudan, the victim of perhaps the most savage religious repression anywhere in the world, has integrated its sufferings into its liturgy and daily practice, and produced some moving literature in the process (“Death has come to reveal the faith/It has begun with us and it will end with us”).
Persecution is not confined to nations in such a state of extreme violence. Even in situations when actual violence might not have occurred for months or years, there is a pervasive sense of threat, a need to be alert and avoid provocations. Hundreds of millions of Christians live in deeply divided societies, constantly needing to be acutely aware of their relationships with Muslim or Hindu neighbors.
Just as relevant to current concerns is exile, forcible removal from one's homeland, which forms the subject of so much of the Hebrew Bible. About half the refugees in the world today are in Africa, and millions of these are Christian. The wars that have swept over the Congo and Central Africa over the past decade have been devastating in uprooting communities. Often, it is the churches that provide the refugees with cohesion and community, and offer them hope, so that exile and return acquire powerfully religious symbolism. Themes of exile and return also exercise a powerful appeal for those removed voluntarily from their homelands, the tens of millions of migrant workers who have sought better lives in the richer lands.
Read against the background of martyrdom and exile, it is not surprising that so many Christians look for promises that their sufferings are only temporary, and that God will intervene directly to save the situation. In this context, the book of Revelation looks like true prophecy on an epic scale, however unpopular or discredited it may be for most Americans or Europeans. In the South, Revelation simply makes sense, in its description of a world ruled by monstrous demonic powers. These forces might be literal servants of Satan, or symbols for evil social forces, but in either case, they are indisputably real.
A healthy distrust of worldly power and success is all the more necessary given the remarkable reversals of Christian fortunes over the ages, and the number of times that the faith seemed on the verge of destruction. In 500 Christianity was the religion of empire and domination; in 1000, it was the stubborn faith of exploited subject peoples, or of barbarians on the irrelevant fringes of the great civilizations; in 1900, Christian powers ruled the world. Knowing what the situation will be in 2100 or 2500 would take a truly inspired prophet. But if there is one overarching lesson from this record of changing fortunes, it is that (to adapt the famous adage about Russia) Christianity is never as weak as it appears, nor as strong as it appears. And whether we look backward or forward in history, we can see that time and again, Christianity demonstrates a breathtaking ability to transform weakness into strength.