In the Shadow of Classist Ethnocentrism: Prophetic Voices Against “The Status Quo”

This is taking a new thread of thought from somasoul’s comments in the “Christarchy!” post Lora wrote (thanks Lora)
I find often on this blog a tendency to attack what is seen as the “Christian” status quo, readily identified as the following:

1) Rich

2) Sheltered

3) Spiteful of “sinners”

I will, of course, say “Amen”, “Amen” and “Amen”, provided the caveat that this refers mostly to North American suburban Christians – and, in the global scheme of Christendom, this is a small portion of the body of Christ.

I mention this because I sometimes wonder when we take on a prophetic voice to critique Christians for the above errors, if not this critique itself issues forth from a privileged and ethnocentric perspective.

For example, I am a Christian living in an urban zip code where about 1 in 3 people are living in poverty (I am that 1 in the 3 as well), and much of those in poverty are concentrated in the blocks surrounding my apartment. The city where I live was declared the second poorest city in the U.S. this past August by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Christians I meet are former hustlers and addicts who were redeemed and called by Christ to live out the gospel. The Christians I meet are not rich. A lot of Christians I meet are homeless alcoholics (and that’s a small percentage of the homeless population, mind you) who preach better sermons on grace than most reformed Christians. The Christians I meet are quick to point out their past sins and are awed at the gift that Christ has given them through his death and resurrection to reconcile them to God and forgive their sins.

Therefore, if you were to say to them that the Christian “status quo” that needs to be repented from is being “rich, sheltered, and spiteful of sinners”, they would probably be curious who you were refering to. Moreover, would this critique of the Christian “status quo” equally apply to the millions of believers in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia?

I think too often North American Christians think they are the only ones out there, except maybe those Catholics in Europe (but, aren’t they a cult that prays to Mary?)

Let us not forget that the “Christian status quo” is not any of the above mentioned characteristics; and so one should be careful when applying a generalization like that upon everyone.

The Christian message must always be spoken idiomatically; therefore, the only shared truth and hope we proclaim is Christ’s crucifixion (1 Corinthians 2:2); from there, we must recognize that what is in the heart of each believer and what is in their past is different, particularly across socioeconomic divides.

Comments (11)

  1. folknotions (Post author)

    And, I should note as well, that even when the above characteristics apply to suburban Christians in North America, it certainly does not apply to all of them.

  2. Sean F

    Thanks Devan. I think we all approach things with our own particular perspective and tend to assume that our experiences are normative. It’s good to be reminded that we’re part of a much larger story, and that our vision isn’t objectively accurate.

    It seems to me there’s something even more insidious going on here as well, though. As a member of a privileged group, it’s easy to get an us/them mentality that separates me from the “poor” or the “needy”. I’m a good Christian who has resources that I should use to serve the poor, but if I stop here, I may actually do more damage to the Body than if I hadn’t done anything at all. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last couple of years, it’s that we have a hell of a lot to learn from the so-called “needy”, and we’d better get over ourselves and start paying attention. Respect for the other means that I have to be willing to allow myself to be served by those I perceive to be needy.

    I think this is a part of the broader problem that you were addressing. When we only see things from our own perspective, we lose sight of reality. I’ve been blown away by Christians in other countries who have told me “I pray for you American Christians every day, because it must be so hard to be American and Christian.” If we don’t have fellowship with those who live in different situations and have different points of view, we can’t help but be ethnocentric and arrogant in our outlook.

  3. SteveK

    I think this is all very true. Just because the majority of the church in North America is a certain way, it doesn’t mean that all the church is that way.

    But two other points:

    Many people throughout the world could misunderstand that the wealthy Christian is the status quo Christian because wealthy North American speakers flood the airwaves with their message all over the world, especially those of the prosperity doctrine. They are openly teaching that the faithful Christian is the one who has conspicuous wealth, in opposition to the teaching of Jesus, and in opposition to the majority of Christians. Thus, while we do not want to insult the poor, we need to make sure we speak against this wrong-headed teaching.

    Also, I have a whole church of the poor in Portland, and I teach them about what the Bible says about the poor and the rich. And they are surprized. They thought that the rich were more spiritual than they, although James 1 and 2 says the opposite. So teaching about the dangers of wealth and living out an incarnation to the poor is just a part of the whole gospel, which is so much more than just “receiving Jesus.”

    Steve K

  4. somasoul

    Isn’t it arrogant and ethnocentric to assume that young American Christians need prayer; especially when the one saying it has never been here?

    I dunno. On the hand you have the white “moral majority” that fled to the suburbs and lives a pretty good sin-free lifestyle. (Also, it’s a lifestyle of seclusion, lack of service, and consumerism). On the flip side you have urban churches that proclaim the prosperity gospel and have church goers involved in drugs or rampant sexual sin.

    Is there a happy medium to this?

    “Respect for the other means that I have to be willing to allow myself to be served by those I perceive to be needy.” -Sean F

    This is a great quote. So often Christians only preach down. The rich can preach to their class or below it. Whites can preach to either whites or blacks but blacks cannot preach to whites. We need to humble ourselves to be taught by those “less” than us. I’m sure they can bring something to the table.

  5. Paco

    America’s sins are so spread around the world and obviously viewable (let alone having clear effects on) by almost anyone outside of the country that I don’t think its impossible nor bad for anyone to assume that young american Christians need prayer. I’d welcome any amount of people willing to pray for me anyway.

    These comments are in any case typically not made self-righetously nor arrogantly (although we might allow a little once in a while for people that are usually never given leeway for it). I’m not sure how the term ethnocentric would really apply here at all though.

    But i agree with Somasoul that the Church is massively off course, but also with folknotions that it is more concertedly bad in the U.S.. But that is kind of what this blog is about isn’t it?

  6. Sean F

    I don’t think it’s arrogant or ethnocentric. We have a pretty anti-Christian society, and it doesn’t take first-hand experience to know it. If we can pray for the church in places where persecution is going on, I think they can pray for us, since we’re almost completely co-opted by our consumer society.

    I don’t know how accurate it is to say that suburb dwellers live a “sin-free” lifestyle. Aside from the things you mentioned (which is worse: doing drugs or hating your neighbor?), they’re not even very good at the sexual sins they rail against so often (porn, divorce, etc). They do seem to have learned how to make it less obvious, of course, but that’s not the same thing. At the end of the day, I’d rather have a drug addict who knows how to love sacrificially than an apathetic suburban pastor.

    I’m not saying that poverty makes you more righteous, but I just don’t think you can say that suburban Christians are better off spiritually. Black urban churches have a big problem with the prosperity gospel, but at least they’re doing a better job of loving each other. I’d be nice to see orthodoxy and obedience go together, and sometimes it happens, but if I had to pick one, I’d go for obedience.

  7. somasoul

    When I said white churches were sin free I didn’t mean that they actually were but merely gave a pretty good appearance of being so.

    And I don’t know if black churches love each-other more. Surely one has to take into account the nearly 80% rate of out-of-wedlock childbirth, the associated violence in the inner-city, and so on.

    I don’t think one is doing better than the other. It seems our me-first mentality may have finally infected nearly every aspect of church and christianity in this part of the world.

  8. Sean F

    I don’t have any statistics in front of me, and it doesn’t seem to me like a hill to die on, so I’ll accede the point. I’m speaking mostly out of my experiences attending a black urban church in Atlanta for a year and another in West Philly for a couple of months, but they were both pretty unique churches in a lot of respects. I’ll allow that others’ experiences might be different. It does seem like those statistics on crime and out-of-wedlock births would be different for those involved in churches than for the general population of the inner-city, though.

  9. somasoul

    I think that’s fair, Sean. We are, after all, both speaking in generalizations (prior to your last post) and there are situations that are different than the ones we have spoken of. Certainly not all white suburban churches behave in this way nor all urban black churches.

    When we see healthy congregations we should acknowledge and support that. Otherwise we can become just a little too cynical.

  10. TimN

    Folknotions, I think you’re right that this blog has a lot of focus on critiquing the status quo. Like Paco said, that is sort of what this blog is about.

    I think you are also right to point out that this critique needs to start with us when us means privilege, middle class folks. This is why for me, the Walter Wink paradigm of Christianity challenging the domination system is key. When I challenge the church, it is because I see us propping up the domination system and participating in it unquestioningly.

    Unfortunately in our cynicism, we sometimes end up lumping the entire Church into one bucket and you are right that that’s a problem. We need to remember that many churches (like SteveK’s) are made up of poor people who have found liberation and freedom from bondage in the gospel.

    Folknotions, I’m not sure that I agree that the only shared truth and hope we proclaim is Christ’s crucifixion. In 1 Corinthians 2:2, Paul says that he knew “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (NIV). For me, knowing Jesus Christ means knowing his life as well as his death and resurrection. And it is all three of these together that call us out of the domination system and into God’s vision for shalom.

  11. SteveK

    I like your comment, Tim. But when Paul spoke of “Jesus crucified” didn’t he speak of his life, such as Phil. 2? Paul spoke of Jesus lowering himself to be as frail as humanity and as humble as the most shamed of humanity. This was not just a decision to death, but a decsion of a lifestyle of being the anawim, the meek and outcast of humanity. Isn’t this what Jesus calls us all to?

    I’m not sure that’s what Folknotion’s meant, but it is what I mean when I speak of Jesus’ death. Paul himself said that Jesus’ death was a paradigm we were to emulate (Col. 1:14; Romans 8:17)

    Steve K

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