Ethnicity and Ethnocentrism
Dr. Domenic Marbaniang
The Oxford Dictionary defines “ethnicity” as “the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.” Chamber’s Dictionary, on the other hand, defines it as “the state of belonging to a particular racial or cultural group.” While traditionally, ethnicity was connected with race, in modern times, with the emergence of nation-states, ethnicity is also broadly understood in “national” (political) terms. However, since ethnicity is dynamic in nature (for inter-marriages, migrations, acculturation, and assimilation are ongoing processes), multiplication of the multiple ethnic groups continues. For instance, we talk of African-Americans and Indian-Americans as different ethnic groups. But, then the terms “African” and “Indian” are not without their subdivisions. “Indian” could mean Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu, Naga, Khasi, Mizo, and any of the various ethnic groups in India. In addition, migrations, intermixtures, assimilations do not stop.
However, nationality, culture, history, and race still do not give the entire picture. Ethnicity also involves the incidence of language and religion. More or less, “ethnicity” is a functional term that is contingent or dependent on other things. It is like a wheel which has a variety of forms; one has spokes, one doesn’t have; one is made of metal, another is made of wood; one is small, another is big; one runs on road, another runs on tracks. It is absurd to say that a motorcar wheel is not a wheel because it doesn’t resemble a railcar wheel. Of course, there is an essential definition to wheel: that which makes a wheel a wheel, but it cannot be understood apart from its relation to what it exists for (e.g. car or railcoach). Similarly, ethnic identity may possess the element of linguistic similarity, but that is not necessary to the essential meaning of ethnicity. For instance, one doesn’t cease to ethnically be Indian just because he cannot speak one of the Indian languages, or his mother tongue. There was a time when many of the Jews couldn’t speak Hebrew, but they didn’t cease to be Hebrews because of that. Language is not an essential identifier, but only a functional one, though it did function to create boundaries (that allowed separate cultural developments) in the original division at Babel (Genesis 10-11). Of course, if language was essential to ethnicity, then any one could become member of another ethnic group by learning its specific language. But, this is impossible. Similarly, religious similarity is not essential but only accidental. An Indian can be Christian or Hindu; the religious belief doesn’t determine one’s ethnicity. But, at the same time, we also talk about Indian Christians, Indian Buddhists, and Indian Muslims. Obviously, the essential definition of ethnicity chiefly includes only the idea of “people” or “people group”. But, the nature of the qualifiers (e.g. language, religion, region) may determine the varieties of ethnic identities within any group. It depends on what variable or factor is paired with the term “people” in order to qualify it. Like wheels that may have spokes or may not, some ethnic groups may be united by the marker of language and others by other factors considered more essential. Consequently, ethnicity may involve any of the following: common ancestry, common culture, common location, common language, or common values and beliefs; but, certainly a common history of grouping effected by one or more of these.
Ethnocentrism is the idolization of one set of ethnic definitions and attempt to worship it, defend it, and protect it by means of taboos of excommunication or, in viler cases, extermination. In its more extreme form, ethnocentrism is a superiority complex view that considers one’s own ethnic identity in the superlative, i.e. as higher and greater than any other in the world. Its various manifestations are cultural-nationalism, fascism, racialism, religious-nationalism, linguistic-nationalism, communalism and the like. The Australian Oxford Dictionary defines being “ethnocentric” as “regarding one's own race or ethnic group as of supreme importance and superior to all others; evaluating other races and cultures by criteria specific to one's own.” Ethnocentrism is anti-biblical. In fact, regarding even other people groups as racially superior or inferior is violence against the fact of humanity.
Origin of Nations
Ethnicity began at Babel, the place of confusion. God confused the languages of people because they wished to unite to call themselves by a name, apart from God. A godless nomenclature gestures ultimate rebellion. The Tower of Babel was meant to be a combined rejection of any belongedness to God; it was the attempt to construct the ultimate City of Man; for, they said: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4). But, God had created man in His own image and likeness and we belong to Him. Also, God wanted man to understand that on this earth we do not have any enduring city, but we were meant to seek that which is to come (Heb.13:14). Therefore, God scattered the people who were till then one and were speaking one single language. God’s purpose was that this multiple ethnic division would ensure proper historical and geographical boundaries, within which man would seek God. In time, a combination of knowledge, belief (often, superstitions, but sometimes factual), and volitional determinations (as people chose or context demanded) gave rise to complex cultures and religious systems.
“He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings,so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ (Act 17:26-28)
Genesis 10 gives us a peek into the way in which the various nations of the earth are descended. The three main divisions from the sons of Noah, viz. Shem, Ham, and Japheth, are the Semites, the Hamites, and the Japhethites respectively. The general classification ignores the realities of intermarriages and systems of adoption. In truth, Semites, Hamites, and Japhetites have historically intermixed. If Adam is the river, and Noah the only one who survived (along with his wife, his sons, and daughters-in-law), then Shem, Ham, and Japheth are the chief three tributaries; however, as the river flows over the timeline of history, there are points where offshoots moved away forming other tributaries, while multiple intermixtures produced still more tributaries, some of which became big, some of which faded over time.There have been several attempts to identify these bloodlines; most of whom, before the 18th century, agreed that the Semites inhabited the whole of Asia, the Hamites occupied the whole of Africa, and the Japhetites occupied all of Europe. But, this interpretation is not fully warranted and we do not need to venture here into a fruitless and endless controversy of genealogies (1Tim.1:4; Tit.3:9).
We know that ethnic groups will remain as long as this earth remains. This is evident from the biblical awaiting of at least two prophetic themes: first, the anticipation of the Gospel preached to all nations for a witness; and second, the salvation of the Jewish nation. The ingathering of the Jewish people to Israel gathered pace after her formation in 1948. Since then, Jews from all corners, with all kinds of ethnic similarities (European, African, Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern), are arriving into the land.But, Israel is politically not ethnocentric and Israeli citizenship is not determined on the basis of jus sanguinis (right of blood) but on the basis of jus soli (right of the soil).
It has to be asserted here again that a focus on ethnic identity alone leads to ethnocentrism; in essence, the individual is more important than any ethnic definitions. In fact, the human existed before ethnicity, and ethnicity was only an accident whose function was to divide humanity in order to unite them again under and in the One Man, who joins man with God and brings down the City of God on earth. To put ethnicity at the center becomes ethnocentrism. We are called towards Theo-centrism; for, the Triune God is all in all, and the nations were created to seek God, who is at the center. Ethnocentrism is idolatrous stagnancy that caters to the pride of earthly life in total practical unbelief against God’s revelation of Himself and His plan for the nations.
Ethnicity Vs Ethnocentrism And God’s Plan for the Nations
After the division of nations is mentioned in Genesis 10-11, Genesis 12 talks about God’s plan for the nations through the election of Abraham. To Abraham, God promised: "In you all the nations shall be blessed." (Gal 3:8; Gen.12:3). In fact, the New Testament tells us that this promise is the Gospel that the Scriptures preached to Abraham. Obviously, the purpose of God was certainly not multitudes of nations, but the one Holy Nation, the People of God, who are called out of darkness into His marvelous light (1Pet.2:9,10). However, this oneness is not “ethnic” in the sense of ethno-cultural or ethno-linguistic or even ethno-religious that cultural anthropologists understand. It is spiritual in nature. As long as the effect of the tree of knowledge prevails, cultural dynamics will prevail.
Ethnicity is a dynamic phenomenon. Languages change and grow through assimilation and adoption. But, languages also die and become extinct, especially when they cannot cope with the cosmic nature of human society. The English language, for instance, keeps growing rapidly through creative assimilation of new words and word-functions.The vocabulary is replete with words adopted from Greek, French, Latin, German, and local languages all over the world. Its cosmic and pervasive nature owes to its pervasion itself. On the other hand, historians are aware of several dead languages that people cannot use any longer, except to decipher ancient texts. The same applies also to cultural forms, be it art, music, dress, cuisine, or etiquette. Ethnocentrism tries to go back to the ancient, as if the ancient itself is not a result of multiple adaptations and assimilations. But, this cultural or racial pride only stings itself to death. Ethnocentrism is alarmed by the unpopularity facts of some cultural forms and wishes to retain ethnic purity, whatever it is, in every possible expression. However, a Hindi speaker would rather say “station” or “platform” than “chowki” or “chabutara”,when thinking of railways. And, certainly neither the English today nor the Hindi today is the same as it was a hundred years ago. So, ethnocentrism is thoroughly self-contradictory and contra-natural.
One must not forget the fact that it was the missionary movement that played a major role in the preservation of many cultural forms. It invented scripts, standardized grammar, created dictionaries, and wrote songs for many hitherto secluded languages. The oriental movement saw the translation of the then privileged ancient texts into the English language, which thus became available to the public in general giving rise to cultural awareness, though in a reforming way. Some fell prey to the nationalistic philosophies of the West and proceeded towards racial and cultural nationalism. Others fell prey to religio-cultural nationalism. Contrary to all these stood the mandate of Christ to the Church to preach the Gospel to all nations, not in order to destroy cultures but in order to gospelize cultures; for Christ did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it; yet, He stands against blind and irrational traditions of men and calls all people towards grace and repentance.
It is important to understand that the Bible does not sacralize or divinize any language (not even Hebrew). The Bible does not regard any language on earth as complete and celestial. That is one good reason why parts of the exilic books like Daniel were written in Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Common Greek. The goal was not to produce a great linguistic literature, but to communicate the message of God in humanly understood terms. The Bible is not ethnocentric; it is God-revealing. The reason why the New Testament was written in Greek was because the then world was greatly Hellenized (or became Greek-speaking), as the modern world is greatly “Anglicized” (has become English-speaking); but, of course, not every part of the modern world is as thoroughly Anglicized as the then world was Hellenized. But, certainly in the first century churches of the cities, Greek would be the common language used in churches where both Jews, Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians (or people of other tongues) commonly worshipped. We don’t have instances of separate Hebrew Churches and separate Greek Churches in the New Testament. Even the Epistle to the Hebrews was written in Greek.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that people didn’t publicly worship in other languages throughout the world then gospelized. However, for the church, the concern was never meant to be ethnic first and fellowship second; to the contrary, the fact of the fellowship preceded the accident of ethnicity. In the modern world, quite strongly influenced by nationalistic and communal histories, ethnocentrism stands as the abomination of desolation in the Holy Place. While the multi-national companies try to transcend the ethnic lines, while also respecting the same, the multi-national or multi-ethnic church is getting more crammed into closures of mono-ethnic divisions. Sadly, there are some ethno-cultural “churches” (usually, in contexts of diaspora or influx of immigrants) that are so ethnocentric that they will not attempt to evangelize people of other communities because of a fear that their ethnicity will get corrupted if others came in; so they only reach out to people of their own community. Tragic indeed!
There are others who practice ethno-cultural imperialism in missions. They fail to follow the Pauline method to become all things to all men in order by all means to save some (1Cor.9:20-22). Instead of that they despise the local cultures and promote their own traditions, thereby introducing the pride of flesh into the work of the Spirit (2Cor.11:18; Phil.3:4-11), which is nothing but the perversion of the Gospel of grace. The Spirit wars against the flesh, but the flesh is unwilling to let go off its legalistic, traditional, and cultural pride, for its carnality reigns by this self-deceiving opening of eyes – the effect of the fruit of knowledge, its death. But, the spiritual compare spiritual things with the spiritual, being taught by the Spirit, not by the opinions of human philosophies (1 Cor.2:13). They neither adore a culture nor despise it, but they use the world without misusing it, knowing that the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor.7:31). They call men out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, where is true freedom and true fellowship (1 Jn.1:3-7; 2:10,11).