Thursday, April 12, 2007

Paternalism and Imperialism

Some challenging thoughts here by Carl Trueman on paternalism and imperialism:

With the great demographic shift to the southern hemisphere in terms of evangelical Christianity, the issue of listening to the voices of brothers and sisters from these newly significant areas is a pressing one. But I want to raise some concerns.

1. Culture and geography are only two ways of dividing up the world and the church -- ways that are arguably increasingly arbitrary; and their very trendiness makes them attractive at this point in history. Yet class would seem to be just as significant. Calls for us to listen to voices from other parts of the world should not be used to crowd out the voices of the poor and the working class in the West.

2. The demographic shift may be to the south, but the economic power of Christianity lies stubbornly in America. This is significant for several reasons:
  • it means that theological education, for better or worse, is likely to remain controlled by America (institutions, books, journals, magazines all require money -- and if you don't have the capital, sheer numbers of people are less relevant).
  • it means there is a very great danger of the old imperialism and paternalism of previous generations simply co-opting the language of cultural sensitivity while continuing with business as usual. Cultural sensitivity, like all cultural phenomena, can easily be processed through the three c's of the modern West: commercialisation, commodification, and consumerism. When it does this, it ceases to be a critical force and becomes simply one more product in the cultural marketplace, internalised and emasculated. Thus, putting "Worldwide" or "International" in the title of an organisation which is funded by Americans and basically run by Westerners does not make the organisation truly international or worldwide. There seems to be a problem when church leaders give lectures on listening to brothers and sisters from the Third World when said leaders have never taken the time or had the courtesy to learn the languages of those to whom they claim to be listening, and who assume that this "listening" should self-evidently go on in organisations founded by -- you guessed it -- Westerners, funded by Westerners, and run by Westerners. There is a real danger here of paternalism: yes, we want to listen to you; but you first have to learn to speak our language and come to our conferences.
The answer? Well, I'm a Reformation academic. I could not credibly be so without being able to operate in four or five different modern European languages (not well, but well enough) and a few ancient ones. It would be absurd for me to lecture my students on listening to, say, German scholars, if I could not read some German. I also have to attend, on occasion, meeting where the medium language is not English, and which are run by, say, the Dutch, the French, or the Germans. Those church leaders who are rightly called to lead us in listening to our Third World brothers and sisters but who wish to avoid looking like old-style imperialists need to show their commitment and integrity by backing this up with a few linguistic skills in the appropriate areas, and perhaps by surrendering their organisations and their status to these brothers and sisters. Only when such leaders learn a few relevant languages and sit humbly and quietly at conferences organised by "the Other" will their words begin to possess that most elusive quality: authenticity.