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Ethnicity and nationalism: a challenge to the churches.


In more than fifty places around the globe, violence has taken root between people who share the same terrain but differ in ethnicity, race, language or religion. Rapid population growth, diminishing resources, unemployment, migration to shantytowns and lack of education are steadily increasing pressures along many social fault-lines. Conditions seem ripe for more Bosnias, Rwandas or Sri Lankas, for more cities and villages to be destroyed, for more people to be left destitute, for more blood to flow. Along with other concerned groups, the church of Jesus Christ must reflect on this issue. And we must act.

From 15 to 19 November 1994, we have met -- some 36 people from 21 countries -- in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to discuss issues of ethnicity and nationalism and to discern the challenges these present to the witness and service of Christian churches and ecumenical bodies.

Jointly sponsored by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Lutheran World Federation and World Council of Churches, the consultation was hosted by the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue in Colombo and the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka. Our hosts made it possible for us to hear a presentation of the current situation in Sri Lanka itself; and we share the hopes and prayers of the people of Sri Lanka that recent developments may herald a peaceful resolution of the conflict that has tom their country apart and led to immense suffering in recent years.

Our discussions here have confirmed our awareness of the complexity and deep roots of many of today's conflicts, both those to which our attention is called daily by newspaper and television reports and those largely unnoticed by international media. The role of the Christian community in any situation of ethnic strife is always difficult and often ambiguous. In many of these conflicts, no solution is apparent; and we recognize that Christian faith offers no ready answers to them. Nevertheless, in what follows we have sought to distil from our discussions some insights and perspectives which we hope will be useful to the member churches of our organizations and to others concerned about these critical issues.

Our report is in three sections. We begin by drawing on accounts of particular situations presented at our meeting to suggest some general remarks about ethnic conflicts. This is followed by a presentation of biblical and theological perspectives, and we conclude with some practical suggestions for the churches. A separate section is appended, offering explanations of some of the terms used in our report and discussions.

I. Some types and elements of ethnicity

Participants shared case studies and more informal reports of ethnic tension or strife in Fiji, Hungary, Malaysia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Taiwan and the former Yugoslavia. We regret that, due to circumstances beyond our control, it was not possible to hear a case study from Latin America.

Any attempt to classify these situations highlights the wide diversity of individual cases. Christian churches within and outside of any situation must show humility and caution if they seek to respond to it with something more than a general appeal for nonviolent resolution of conflict, compassion for victims and justice for all. However, we note also that any such exercise in "understanding ethnic conflict" inevitably abstracts from the human experiences and often deep suffering of our brothers and sisters directly involved in these painful situations. If the discussion of ethnic tensions and conflicts is to be more than an academic exercise, our humility and caution in explaining events and identifying rights and wrongs must be matched by an abiding commitment to be artisans of peace.

No two situations of ethnic conflict are the same. The stories and case studies reported in our consultation revealed several specific areas in which the distinctive features of a particular tension or conflict may be found. Here are some of these elements:

* Local factors. Each situation grows in part out of the particularities of the context in which the various groups live, including their economic power and potential, sociological makeup, demographic realities, geographical factors. In cases involving indigenous peoples, it is important to recognize that their relationship to the land is an intimate component of their spirituality.

* History. Each situation evolves out of specific historical circumstances, with which those from outside are often unfamiliar. As part of the ongoing stream of history, no situation is static. More importantly, there are often deep differences of opinion about the historical record (in most cases, history is "written by the winners") and how it is to be interpreted.

* External influences. No situation is insulated from outside forces, who act out of various interests. Frequently it is the past actions of outside forces which have created the present tension, as in the case of colonialism., but similar intervention from outside comes with expansionist policies of neighbouring nations and with the economic domination of "neo-colonialism". Often the action of outside forces is overt and evident, but they may also intervene covertly, creating further suspicion and mistrust.

* Images of the other. In every situation of ethnic tension or conflict, the behaviour of each side is most likely to be determined by negative images of the other, without any serious attempt to verify these images. As tensions between groups intensify, people increasingly act according to their distorted images of the self and the other, and ethnicity is increasingly invoked as a factor in the group rivalry. Conflict is exacerbated when the general perception is of the other as inferior, or threatening, or demonic.

* Occasion for conflict and opportunity for resolution. Ethnic mistrust or tension often escalates into conflict because of a specific event or episode. Any attempt to resolve the conflict must deal with what touched off the conflict. Merely resolving that episode will not solve the underlying conflict, however, since the conflict will have opened old wounds and is likely to have created new fears, hatreds and enemy-images.

* Who speaks for the group? From each side in a case of ethnic tension or conflict many voices may be heard, offering divergent explanations of the issues at stake and different proposals for how they are to be dealt with. Frequently it will be difficult to verify which if any of these voices is in fact speaking for those who are most vulnerable. While seeking to listen carefully and objectively to all voices, those outside the situation must remember that co-option and "divide and rule" are strategies often used by opponents to weaken and discredit groups.

* Myths and visions. Many ethnic conflicts are intensified and complicated by the deep convictions held by ethnic groups about their place in history and in their region. These visions may not correspond to "objective" judgments made by those outside the group.

On the basis of the cases presented to us, we would identify two main categories of ethnic conflict: ideological conflicts and conflicts concerning minority-majority relationships. Both are embedded in the struggle of ethnic groups over economic resources and political power. The following list of types of such conflict is not exhaustive, and in any given case several categories may overlap:

Ideological conflicts

* Some cases are often described as "inter-religious" or "intra-religious", because each of the parties is identified with a different religious or "sectarian" affiliation, even if it is clear to all that the teachings and religious practices of both sides have little if anything to do with the dispute.

* Some cases involve groups with identifiably different "ethnic" consciousness, often supported by a perception of distinctiveness in language, race, customs and values or cultural identity.

Majority-minority relationships

* Some cases involve ethnic groups of relatively equal size or power each struggling for dominance in a national state.

* Some cases arise because of the historical movement of people, as refugees or as migrants, into the territory of another nation-state.

* Some cases arise because an ethnic group, nation or part of a nation finds itself within the borders of a nation-state which it did not choose, whether because of boundaries drawn by colonial authorities or as a result of earlier treaties.

* Some cases arise within nation-states in which a large majority is of one ethnic group and one or more minority groups struggle for recognition of rights which they are not able to achieve through parliamentary or other democratic means because of their minority status.

* Some cases arise when a minority ethnic group achieves and maintains dominance over the majority by economic, political and military power.

* Some cases involve indigenous peoples who have been increasingly marginalized, reduced to a minority and threatened with extinction by the colonial powers and their descendants or by other ethnic groups brought in to serve the economic interests of the colonial powers.

II. Biblical and theological perspectives

God the Creator has made humankind in God's image; all human beings share equal dignity and are owed equal respect (Gen. 1:26-28). This image of God is expressed in the relationship of female and male (Gen. 1:27). The image of God is marred when the relationship between two or more people or peoples is broken (Genesis 4:1-16).

In God's providence and for our good we have come to speak different languages, inhabit different cultural spaces (Gen. 11:1-10). God is the author both of our common humanity and of our diversity.

Estranged from the God of peace, human beings have made wholesome ethnic differences a source of deadly conflict. In greed for wealth and power, land and its fruits, one ethnic group oppresses another, excluding it from the things that rightfully belong to it, suppressing cultural distinctiveness, plundering material goods, sometimes even threatening and obliterating its very existence.

By sending Jesus Christ into this world, God the Redeemer calls the whole of humanity to respond to the proclamation of the good news of the reign of God, of the coming new creation of God. The promise of the new creation is that people from every tribe and nation with all their cultural goods will be gathered around the throne of the Triune God in a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21-22). But before this promise is received, a note of judgment is struck (Rev. 21:27): that all cultures will be refined and renewed.

As the gospel has been preached to many nations, the church has taken root in many cultures, transforming them as well as being profoundly shaped by them. Yet the church does not have its own specific culture; rather, to be church is a way of living the life of the new creation within a given culture. The church must have its feet firmly planted in any culture in which it lives, and its arms stretched out towards God and God's future. the new creation.

Pentecost, the day the church was born, is not a reversal of the experience of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-10). Before Babel all of humanity spoke one language, in Jerusalem at Pentecost the new community speaks many languages (Acts 2) . When the Spirit comes, all understand each other, yet each speaks his or her own language. Pentecost is not a reversion to the unity of cultural uniformity; it is an advance towards the harmony of cultural diversity.

We wish to affirm not only the unity of humanity but also the cultural diversity that ethnic groups bring to our societies. One of the tasks of the church in a given culture is to contribute to the flowering of that culture, as well as to make sure that the salutary sense of ethnic belonging does not turn into ethnic aggressions towards the "stranger who is within the gates" or towards neighbouring ethnic groups. It is therefore the responsibility of the church to work towards genuine community, in which each ethnic group remains faithful to its dynamic and changing identity and yet is enriched by and enriches others. In this way, the churches must seek to contribute not only to the development of each culture but also to harmony among all.

The church is called to participate in the mission of God to establish God's new creation, to bring everything together under Christ as head (Eph. 1:10), by inviting people to repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, as well as by struggling together for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. The churches therefore need to challenge structures and practices of economic, political, sexual, racial, ethnic and other kinds of oppression, recognizing the intersecting nature of these oppressions and their specific impact on equality within communities.

Yet as we face the ethnic conflicts that are surfacing around the globe today, our first act as churches and Christians must be to repent for the fact that too often we have been accomplices in ethnic wars rather than agents of peace. Finding it difficult to distance themselves from their own culture, churches too often echo its reigning opinions and mimic its practices, sometimes to the point of repeating nationalistic slogans and propaganda.

In seeking to find harmony with others in the Spirit of love while remaining true to themselves, churches must strive for justice and truth. A peace between ethnic groups without truth is a false peace, harmony without justice is an unjust harmony. Yet the search for truth and justice must be a common search in which all parties in conflict participate. If each ethnic group simply insists on its own account of truth and justice, conflict will continue. As each group seeks peace and communion with the other, each must not only be faithful to its own account of justice and truth but be willing to have these accounts corrected by the convictions of other groups.

In seeking the resolution of ethnic conflicts, churches should pay special attention to those who are particularly vulnerable to the denial of political or economic power. While continuing to affirm a preferential option for the poor, they should carefully analyze conflicts which arise, sustaining the capacity to be critical of groups and movements fighting for liberation but violating human rights and perpetrating injustice.

"The churches are called to move towards visible unity in order to proclaim the gospel of hope and reconciliation for all people and show a credible model of that life God offers to all" (the Unity of the Church as Koinonia: Gift and Calling, statement by the seventh assembly of the World Council of Churches, Canberra, 1991). For the sake of ethnic harmony the churches are invited to respond to this gift and calling. Above the commitment to their respective cultures and nations the churches must place not only their commitment to their common Lord Jesus Christ and to God's new creation, but also their commitment to one another as Christian communions.

"You were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9). "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal.

All the churches of Jesus Christ, scattered in diverse cultures, have been redeemed for God by the blood of the Lamb to form one multi-cultural community of faith. The "blood" that binds them as brothers and sisters is more precious than the "blood", the language, the customs, the political allegiances or economic interests that may separate them.

III. Challenges to the churches

In a world in which ethnic strife and nationalism threaten the human rights of so many ethnic communities and their members, these biblical and theological perspectives point to a clear challenge to the church as a whole and in its local expressions.

The church is challenged constantly and critically to search the scriptures as it seeks to understand ethnicity and nationalism, opening itself to new insights and honestly acknowledging where it has abused scripture to justify its own understanding of ethnicity and nationalism. In searching the scriptures and seeking to live as the body of Christ, the church is called to repent and to walk the path of Christian discipleship, which is always under the shadow of the cross and may often lead to the cross.

The church is challenged to reassess critically its own history and evaluate its own involvement in ethnic conflicts and in nationalistic desires for power. This is not a simple matter. It may involve a painful process of naming and unmasking diabolical and dehumanizing powers. Breaking down walls of division and being reconciled with another group is especially difficult when there has been long and bitter enmity between groups. Yet as the church listens to the Spirit of Christ, it will be challenged to abandon old ways and to move in new directions under the leading of that Spirit, growing closer together with the various members of its family. The term "kingdom [reign, realm] of God", as understood by the various Christian traditions, should be explored anew as a key to understanding nationalism, ethnicity and the church.

The church is challenged to examine and explore its relations with people of other faiths, moving beyond passive tolerance to constant, critical and creative dialogue with them. This is important whenever religion is mobilized in an ethnic conflict, especially when nation-states seek to meet their need for legitimation by drawing on and exploiting the beliefs and traditions of religious communities. All world faiths include visions of and resources for the just and harmonious living together of all human beings and for the care and preservation of creation. These resources for life must be marshalled in interfaith encounter, particularly when claims by some adherents of these religions are leading to oppression, injustice and violence. Interfaith dialogue in situations of conflict may not be possible and will certainly be less fruitful if relationships of trust have not already been built before conflict breaks out.

The church is challenged to respond to the increase in missionary activity and the phenomenal growth of new religious movements in many countries. Often these groups promote a kind of faith which is alien to the cultural identity of the communities to which they come, offer simplistic responses to complex and critical issues and serve as vehicles for the economic and political interests of other powers.

The church is challenged to live as a prophetic sign of the new creation and servant of the reconciliation of God at the local level. The local congregation should be a community characterized in its life, mission and worship by inclusiveness and advocacy for the rights of others, thereby underlining the reconciling work of Christ, who has broken down barriers of ethnicity and race, creating a new people in the Spirit in whom there is "neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal. 3:28). This gospel message provides a clear and risky challenge, particularly to churches built on ethnic lines and living in a wider community where those divisions are embroiled in struggles for power.

Church leaders are often caught between their own understanding and knowledge of the gospel of reconciliation and their ethnic ties and obligations. They must be encouraged and supported to stand for the gospel which is above ethnic ties and to work for peace in their communities. In order to develop wise leadership in these matters. there is a clear need for theological seminaries and church educational activities and programmes to include peace education programmes in their curricula.

If they are to carry out a role as peacemaker and mediator in conflict situations, churches must equip themselves to face questions of ethnicity and nationalism by being politically and economically informed, historically and culturally aware and sensitive. In the service of justice and peace, churches must continue to hear the call to have "the mind of Christ" (Phil. 2:5). Their identification with vulnerable communities should lead to an acknowledgment and renunciation of all forms of power as domination.

Churches need to stand by the weak and disadvantaged and to provide healing for the victims of power. In practical terms, this may mean taking steps such as these: -- familiarizing themselves with the ethnic composition of their own community and being especially aware of the minority ethnic groups in their society; -- as resources are available, providing opportunity, space and facilities for such minority groups to gather together; -- supporting by prayer and other means sisters and brothers in those churches which are vulnerable to and are experiencing the consequences of ethnic strife and nationalism; -- supporting and encouraging their own members who are involved, often at great personal risk, in struggles for the rights of vulnerable groups; -- sharing from their own resources, whether local resources or those of the wider church, when food and other basic necessities of life are needed; -- supporting non-church groups and organizations working for the well-being of ethnic groups that are disadvantaged; -- listening to the concerns of groups in conflict and if need be representing peoples before government and standing with and for them in their desire for peace and justice.

At heart the Christian church is to be a welcoming and open community to all those who are powerless and helpless. The church is called to be the people of God, the body of Christ. It is challenged to break down the walls of hostility among groups and to unmask the dehumanizing powers often inherent in nationalistic programmes. It lives in the hope of joining in that "great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Rev. 7:9) in the worship of the one who was slain to bring them peace and to unite them as the people of God.

Appendix: Explanation of some terms

How are ethnicity, nationalism and religion linked? Modern Europe claimed that the nation-state represents the normal or even "natural" form of political self-organization; and nation-states have been exported to many parts of the world as a legacy of colonial history. To give legitimacy to nation-states, elites have often tapped the resources of the people's history, religion and local traditions. Such ideas as "we are the chosen people", "this land is our land" and "our noble tradition" are galvanized into ideologies. It is in this perspective that the problems we have discussed arise.

Identity. Many factors shape human identity, including religion, culture, gender, class. Identity is about a sense of belonging. From birth, every person requires socialization in a culture for development. Identity is therefore derived in part from membership in a socio-cultural system.

Ethnicity is collective group consciousness defined by reference to a configuration of elements such as language, homeland, descent, religion, values. The collective group identity or ethnicity of a group is often asserted relationally, in comparison to or contrast with other neighbouring groups. Although specific characteristics of an ethnic identity, such as religion or homeland, may shift over time, the need for that identity seems to be permanent, fulfilling the need for belonging. Ethnic identity may provide economic advantages and protection; it also confers symbolic satisfactions of emotional bonding and personal meaning. In cases of group conflicts, ethnicity may be mobilized and become a factor aggravating such conflicts.

Religion is a ken factor that shapes the identity and character of many communities. Every religion includes, among other elements. the following: a body of oral and written doctrines, a set of rituals. a communal structure and a code of behaviour and values.

State is the name of the sovereign territorial entities which constitute the main units in the international system. Typically a state is composed of a population, land and an independent government. Prior to the emergence of the state, kingdoms, tribes and the like were the main units of social organization. Today, state boundaries are being challenged by new forms of organization such as the European Union, ASEAN, etc.

Nation refers to a group that possesses its own cultural practices and institutions. A state may contain many nations. This is what is meant by the idea of a "multi-ethnic state". There are only a few states which are constituted entirely by one cultural group or nation.

A nation-state in the modern sense is an overarching structure in which political power is concentrated in the hands of one or more ethnic communities within its territory. The nation-state has been challenged by new concepts, structures and practices such as movements for civil rights and self-determination, cooperative trade and supra-governmental structures and the impact of global capitalism.

Nationalism is collective group consciousness built around the boundaries of an actual or perceived nationhood. In many countries, internal cultural fragmentation means that collective nationalist sentiments representing all the people cannot arise, instead, ethno-nationalisms of the separate sub-state communities exist. The appeal to nationalism and ethno-nationalism
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Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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