What we can learn from Koreans (and other non-Western Christians)

My last several posts have dealt with the relationship between American and non-Western Christianies, and this post will conclude that vein of posts for a while.  In it, I’d like to reflect on some things that American Christians can learn from non-Western Christians.

When most people talk about things we can learn from non-Western Christians, they talk about things like being enthusiastic about your faith, worshipping in non-Western ways, appreciating what you have materially, and, if you’re conservative in your theology, how to uphold the fundamentals of faith that the godless people in America have abandoned.

What people don’t often talk about, but what I’d like to talk about, is how we can learn to think about our social situation as Christians and our relationship to the wider national culture.

I think this is something that American Protestants (especially mainline Protestants) need to think more about.  American Protestantism had this great quest from the First Great Awakening through the 1950s to build a Protestant America characterized by white, Anglo-Saxon values.  This project failed (and for some good reasons) in the 60s.  Since then, evangelical Protestants have alternated between building a Christian subculture (a project they’d actually been working on since the 1920s) and reasserting language about American being a Christian nation.  We mainline Protestants haven’t known what to do with ourselves since then.  We have nostalgia for a time when we were the cultural center of America, a growing realization that time is long over, and few if any ideas about what to do in our new socio/cultural situation.

I would like to suggest that one thing which might help us figure out what to do with ourselves as American (mainline) Protestants is listening to Christians who aren’t American.  One of the ways to think new possibilities about your own social situation is to learn how other people think about their social situations which are different than yours.  That’s why Gramsci wanted Italian school kids to learn Latin – so they would be introduced to a different way of thinking about the world that would then allow them to think differently about early 20th century capitalist, fascist Italy.  We don’t have to learn Latin to do that, though – we can listen to Christians from other countries in the world.

In particular, I think we would do well to listen to Koreans.  Why Koreans?  Korea, like America, is a country with a lot of Christians.  But not a majority of Christians.  (Which, I recognize, the US does have, at least nominally).  Christianity is a sizable presence in Korea, but it doesn’t define the cultural or social mainstream nor (and here’s the important contrast) did it ever.  Korean Protestants have been going through their own handwringing about plateauing growth in the past decade.  In some ways, Korean Christians are in a social position that’s similar enough to but different enough from the US to make them good conversation partners from which we could potentially learn a good deal about how to think of ourselves in relation to the rest of American society.

Of course, we can learn from other Christian groups around the world, too.  Nigerians, Kenyans, Indonesians, and Malaysians all have things to teach us about how to interact with Muslims.  Zimbabweans can teach us some things about the relationship between religion and ecology.  The list goes on.  But as we Americans think about our relationship to non-American Christians, we must be sure to have the humility to let at least one facet of that relationship be learning.

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