Senganglu Thaimei (Sengmei to her friends) is a New York Times feature waiting to be written.
Born to the Rongmei tribe in the extreme northeast of India, she is a professor of English literature at Delhi University and writes short stories that reimagine the tales of her tribe from the perspective of their marginal women. Alongside this subversive retelling of tribal narratives, Professor Thaimei is keenly engaged in preserving tribal culture. And preservation is necessary. Like the other Naga tribes, the Rongmei were reached by Western missionaries in the early nineteenth century. Today, the tribe is over 80 percent Christian, and tribal traditions are declining.
For many, the idea that Christianity is a white, Western religion, intrinsically tied to cultural imperialism, stands as a major ethical barrier to considering Christ. We celebrate diversity and lament the ways religion has been used by Westerners to destroy indigenous cultures. When I met Sengmei in June 2016, my white guilt complex went into overdrive. I knew the history of British imperialism in India, but I knew nothing of the Naga tribes, and if you are looking for a cliché of missionary activity, it doesn’t get much more painful than white American Baptists preaching to remote tribal communities with a tradition of headhunting!
But Sengmei’s personal narrative complicates the picture. Raised by nonreligious parents, she started following Jesus when she was a teenager, after a Rongmei friend brought her to church. Today, Sengmei is married to a man from a kindred tribe (the Liangmai), who pastors a multiethnic, multicultural church in New Delhi, and her passion for literature is surpassed only by her passion for sharing her faith.
Sengmei’s story illustrates an uncomfortable truth: some of the people most affected by the wrongs of Western Christians are also some of biblical Christianity’s most ardent advocates. Indeed, Sengmei warned me not give Western missionaries too much credit for the Christianization of the Naga tribes. Westerners saw only a handful of converts, who then effectively evangelized their tribes. (The Rongmei people were reached later than the other Naga tribes, by Kuki missionaries.) And while Sengmei deplores the ways Western culture was packaged with Christianity, she is equally clear about the positive effects of Christianization, particularly on the status of tribal women.
I visited India to meet with twelve Christian academics. Ten came from Naga tribes and represented seven different indigenous languages. Tribal Indians, though not counted in the caste system, often face racial discrimination, and the fact that most are Christians adds to their alienation in a country dominated by Hinduism. But my new friends were keen to explode the misconception that Christianity is innately Western. As cultural anthropology professor and proud Naga tribe member Kanato Chophi put it, “We must abandon this absurd idea that Christianity is a Western religion.”
Is Literacy Western?
It’s not that there is no connection between Christianity and Western culture. Christianity dominated Europe for centuries. Many cultural artifacts produced in the West— paintings, plays, poems and palaces—are infused with Christian ideas.
But while Christianity held a monopoly on Western culture, Western culture never held a monopoly on Christianity. Indeed, calling Christianity “Western” is like calling literacy “Western.” Western culture has undoubtedly been shaped by literacy, and Westerners have sought to impose literacy on others—often to the detriment of traditional living. But there are at least three reasons why no one in his or her right mind would claim that literacy is innately Western: first, literacy did not originate in the West; second, most literate people today are not Westerners; and third, it is frankly offensive to the majority world to suggest that they are literate only by appropriation.
The same reasons make the claim that Christianity is a Western religion indefensible. What’s more, the Bible itself rejects that claim.
The Bible’s Diversity Ethics
Contrary to popular conceptions, the Christian movement was multi-cultural and multiethnic from the outset. Jesus scandalized his fellow Jews by tearing through racial and cultural boundaries. For instance, his famous parable of the good Samaritan was shocking to its first hearers because it cast a Samaritan—a member of a hated ethno- religious group—as a moral example. Today’s equivalent would be telling a white Christian who had been raised with unbiblical, racist assumptions a story in which the hero was a black Muslim. Likewise, John’s Gospel records Jesus’s life-changing conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. Jews did not associate with Samaritans—much less a Jewish rabbi with a morally compromised Samaritan woman! But Jesus didn’t care. Or rather, he cared deeply about this marginalized, religiously and sexually suspect female foreigner.
The diversity of the Christian movement kindled by Jesus caught fire after his resurrection. Before leaving them to return to his Father, Jesus commanded his Jewish disciples to “go . . . and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and in the book of Acts, which records the first wave of Christianity, God’s Spirit enabled them to proclaim Jesus’s message in different languages. Those who heard were “from every nation under heaven,” including people from modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Italy (Acts 2:5–11). Moreover, the hyper-Jewish apostle Paul, whose mission was to reach the non-Jewish world, ripped up the social barriers of his day. He wrote to the church in Colossae, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11); and to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Socioeconomic diversity was likewise a core ethic from the start. Jesus made loving the poor central to his teaching and ministry, and his brother James commanded Christians not to treat rich people better than poor people in their gatherings. “If you show partiality,” he warned, “you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:8–9). The idea that Christianity is a diversity-resistant, white Western religion of privilege is utterly irreconcilable with the New Testament.