Published in www.GlobalMissiology.org, “Featured Articles,” April, 2009
Whatever ‘globalisation’ may be, it has been accompanied by insistent and sometimes violent affirmations of ethnic identity. Such a phenomenon may be paradoxical, but is nevertheless comprehensible: the homogenising dynamic unleashed by globalising tendencies, reinforced by the creation of multinational political entities such as the European Union, more or less inevitably arouses a movement in the reverse direction, whose purpose is to reassert and defend traditional identities.261 However, while apparently self-evident, the notion of ethnicity is not a simple one, and definition is problematic. A minimalist approach might identify an ethnic group as simply ‘a social group which shares a culture’,262 but this does not do justice to the complexity of the concept. More satisfying is the definition offered by Hutchinson and Smith, who isolate a cluster of components that might generate a sense of ethnic identity: ‘A named human population with myths of common ancestry, shared historical memories, one or more elements of common culture, a link with a homeland and a sense of solidarity among at least some of its members.’263 Ethnic identity would not necessarily depend on the presence of all six of the elements specified, but at least some of them would be present, the significance attached to each varying according to the particular ethnic group concerned and perhaps the period in history.
The notion of ethnicity is evidently close to that of nationality. Differentiation between a nation and an ethnic group is again problematic and even somewhat arbitrary since words are defined by their use and these words are used in different ways according to preference. Nevertheless, a nation might be understood as an ethnic group which has, or seeks, political autonomy or statehood: ‘if an ethnic group wishes to rule itself it needs to start calling itself a nation.’264 However, and especially in view of the existence of multiethnic states, ‘nations’ as political entities may seek to detach themselves from any sort of ethnic identification and ‘stress civic rather than ethnic criteria’ for membership. Belonging to the nation would thus be a matter of citizenship rather than ethnicity.265 As a result of significant immigration since the Second World War the British ‘nation’ currently faces dilemmas of this kind as it seeks to clarify the notion of ‘Britishness’.
If the meaning of ethnicity may sometimes come close to that of nationality, it is certainly remote from the concept of race. Race theory, as developed especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sought to define and distinguish human groups in biological and genetic terms, and claimed to identify a limited number of discrete human ‘races’. Human difference, in terms of behaviour, ability, temperament, and morality, was then explained in ‘racial’ terms, and historically such phenomena as colonialism and slavery as well as the condemnation of ‘racially mixed’ marriages (miscegenation) were justified on the basis of a supposed hierarchy of races. While racial approaches to the study of humanity have claimed ‘scientific’ status, being purportedly based on empirical, observable phenomena, they are now discredited as pseudo-science,266 although not eliminated from popular thinking where they may continue to play a role in ethnic self-identification. Indeed, the discourse of ‘race relations’ may unintentionally give credence to such ideas.
More complex than the issue of definition is that of the essential nature of ethnic identity. Where does it come from? Why have human beings tended throughout history to identify themselves in ethnic terms? A contested issue here is the distinction between primordialist and instrumentalist approaches, which has been expressed as follows:
The primordialists believe that ethnic identity is of the essence of what human beings are. It is not something humans create but a given, the assumption on which they build their lives. The instrumentalists argue that ethnic identity is a human creation. It is something which societies construct to pursue political or economic ends.267
Dichotomising in this way certainly helps to clarify the distinction, but may risk oversimplifying a complex issue. As Fenton observes, two issues are actually at stake in the debate. First, there is the question whether ethnic groups are ‘real’ or ‘socially constructed’; and second, whether human beings are attached to ethnic groups out of calculation of personal interest (in which case they are instrumental) or out of deeply rooted feeling and sentiment (in which case they are primordial).268 In response to the first and utilising Hutchinson and Smith’s definition cited above, there is clearly a significant degree of social construction in the notion of ethnicity. Ethnic groups give themselves names and perpetuate them; share myths of origin and historical memories; shape a common language and culture of which religion or worldview is a fundamental constituent; and foster a sense of common identity—of belonging. They are imagined communities fashioned and perpetuated by their members. Their life span may be curtailed or their numbers diminished as individuals, or indeed the group as a whole, choose to identify themselves in alternative terms, whether ethnic or otherwise. Ethnic identity has a fluid quality and is subject to transformation and renegotiation. Nevertheless, this does not mean that ethnic groups are not ‘real’. They are certainly ‘real’ to those who belong to them and real too in the sense that they are rooted in tangible realities including language, territory, history, and religion, which somehow come together, variously combined, in the collective imagination to forge and sustain a sense of identity.
Furthermore, the socially constructed nature of ethnicity does not mean that human beings attach themselves to their groups for reasons of rational calculation—’to pursue political or economic ends’. On the contrary, the ethnic bond is profoundly affective: it is in this sense primordial rather than instrumental or contractual. This is expressed by Geertz:
By a primordial attachment is meant one that stems from the ‘givens’—or, more precisely, as culture is inevitably involved in such matters, the assumed ‘givens’—of social existence: immediate contiguity and kin connection mainly, but beyond them the givenness that stems from being born into a particular religious community, speaking a particular language, or even a dialect of a language, and following particular social practices. These congruities of blood, speech, custom, and so on, are seen to have an ineffable, and at times overpowering, coerciveness in and of themselves. . . . [F]or virtually every person, in every society, at almost all times, some attachment seems to flow more from a sense of natural—some would say spiritual—affinity than from social interaction.269
Geertz’s analysis recognises both the socially constructed nature of ethnicity (‘the assumed “givens”‘, i.e., the role of language, custom, social practice) and also its ‘ineffable’, ‘overpowering’, and coercive nature, which constitutes its primordiality. However, the question remains: Why should human beings feel this way? How are we to understand the object (ethnicity) that arouses emotions of such immense power? At least part of the answer lies in the force of kinship obligation, as Geertz indicates. Attachment to kin is itself to some degree socially constructed, its exact nature and orientation varying from one culture to another, but it is rooted in the profound objective realities of family, however family may be conceived. Ethnic attachment may then be seen as the extension of family attachment and obligation to kin beyond—even far beyond—visible and experienced family members. It is family imagined at its fullest extent. Thus a nation ‘is a group of people who feel that they are ancestrally related. It is the largest group that can command a person’s loyalty because of felt kinship ties; it is, from this perspective, the fully extended family’.270 In reality, of course, ethnic groups absorb those who have no biological relationship with the community as a whole, and some with an immigrant background may even have a stronger sense of ethnic identity than the indigenous population they have joined. In this sense the group is socially constructed and imagined: ‘it is the belief in common origin, not any objective common ancestry, which is socially persuasive.’271 However, the basis on which it is imagined is the sense of family connection, which remains powerful even though sober reflection indicates that it may not be true in any literal sense. It is about ‘putative descent’.272
The intensity of a sense of ethnic identification varies considerably, both from one group to another and within the same group across time. It may lay dormant for long periods of time, only to re-emerge and express itself with explosive force, as seems to have been the case in the recent history of Yugoslavia and its successor states. The mobilisation of ethnic feeling may be due to many factors, immigration and the tensions it creates being among the most important. However, it is also here that the instrumental dimension comes into play: elites may exploit the sense of ethnic obligation to advance their own interests. This does not mean that they are constructing ethnic identity; an already existing ethnic attachment—albeit one that may have been largely passive—is the presupposition of their political manipulation. This brings us to consider the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic division in Rwanda, which both illustrates some of the issues raised here and demonstrates how complex issues of ethnicity can become.
Since 1994 much has been written about the Rwandan genocide and its background. It is undisputed that there are three distinct named groups in Rwandan society (Hutu, about 84% of the population; Tutsi, 15%, and Twa, 1%), but certainty and agreement evaporate beyond that point. This is partly the result, no doubt, of the lack of significant literary remains through which to investigate the pre-colonial Rwandan past, but testimony also to the extent to which Rwandan history has become the muddy battleground of rival apologetic concerns, especially since the genocide.273
A preliminary issue concerns the time at which each of the three groups first appeared in ‘the land of a thousand hills’. An earlier consensus assumed that they arrived at different times; Hughes reiterates this approach when he suggests that the Twa were in Rwanda by about a.d. 1000, the Hutu by 1500, and the Tutsi between 1600 and 1900.274 An alternative view is that both Hutu and Tutsi ‘are descended from farmers who began cultivating the region 2,000 to 1,500 years ago’.275 There is in fact little firm empirical basis for the hypothesis of ancestral migrations (although much is known of nineteenth and twentieth century migrations, especially into the Kivu provinces of eastern Congo), and agnosticism is probably the only reliable conclusion: ‘there is still no consensus amongst historians and anthropologists on the origin of the Batutsi’.276 Nevertheless, the issue is not an indifferent one. During the genocide, ‘Hutu power’ extremists ‘killed Rwanda’s Tutsis and sent their bodies “back to Ethiopia” via the Nyaborongo and Akagera rivers’.277 The notion that the Tutsi were relative latecomers, even if they had come some hundreds of years earlier, had immense ethnic significance in the context of bitter economic and political rivalry, and it was used to justify their annihilation and the repatriation of their corpses.
A further issue is the nature of difference, particularly between Tutsi and Hutu. Traditionally it has been understood in ethnic terms with the two groups identified as African ‘tribes’. The theory that each group arrived in Rwanda at different times is consistent with this ethnic interpretation. Moreover, it was certainly the view taken by early European explorers and assumed in the German and Belgian colonial administrations from the late nineteenth century. However, for them the difference went beyond simple ethnicity, and was absolutised through the imposition of racial categories which drew on theories current and widely accepted at the time. Thus, the Hutu were identified as an inferior and uncivilised Bantu people who had been subjugated by the racially and indeed militarily superior Hamitic Tutsis on their arrival in Rwanda. The Tutsis themselves allegedly came from Ethiopia according to the theory of the British explorer John Hanning Speke and others after him. Speke ‘decided without a shred of evidence, that these “carriers of a superior civilisation” who were ancestors of the Tutsi were the Galla of southern Ethiopia.’278 Meanwhile, empirical evidence of Tutsi superiority was supposedly found in their physical and intellectual attributes, as well as their distinctive customs and way of life. Consequently the Belgian colonial authorities conferred political and social privileges on the Tutsi minority whom they associated closely with their administration. In the words of Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian administrator of the 1920s, ‘The Batutsi were meant to reign. Their fine presence is in itself enough to give them a great prestige vis-Ãƒ -vis the inferior races which surround.’279 The privileged position accorded the Tutsi was of course much to the detriment of the Hutu, and it fostered resentment on the one side and assumptions of natural superiority on the other, which would express themselves—even before the Belgians left—in bitter and violent conflict.
However, was the division between Hutu and Tutsi indeed an ethnic one, let alone racial? The position of much recent scholarship is that it should rather be seen in social terms and that it was the imposition of racial categories by the Europeans along with their theories of Tutsi migration and conquest that reshaped a harmonious Rwandan society along bitterly divisive ethnic lines. ‘What had been social classes, the Bahutu, Batutsi and Batwa, were gradually transformed into ethnic groups’.280 (Some have even compared Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa with Indian castes.281) Thus, protagonists of this approach point out that Hutu and Tutsi shared a common language and religion; they intermarried and lived side by side in the same villages; they had the same culture, the same social organisation rooted in the clan, and the same mythology and values. Nevertheless, this analysis is also contested. Similarity of religion and culture does not exclude the possibility of ethnic difference; groups may indeed closely resemble each other while simultaneously maintaining distinct ethnic identities.282 Moreover, while not denying the grievous consequences resulting from the imposition of European racial constructs, some argue that Tutsi and Hutu were ethnic categories in pre-colonial times, at least from the second half of the nineteenth century following the expansionist policies of king Rwabugiri and his extension of the institution of uburetwa (forced labour) to his Hutu, but not his Tutsi, subjects.
For the period up to 1860, it is correct to say that historians know next to nothing about how these terms ‘Twa’, ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ were used in social discourse: whether these terms denoted social or physical classifications, for instance, is simply unclear. From about 1860, however, when Rwabugiri expanded the sphere of domination and influence of the Tutsi royal court, the situation becomes clearer. As research has revealed, Rwabugiri began, or consolidated, a process of ethnic polarisation.283
The question is clearly not simple, and more detailed analysis would be beyond the scope of the present discussion. However, from the perspective of post-1994 Rwandan politics, what is at issue is the vital matter of ultimate responsibility for genocide and the history of ethnic tension and violence that preceded it. If Rwanda was an essentially harmonious and ethnically united country before European colonisers introduced their racial ideology, then the ultimate source of genocide was not a longstanding Hutu-Tutsi division, but rather the colonial imposition of a false consciousness which created that division; and the present goal of government policy must be to bring about a return to the pristine ethnic unity of the pre-colonial Banyarwanda. Such an approach would also mean that Rwanda has been the ‘victim’ of Western interference with all that that may imply in terms of the imputation of responsibility and guilt. If, however, ethnic divisions existed before colonisation, that would suggest that there were already potentially serious fault lines within the structure of Rwandan society, although it would still be the case that colonial racism made the situation much worse. However this may be, certainly by the middle of the twentieth century Hutu and Tutsi may be regarded as rival ethnic groups, each possessed of a name and each characterised by a sense of solidarity, by shared historical memories and myths of origin (even if some of the myths were imported), and by associations (albeit increasingly contentious) with the same territory.284 Ethnic identity rooted in strong emotions of kinship had been constructed, even if such construction was due, at least partly, to external intervention.
Nevertheless, to speak of the genocide in ethnic terms alone would also be an oversimplification. Certainly the major fault line in 1994 was ethnic: in large measure Hutus massacred Tutsis along with those of their own number who seemed to be betraying the cause of their brothers. But the origins of genocide cannot be found in ethnicity alone. It is rather the case that one particular Hutu elite exploited feelings of ethnic identity ‘to pursue political or economic ends’ of their own. The events of 1994 illustrate not only the primordial nature of ethnicity—its ‘coercive’ and ‘ineffable’ character—but also the instrumental and very calculated ends to which it may be invoked and manipulated by those in a position to do so. To see the explosion of violence as just another irrational tribal spasm at the centre of the ‘heart of darkness’ would be naÃƒÂ¯ve and dangerously simplistic.
In 1959, just three years before the departure of the Belgians in 1962, a Rwandan social ‘revolution’ took place, and Tutsi hegemony was replaced by that of the Hutu. It was accompanied by considerable violence, and as many as 300,000 Tutsis fled, many of them to Uganda, where others steadily joined them in subsequent years until the Tutsi refugee diaspora had risen to as many as 600,000. While there were outbreaks of ethnic violence on a number of occasions after 1959, especially under the first president, Grégoire Kayibanda (1962–73), there was nothing on the scale of the events of 1994, and across much of Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi lived amicably together. Indeed, according to Pottier, for much of his presidency Juvénal Habyarimana (1973–94) sought to diminish ethnic tensions within Rwanda.285 However, numerous factors had brought Rwanda and its government to a perilous condition by the early months of 1994, and the Habyarimana regime and its extremist allies exploited the ethnic issue as the most promising strategy for survival, if also a very high-risk one. It was also, needless to say, unspeakably cynical and wicked.
First among these factors, and most fundamental of them all, the country was overpopulated. From two million in 1940 the population had risen to over seven million by 1991.286 Prunier therefore argues that ‘at least part of the reason why [the genocide] was carried out so thoroughly by the ordinary rank-and-file peasants . . . was feeling that there were too many people on too little land, and that with a reduction in numbers, there would be more for the survivors.’287
Second, from the late 1980s, Rwanda faced a calamitous economic recession. The economy depended heavily on exports of coffee, but in 1989 international coffee prices dropped by over 50%, while mechanisms within Rwanda to stabilise incomes and protect agricultural smallholders were breaking down. The economic and social consequences were dire and entailed correspondingly dangerous political implications as well. ‘The collapse sentenced many poor to unprecedented levels of despair, making them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians in search of extreme solutions to their country’s (and their own) growing insecurity.’288 It was from such people that the interahamwe militias were recruited. Meanwhile, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a predominantly Tutsi organisation founded in 1985 and composed of refugees and their descendants living just across the border in Uganda, attempted their first invasion in 1990–91. Although it was frustrated, albeit only with the aid of French and Zairian forces, the international community put pressure on Habyarimana’s government to agree to power sharing with the other Rwandan political parties, including the RPF, a process which led eventually to the Arusha accords of August 1993.
The invasion, however, enabled the government, and especially Hutu extremists associated with it, to invoke the spectre of a return to the old Tutsi domination of the colonial period and before. Such propaganda was the more compelling when the first democratically elected president of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was assassinated on 21 October 1993 not long after taking power, in a coup carried out by Tutsi soldiers. The event provoked massacres of large numbers of Burundians on both sides of the ethnic divide, and the flight of about 300,000 Hutu refugees to the bordering countries, mainly Rwanda. Within Rwanda Ndadaye’s death strengthened the hand of those calling for drastic solutions to the ‘Tutsi problem’ and gave them credibility in the eyes of the dormant Hutu majority: ‘the hysterical choice of kill-first-not-to-be-killed could be developed into a general feeling shared by large sections of the population.’289
It was in these conditions that extremist Rwandan news media, the Kangura (‘Wake it up!’) newspaper, begun in May 1990 and run by Hassan Ngeze, and Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which was opened in July 1993 by Jean Bosco Barayagwiza, were vigorously disseminating virulent anti-Tutsi propaganda and stoking the paranoia. Behind them stood powerful forces. The source of Kangura’s funding has never been established, although at Ngeze’s trial some witnesses claimed that the state intelligence services were involved.290 With regard to RTLM there is little doubt: ‘The president [Habyarimana] was the largest shareholder in the venture: he held a million shares.’291
While the government of Rwanda was ostensibly in the hands of the Hutu majority, it was in fact one particular Hutu political elite that held power and used it in its own interests. It was associated especially with the northwest of the country—and even more specifically with the family of the president’s wife, Madame Agathe (le clan de Madame). However, the huge economic problems it was confronting were leading to a haemorrhaging of support. It was also faced with the imminent necessity of sharing power, both with representatives of other parties including the Tutsi RPF, and also with the despised south-central regions of the country with which there had been a relationship of animosity going back to the 1920s when the Tutsi monarchy, aided by the Belgian administration, brought the northwest under its control.292 So, the ‘little house’ (akazu)293 engaged in the diversionary tactic of exploiting latent ethnic animosities, reminding the Hutu of their historical ‘memories’ and myths and thus mobilising opinion against the traditional Tutsi ‘oppressors’ in order to retain power for itself. It was a classic example of the instrumental manipulation of ethnicity by an elite for its own political ends and recalls Fenton’s analysis of ethnic ‘action’: ‘we would caution against being misled into thinking that, because something called “ethnic groups” are involved, the action, conflict and social relations are primarily determined or ‘driven’ by ethnicity’.294
Indeed, the genocide ‘grew out of an explosive struggle for resources which embattled politicians ethnicised to their advantage, if only fleetingly. A crisis rooted in class and regional interests was turned into a conflict for which an ethnic minority, “the Tutsi”, was held responsible.’295 Thus, Alison des Forges wrote in the Washington Post soon after the beginning of genocide:
Politics, Not Tribalism, Is the Root of the Bloodletting. . . . As the piles of bodies mount in Rwanda, commentators are pulling out their generic analyses of violence in Africa: anarchy and/or tribal conflict. Content with ready-made explanations, they overlook the organized killings that opened the way to what has become chaos.296
The regime’s genocidal self-defence had indeed been long prepared, and the assassination of Habyarimana on 6 April 1994 was only the trigger that set the whole strategy in motion. Preparations had begun at least two years earlier with the distribution of guns throughout Rwanda, and the training of the interahamwe militias by the army. When the killing began, the earliest victims were significant political opponents of the regime, including the prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who was a Hutu and member of the Mouvement Démocratique Républicain, a rival of Habyarimana’s Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement, along with other opposition members of the cabinet.297 Eventually at least 800,000 would die in this ‘pre-planned attempt by the Hutu akazu to put an end to the threat to their monopoly of power’.298 Unknown numbers of Hutu would also perish during the RPF’s invasion and conquest of Rwanda in those same months (which brought the genocide to a halt), and their subsequent invasion of ZaÃƒÂ¯re and attack on the refugee camps in Kivu (1996–97), where génocidaires had taken refuge.
At the time of genocide, Rwanda was ostensibly a ‘Christian country’. Of course, classifying a nation in those terms is problematic, but the vast majority of the population certainly identified itself as Christian, while the churches held a position of influence within society. However, churches demonstrated an almost supine reverence towards the Habyarimana regime, and few Christian voices were effectively raised against the corrosive atmosphere of ethnic hatred. The churches were, in Gatwa’s telling phrase, ‘a quiescent presence’ as the storm gathered and finally broke around them.299 Nor, sadly, was complicity confined to silence alone. In the words of one Roman Catholic bishop, ‘We have to begin again because our best catechists, those who filled our churches, were the first to go out with machetes in their hands.’300 Nevertheless, at the same time there were outstanding examples of love and faithfulness to the gospel and to brothers and sisters on the opposing side of the ethnic barrier, a continuing fruit of the Rwandan revival that had begun in the 1930s.
Many factors contributed to the failure of the Rwandan church of the late twentieth century to address the most critical issue of their own time and people - that of ethnicity.301 One factor, however, was a failure to grapple with biblical perspectives on ethnicity, let alone allow them to challenge and transform ingrained attitudes and reflexes, to penetrate deeply held cultural values. It was a failure of contextualisation, of relevant discipleship, of bringing the eternal word of God to bear on the changing world of men and women in all its particularity. Right action begins with right belief: minds must be renewed if believers are to conform no longer to the pattern of this world—including the pattern of misdirected ethnic loyalty (Rom 12:2). Where this does not happen and worldview is not touched, ‘the pattern of this world’ continues simply to assert itself and to drive thinking and behaviour. And, in consequence, in Rwanda ‘the blood of tribalism’ remained ‘deeper than the waters of baptism’.302 It is a sobering manifestation of the failure, first of all, of theology. However, the failure is not peculiar to Rwanda.
Missiologists have developed theologies of ‘ethnic evangelism’, but few missiologists are developing a theology of ‘ethnicity’ itself. This task is becoming increasingly urgent because the demands of ethnicity will probably dominate the world’s agenda at least in the opening decades of the new millennium.303
What follows is scarcely a comprehensive theology of ethnicity, but an attempt briefly to suggest something of the shape that it might take.
The doctrine of creation affirms the unity as well as the dignity of all humanity. All are created in the image of God. There are not multiple human races, but just one human race. This is foundational to any theological approach to ethnicity, for it relativises every human difference—social, ethnic, economic, and so on. A persistent tendency of the racism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism that consistently scar human relationships is the denigration of the ‘other’ as somehow less than human, especially when compared with ‘us’. For many years leading up to 1994 the Tutsi had been loathed as ‘cockroaches’ (inyenzi), a term of abuse that effectively dehumanised them and made the slaughter psychologically that much easier. It is the truth of creation that stands as a bulwark against every attitude of this kind.
But if creation entails unity, does it imply ethnicity? Clearly the ‘table of the nations’ in Genesis 10 indicates the existence of ethnicity at that stage in human history, reaffirming also the essential unity of human beings, as all are descended from Noah and so are members of one family. The issue is whether the ethnic diversity here exists as a sorry consequence of the fall or is integral to human existence as such. The answer seems to be that ethnic difference is entailed implicitly and inevitably by the so-called cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26–28, repeated later in slightly different terms (Gen. 9:1–17). ‘“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”‘ The growth of the human race and its dispersal across the globe would necessarily create the conditions in which ethnic difference would emerge. The encounter with different environments and ecologies must produce diverse cultures; varied journeys would similarly mean different histories; scattering would lead to the forming of many communities, each bound together in mutual kinship, each naming itself and developing its own sense of identity.304
It seems that the very diversity is a good, intended from the beginning by a creator who is the source of a multiplicity of species of animal and plant, fish and bird, and that it flows from the creativity bestowed on his human creation. Thus the primeval command to fill the earth unavoidably entails a degree of ethnic diversity, somewhat as it has been defined in the preceding discussion. Similarly, at the end as at the beginning, the climactic vision of the consummation of creation may suggest a continuation of ethnic diversity, when a multitude ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Rev 7:9) gather around the throne, while the infinitely varied riches of the nations are brought into the new Jerusalem: ‘the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. . . . The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it’ (Rev 21:24, 26).
Nevertheless, ethnic difference is also relativised in Revelation. The great emphasis is on the constitution of the new people of God drawn from the nations,305 rather than the preservation of the old ethnic categories. The renewed unity of humanity is the greater truth and, if ethnicity survives, it is as a relatively minor theme in a much bigger reality. Similarly, the reference to the nations in Paul’s speech before the Areopagus, while it confirms divine intentionality in the formation of nations, also suggests a degree of provisionality in human ethnicity: ‘From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live’ (Acts 17:26). The fluidity and even the ephemerality of ethnic identity have been noted above; Paul suggests here that this reflects God’s providential purpose. Nations are ‘contingent cultural expressions of human history’306 and have no absolute or immutable character, which in turn challenges every tendency towards the ethnic idolatry that has characterised some peoples and epochs.
As with every facet of life, the fall and the corrupting effects of sin have seriously impacted human experience of ethnicity. Not the least dimension of this is the greatly enhanced tendency of ethnic diversity to produce hatred and violence. In part this simply reflects the social consequences of the fall which are visible in all other areas of human community as well. It is not just inter-ethnic relationships that tend to become envenomed, but class and gender, too.
In the case of ethnicity, however, the situation is aggravated further by a deepening of the gulfs that separate ethnic groups. For example, one of the great determinants of ethnic difference is culture. At the heart of culture is worldview, and central to worldview is religion. A fallen world in which human beings are alienated from God, and in which ethnic groups will consequently tend to pursue diverse religious visions, is a world in which ethnic division is entrenched to a far greater extent than would be true if all united in the worship of the one sovereign Creator, the possibility of conflict being therefore enormously enhanced. Similarly, insofar as the confusion of languages was a judgement for human disobedience rather than a necessary condition of human variety, rebellion resulted again in a far deeper chasm of ethnic difference. Inter-ethnic communication and the possibility of mutual comprehension are thereby constantly frustrated, with obvious negative consequences for inter-ethnic harmony.
There is thus an ambivalence about ethnicity for a humanity that is alienated from its Creator. On the one hand, it expresses the Creator’s intention and is a source of rich blessing for human beings. Thus, first, insofar as ethnic identity is somehow rooted in a sense of kinship, it is an expression of natural and legitimate human affection and community, and its suppression is a deviation from the order God has established. Accordingly, as he prayed for their salvation, Paul expressed his love for his own people, significantly identifying them not simply as fellow Jews—members of the same nation—but as brothers: ‘I could wish that I myself were cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel’ (Rom 9:3).
Second, ethnicity answers to the profound human need for identity, belonging and security. This is again a significant biblical value, expressed in the Old Testament through the experience of Israel as a nation, whose identity is fostered through many of the characteristic markers of ethnicity, including land, history and the story of their origin. Moreover, the law and prophets demonstrate a particular concern for aliens, whose ethnicity and consequent identity have been compromised by separation from their own people and land: ‘the alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as you love yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the lord your God’ (Lev 19:34). ‘Strangers’ are to be welcomed into the community as kin, thereby implicitly affirming that while ethnicity may be rooted in kinship, ethnic bonds are fluid and negotiable, and not always strictly biological.
Third, ethnic diversity offers a context for the flowering of human creativity. Not the least dimension of the imago Dei is the human capacity for creation after the pattern of the Creator. The cultural variety fostered by a multiplicity of peoples channels the creative impulses of humanity into numerous and widely diverse streams. Consequently ethnic difference is a potential source of plentiful mutual enrichment.
Finally, the multiplicity of peoples serves providentially to contain human pride and evil on a global scale and has done so throughout history. Over-powerful, totalising regimes are restrained and brought down by other peoples, either alone or in combination, who are threatened by and stand up to them. Ethnicity thus serves as a brake on certain forms of human sin and their potential to cause limitless evil.
However, just as sin tends to corrupt every good gift of the Creator, so ethnicity is compromised by human rebellion and becomes other than he intended. The Bible itself records incidents of attempted genocide carried out against the Israelites by Egypt and Persia, and of fratricidal—even genocidal—ethnic conflict among the tribes of Israel themselves (ExodÃ‚ 1:15–16; Esth 3:6–15; Judg 12:4–6; 20–21). The most obvious distortion of ethnicity is the way in which identification with one’s own people is translated into hostility towards other ethnic groups: being ‘for us’ transmutes into being ‘against them’. Miroslav Volf terms such hostility ‘exclusion’—’a powerful, contagious and destructive evil’307—which expresses itself in three principal ways. Exclusion by elimination may take place in acts of genocide or, less brutally, the assimilation of another ethnic group. In exclusion by domination ‘we are satisfied to assign “others” the status of inferior beings’,308 resulting in discrimination or segregation, as in apartheid or the caste system. Exclusion by abandonment means indifference to the situation and fate of other peoples: ‘we simply cross to the other side and pass by minding our own business’.309 The outstanding example in recent times was the inaction of the international community, including the United Nations, as Rwandan Tutsis were being annihilated, an example which is being rerun at this moment in Darfur.
Moreover, and sometimes driving such policies of ‘exclusion’, ethnic identity can become the idolatrous centre of human devotion. Indeed, it has been argued that this is the constant tendency of a humanity that has lost its true focus of identity by virtue of its rebellion and alienation from the Creator, and so inevitably tends to confer an ultimate authority on alternative sources of identity:
in a fallen world human beings, in their search for lost identity and security, have a constant tendency to accord to their autonomous governmental / national / communal collectivity an idolatrous commitment, and human governors / leaders have a constant tendency to demand it.310
It is simply one more way in which human beings worship the creature rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25). Such idolatry underlay, for example, the nationalist philosophy of Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855–1927), who helped lay the ideological basis of German National Socialism and for whom religious faith was a function of ethnic, or racial, character: ‘In the want of a true religion springing from and corresponding to our individuality I see the greatest danger for the future of the Teuton’.311 His philosophy is chillingly echoed in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and his exploitation of ethnic solidarity to mobilise the German people for war and genocide:
What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, the sustenance of our children and the purity of our blood, the freedom and independence of the fatherland, so that our people may mature for the fulfilment of the mission allotted to it by the creator of the universe.312
It is sobering to remember how such thinking penetrated German Protestantism in the 1930s, finding voice in the nationalist ideology of the German Christian Movement: ‘We want to bring the reawakened German sense of life to bear in our Church and to fill our Church with vitality. In the fateful struggle for German liberty, and the German future, the Church has turned out to be too weak in its leadership’.313 Ethnic idolatry may take forms less obviously toxic, but it is present whenever ‘loyalty to the nation overrides all other loyalties’314 and finds expression in attitudes of arrogant superiority towards and outright violence against other ethnic groups.
The gospel addresses every area of human and cosmic dislocation resulting from sin. The vertical dimension of reconciliation with God is necessarily accompanied by the horizontal restoration of human community which finds expression in the church, the body of Christ. All that divides humanity is transcended through this radical inclusion in Christ, who ‘understood his mission, in response to the coming reign of God, as forming an alternative community with remarkably different values. . . . In this new community allegiance to kinship and ethnic groups was not the main source of a person’s identity’.315
This new, ethnicity-transcending reality is displayed at Pentecost, when the gift of tongues symbolically reverses Babel’s confusion of language which had led to the dispersal of the peoples. Now through the Spirit they are brought together into the unity of God’s people as barriers of language—crucial markers of ethnic difference—are vanquished in a proleptic act. It is present again when the Spirit teaches Peter that no nation is unclean and Cornelius is brought into the fellowship of God’s people (Acts 10:28). Paul in particular stresses fact that ‘in Christ’ the divisive effects of gender, socio-economic class, and ethnicity are transcended, for ‘Christ is all and in all’ (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11).
This does not mean that ethnic difference is obliterated. It is self-evidently true that gender and social differences do not as such disappear through belief in Christ, and ethnic difference also remains in terms of language, for example, culture, and sentiments of affinity. Indeed, a critical issue for the New Testament church was that of dealing with the tensions produced by the existence of ethnic diversity among believers, demonstrated, for example, by the incipient conflict in the Jerusalem church over alleged favouritism in the charitable distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1–7). Had ethnicity simply disappeared the issue would not have arisen, but ethnic difference remained an issue. It is rather the case that ethnic identity is radically and completely transcended through the gospel. On the one hand, the believer’s highest allegiance is now owed to Christ as Lord, and every other loyalty, including ethnic, is thereby totally subordinated. Anything short of this amounts to ethnic idolatry. On the other hand, baptism into Christ makes all believers members of the same body, and therefore brothers and sisters. As part of a new creation they are the people of God first (1 Pet 2:9–10) and members of their particular ethnic groups second. ‘We, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’ (1 Cor 10:17). So, while ethnic identity is not eliminated, it is radically displaced in the face of the new identity of the believer in Christ with all that that implies. There is a separation, and even an alienation, from the allegiances of the past, as people of faith live now in the world as aliens and strangers, for ‘here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Heb 13:14). Volf’s reflection on the pilgrimage of Abraham expresses this so well:
The courage to break his cultural and familial ties and abandon the gods of his ancestors (Joshua 24:2) out of allegiance to a God of all families and all cultures was the original Abrahamic revolution. . . . The narrative of Abraham’s call underlines that stepping out of enmeshment in the network of inherited cultural relations is a correlate of faith in the one God. . . . To be a child of Abraham and Sarah and to respond to the call of their God means to make an exodus, to start a journey, to become a stranger (Genesis 23:4; 24:1–9). It is a mistake, I believe, to complain too much about Christianity being “alien” in a given culture . . . .316
Exploring the issue further, Volf uses the metaphor of distance to articulate the changed relationship of Christians with their ethnicity. They do not deny their cultural or ethnic identity, but it no longer defines them. They are distanced precisely from its totalising propensity, while still characterised by the distinctiveness that it gives. Thus they are able to be discriminating and discerning in their appreciation of their own ethnic group, ready to expose all in it that is evil or morally compromised, while appreciating also all that is good among those of different ethnicity.
The New Testament wrestles constantly with the implications of this. On the one hand, Paul conforms to the cultures of his hearers and does not seek to decontextualise them as they respond to the gospel and seek to live it (1 Cor 9:19–23). Christian faith is to be expressed in the particularity of every ethnic group, to be incarnated among every people. On the other hand, the church must truly comprehend all ethnic groups, and it is most significant that, in the face of the ethnic tensions that arose within the primitive church and to which the New Testament bears abundant witness, the apostles never resorted to the easy solution of creating separate ethnic churches. The ‘dividing wall of hostility’ has been broken down, and Christ has created ‘in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace’ (Eph 2:14). This is a vital element of the gospel, and for New Testament believers the truth of which the words speak had to be visibly lived out before the unbelieving world. It was not simply a ‘spiritual truth’ that could subsist without empirical expression, but a reality to be concretised in the experience of believers and in the lives of their churches. Otherwise stated, a gospel that did not in practice bring reconciliation to human beings who had been alienated from one another by, among other things, ethnic division, was no gospel at all, ‘for anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen’ (1 John 4:20). The reality of reconciliation with God, the very power of the gospel, was to be demonstrated precisely by visible unity in the body of Christ, notwithstanding all the problems that that might entail.
Moreover, this partial, imperfect transcending of ethnic division in the church is an anticipation of the final realisation of the purpose of God in creation and redemption. In the church, even now, the eschatological vision of a people of God drawn ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Rev 7:9) should be visible as barriers are overcome and unity is realized among enemies. It is this which makes the church resemble heaven, and it is its absence which fatally compromises its testimony.
Theology, then, is of no purpose unless it translates into reality, and in this case that reality is the expression of love for ethnic enemies. How does this take place?
It is rooted, first of all, as has been suggested, in a deep apprehension of the biblical approach to humanity and ethnicity. It flows from the knowledge that all people are created in God’s image; that sin engenders in us all a distorted consciousness and an allegiance to false gods and thereby mars human relationships, especially with those who are ‘other’; and that in Christ there is a new creation where all things become new. The transforming power of truth through the work of God’s Spirit is critical to the creation of renewed attitudes and restored community, but it must be brought to bear on the concrete realities that people live. Thus the story of the Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) confronts and subverts the particular ethnic prejudice of Jesus’ own hearers. Its message is so easily reduced to banality today, but in its context it was ‘radical and upsetting’ and was doubtless heard in stunned silence as it challenged—almost scandalously so—the deepest assumptions of the original audience.317 It continues to demand a fundamental change of values, a seismic transformation of attitude and act: ‘loving one’s neighbour is to transcend all racial and cultural boundaries’.318
Second, loving the ethnic enemy means confronting and dealing with the pain of history. The Samaritan parable would itself have evoked partisan memories of injustices committed, memories which would go on sustaining the cycle of inter-ethnic hatred, violence, and revenge unless somehow redeemed. Of course, current reflection on the Rwandan past indicates how problematic history can be and indeed how it can be manipulated in the interest of one side or the other. Nevertheless, the gospel call for repentance demands recognition of what has happened, and of complicity—active or passive, individual or communal—in all that has ‘excluded’ the ethnic other. This implies confession by the oppressors and forgiveness by the victims, both of which stand in radical contradiction to natural and entrenched human impulses to self-justification or revenge. But if the gospel has any response to ethnic hatred, it is surely here. Confession and forgiveness are integral to its very nature, essential to reconciliation and the restoration of community, and indispensable if victims and oppressors alike are to be freed from the pain, bitterness, and guilt of history. And they are possible for those who know that Jesus Christ has both atoned for the sin of the guilty and borne the pain of the victim.319 ‘The only way to redeem the past is through the healing of memories, thereby putting to rest that which can only foster bitterness and revenge’.320
Third, love has to be worked out in the course of human life: ‘Forgiveness is . . . not the culmination of Christ’s relation to the offending other; it is a passage leading to embrace’.321 And in the light of the remembered past, the ‘embrace’ may not only be difficult, but also dangerous. Something of this is again evident in Jesus’ parable: rejecting the role that both Jews and other Samaritans would have assigned to him, the Samaritan traveller acted in grace and compassion towards his neighbour, binding his wounds and making provision for his continuing care. Such profound disregard for the bitterly ethnocentric values of two cultures invited both Samaritan and Jewish suspicion and placed the Samaritan in danger of exclusion by everybody. The love that God demonstrated in Christ also involved precisely such sacrifice of self-interest for the well-being of the other, and a conscious refusal to take the path of safety. Amid all the horror of mass slaughter, demonstrations of this sort of love were not lacking during the Rwandan genocide:
Even in 1994 where the process of genocide was so seriously organised, motivated and achieved, many individuals and groups sacrificed their lives to safeguard innocents. In Muhima, Kigali and Rugarika groups of converts have refused to separate while praying and have been killed together.322
By contrast, and at a different level, the dangerously self-sacrificial denunciation of the manipulation of ethnicity by Habyarimana’s ‘little house’ was the path that the churches of Rwanda should have taken, but did not.
Love of the ethnic enemy—of every enemy—is what must characterise the church as the body of those who were themselves enemies of God and were reconciled through his love precisely when they were enemies and as enemies, in order that they should be enemies no longer (Rom 5:10). Having received that love and experiencing now its transforming power, God’s own people can and must demonstrate it in the quality of their common life and in their engagement with a world of ethnic discord. Such love demonstrates grace and pardon. It pursues truth, justice, and peace across ethnic divides in society as well as in the church and personal relationships. It is radically countercultural—and dangerous. It is not natural but extraordinary and an affront to conventional human wisdom, exactly as the Samaritan’s love was, and the Father’s. But it is that very outrageous and supernatural character which brings conviction and the only true and lasting hope of communion beyond ethnicity, for ‘by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35).
261. Cf. D. Hughes, ‘Ethnicity and Globalisation’, lecture given at the Global Connections Conference, ‘One World or Else?’, Swanwick, 3-5 July 2002, 10, at http://www.globalconnections.co.uk/pdfs/owethnicityhughes.pdf.
272. D. Conversi, ‘Autonomous Communities and the Ethnic Settlement in Spain’, in Autonomy and Ethnicity: Negotiating Competing Claims in Multi-Ethnic States (ed. Y. Ghai; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 134-35; quoted by Fenton, Ethnicity, 21.
273. See especially J. Pottier, Re-Imagining Rwanda: Conflict, Survival and Disinformation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), which focuses on the ideological motivations underlying some post-genocide narratives of Rwandan history.
276. M. Mamdani, ‘From Conquest to Consent as the Basis of State Formation: Reflections on Rwanda’, in New Left Review 216 (March/April 1996), at http://www.newleftreview.net/IssueI212.asp?Article=01.
278. R. Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (London: Hurst, 1995), 7. Nevertheless, on account of their supposedly distinctive physical features, Prunier himself argues ‘that the Tutsi have come from outside the Great Lakes area and that it is possible they were of a distinct racial stock’ (16).
284. Nevertheless, the International Criminal Tribunal apparently found the term ethnic ‘troublesome’ as a means of categorising the Tutsi. Cf. V. Keating, ‘Ethnicity and the Rwandan Genocide’, 4, available at http://myweb.dal.ca/vkeating/Rwanda.pdf.
301. See, for example, several articles in the issue of Transformation 12.2 (April/June 1995), referred to in the preceding footnote, or M. Guillebaud, Rwanda: The Land God Forgot? (Mill Hill: Monarch, 2002).
304. Mitchel, Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster 1921-1988 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 62, suggests to the contrary that the nations were ‘created out of an act of judgement after Babel’.
319. Cf. E. Spruyt, R. Lloyd, R. Schudel, ‘The Cross of Christ In Debriefing and Ethnic Reconciliation’, in Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices From Around the World (ed. K. O’Donnell; Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2002), 505-8.
 Originally published in Themelios, Volume 33, Issue 2, September 2008