Xenophobia, and oneness in Christ

I had only the vaguest notion of what xenophobia even meant when I came across it, decades ago, working on my book about the Mozambican church. An old Swiss missionary, Pierre Loze, drafted an article entitled ‘Why the Xenophobia of the Portuguese People in Relation to Mission Work in the Portuguese East Africa Colonies?’ It was a fascinating manuscript (at least to me), but xenophobia sent me straight to the dictionary.

Xenophobia: ‘fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.’

‘Fear and hatred’ seem a bit strong to me. True, xenophobia reveals itself in extreme ways around the world, and it has certainly made it into the South African vocabulary in recent years, leading to violence, as it has made it into the United States, with all sorts of bizarre expressions that suggest fear and hatred.

'Oneness in Christ' in Botswana: Batswana, Ghanaians, Gambians, Malawians, Zambians, and Americans

But there are certainly degrees of xenophobia. In these lesser degrees it is present in Botswana. When Zimbabweans crossed the border into Botswana during the grave economic and political difficulties there, mixed into a genuine generosity of spirit was a strong degree of resentment. And even for ‘foreigners’ who have placed their roots firmly into Botswana soil, there remains a distance. I wrote a Diary entry back in 2010 about the Callenders, from Guyana, who have served in Francistown for decades. ‘I have spent over half my life here,’ the wife says. She smiles. Then she adds: ‘I am told that it does not matter; I will always be an outsider.’ This is not ‘fear and hatred.’ But it does carry with it a sense of identity that excludes, a rejection of others who are not ‘one of us.’

For us Christians, this is tricky. Back in the nineteenth century – the great missionary century – Henry Venn, the head of the Church Missionary Society (which had such a profound influence upon African Anglicanism), declared that the goal of the missionary enterprise was to create a Church that was ‘self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing.’ Missionaries ended up taking a long time to get out of the way of what Venn called ‘an indigenous church’ – he was one of the first to use that term – but the vision was there. And what may appear to be xenophobia in some church circles today is actually an assertion of a contextual identity. In that circumstance, Batswana are the ones who are ‘us’ in Botswana, and those of us who come from elsewhere may be partners, and may be welcomed, but we cannot demand that Batswana consider us ‘one of them.’ We are not indigenous. They are. For those on the receiving end, this can be painful.

To me this situation is understandable when we consider that the Anglican Diocese of Botswana has taken a long journey toward becoming ‘self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing.’ It was only a bit over 40 years ago that it became its own diocese. Previously it fell under the Diocese of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe and the Diocese of Kuruman in South Africa. Until the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Metlhayotlhe Beleme in 2013, its bishops all were ‘foreign,’ even those who spoke Setswana; they came from the United States, Zimbabwe and Zambia. And until the December 2015 ordinations, over half of its active clergy came from somewhere else: Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Britain. What some may call xenophobia today may just be the excitement of finally becoming an ‘indigenous church’ – truly self-governing at last, and on its way to becoming self-supporting and self-propagating.

Add to the ‘indigenization’ theme as a counter to the accusation of xenophobia is the emergence of ‘contextual theology’ in world Christianity, especially in nearby South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle. Thanks to Albert Nolan and the Institute for Contextual Theology, which deeply influenced the crucial Kairos Document in 1985, the idea spread that our identity as Christians is legitimately defined not so much by a universal doctrinal conformity but by the context – culture, nation, and economic and political realities – in which we seek to live out our faith. ‘Adjective theologies’ emerged: African theology, Black theology, Feminist theology, and so on. In that sense the Church in Botswana is asserting an identity wrapped up in simply being Batswana. How do Batswana reveal Christ in their own setting? In what ways is that distinctive? In what ways does that distinctiveness become a witness that the rest of the world needs to hear, rather than an exclusiveness that shuts out people of faith from elsewhere in the world? Contextualization should not be seen as xenophobia.

But then there is that nagging passage in the Gospel of John (17:21), Jesus’ prayer that we all may be one. Should not you or I, wherever we may be, be considered ‘one of us’ by fellow Christians? Well, yes and no. What is our primary identity? Are we first and foremost children of God? Or does our ‘adjective’ define us? It may certainly be argued that many American Christians give primacy to the adjective and even conflate the two, a ‘patriotic American’ and a ‘faithful Christian’ one and the same. That fallacy creates all sorts of problems, but it remains true that our identity is wrapped up both in our context and in our faith. Sorting that out is one of life’s great challenges.

So it is in Botswana. At the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Gaborone, after-church tea is served each week by different groups. One Sunday it may be the West Africans, another the Kenyans, another the Indians. This is clearly a recognition of diversity within the faith community, an acknowledgment of a particular identity. But they, and we, are all part of the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church,’ the one Body of Christ, and they know that. The great difficulty comes when that local identity works to exclude rather than leads to a celebration of the richness of God’s world and God’s peoples. At that former point we move – church and culture and nation – into the realm of xenophobia.

Botswana needs to be careful. So does the Episcopal Church in the United States. And so does Anglicanism worldwide. One of the challenges at April's Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Lusaka is to try to sort all this out in a manner that recognizes our oneness in Christ. Some of us, determined to claim sole possession of orthodoxy, aren’t very good at that. There is a meeting place where we can be both one in Christ and witnesses to our own context. Finding that place moves us faithfully, and gracefully, away from xenophobia.