31st October, Non-Western Christianities and My Reformation Wishes
Photo by Samuel Lee
October is a significant month in the history of Western Christianity, and it is often referred to as the month of the Reformation. It is always celebrated on October 31st, the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of a Catholic Church in 1517. From 1517 to the present, protestant churches have been "protesting" among themselves, and division after division has occurred - doctrinal arguments, disagreements have continuously led to divisions after divisions—leading to countless number of various denominations.
Another question I have, as do many other non-western Christians, is whether we need western Christianity to be a "church"?
As someone who was not born into a Christian tradition or in a Christian country, I have always been amazed at the variety of Christianity that exists, not only in the West, but also in the East and the South. How much of my personal Christian faith is influenced by Western Christianity? Being a Christian in Europe has significantly shaped my personal faith, but it remains difficult for me to grasp and comprehend all of the differences in Dutch Christianity. Years ago, I was astonished to learn that some churches refuse to accept each other's baptisms or refuse to participate in each other's communion services. This was something I couldn't understand as a non-western, formerly non-Christian person—and I say this with respect. Later I found out that even non-western churches do the same!
Another question I have, as do many other non-western Christians, is whether we need western Christianity to be a "church"? Yes, I would say, without discounting our own rich cultural and historical heritages. It astounds me that a large number of pastors in global south know more about Calvin, Luther, and many other reformation heroes than they do about their own cultural and historical context in which Christianity could have developed.
"As a Japanese person who loves his culture and history, do I need to study Luther in order to be a Christian, or can I come to Christianity through the great Asian thinkers like Confucius?" asked a Japanese student in a Japanese theological seminary. "How about my forefathers?" he continued. "Are they in hell now?" I reminded him that Western Christianity is not the only form of Christianity, and that Westernism does not imply Christianity. The same is true of Christianity in the East and South. All denominations of Christianity can inspire one another, and one does not preclude the other.
Once my friend shared an inspiring illustration with me about persimmon trees in Japan. In autumn, in parts of Japan, there are persimmon trees laden with orange-colored fruit. These trees, however, are of two varieties: one that bears bitter fruit and another that bears sweet fruit—and both appear identical. It is impossible to tell which is which from the outside. The sweet fruit is delicious, but the bitter fruit is so revolting that no one could possibly eat it. Someone who is unfamiliar with this bitter persimmon tree may wish to cut it down. However, there is another, better way, my friend pointed out, which is to turn it into a sweet one. This is accomplished by grafting a shoot from a sweet persimmon tree onto the trunk of a bitter persimmon tree; by the following year, the entire bitter tree will have changed and will produce sweet fruit. “The same can be said of our traditions and indigenous cultures," my friend emphasized. “In the past missionaries from the West believed that our religions, culture, and traditions, such as honoring our ancestors, were paganism, like bitter persimmon trees! They attempted to “cut it down” but have so far been unsuccessful.” My friend is right, even today, as many Africans and Asians are Christians and have accepted Western forms of Christianity, they continue to practice their traditions through the backdoor.
My reformation wish for this month is that the native Dutch churches and migrant churches will come closer together, as many of us promised during the 2019 National Synod. My second wish is that Christians in and from non-western societies rediscover and reevaluate their culture in the light of Christ and come up with new and fresh theologies to offer to our western brothers and sisters, and hope that they will not label us as “syncretists”, but as those who engraft Christ in our own cultures and traditions, bearing new fruits, sweet and fresh like the sweet persimmon tree.