Distinguishing Christianity from culture

There is a school of thought in Asia that says that if Jesus had been an Asian instead of a Jew, we would be using rice and tea in the Mass today instead of bread.

The reason Jesus chose to use bread and wine was because it was the common food of the people in Israel. Wine has been produced in Israel since biblical times, and bread is the staple food of the people there. Hence, Jesus chose to use bread and wine when instituting the Eucharist.

This is more than simply a choice of what food to use in our religious rites, or what food Jesus used. It is question of culture. How do we separate from Christianity what truly comes from God and what comes from men’s practices and culture?

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read about the early church having to make such a distinction. This takes place when Greeks were becoming Christians and some Jewish Christians were insisting that they had to be circumcised in order to become Christians.

The apostles met to discuss this and the conclusion of that first ecumenical council was that circumcision was part of Jewish culture and should not be imposed on Christians who come from a different culture.

As we reflect on the life of Jesus, we see that everything he did and said was rooted in Jewish culture, and that is rightfully so because Jesus was a Jew. The question for us as Christians to consider is: how much of Jesus’ Jewish culture are we mistaking for Christianity?

It is impossible to find pure, unadulterated Christianity in the world, because it is not Christianity if it is not rooted in culture. Jesus showed that by bringing His message of the kingdom of God into the Jewish culture. But did He intend for us to bring Jewish culture to wherever the Gospel is spread?

When we, from a different culture, try to bring Christianity into where we are in Asia, do we also impose Jewish, or Roman, culture onto an Asian people? Are we not behaving like those Christians who insisted that Christians must first be circumcised? Perhaps this is why some Asians continue to see Christianity as a Western religion, and so choose to adopt it as their own.

Our challenge as Asian Christians is then to learn to separate from our Christianity what are elements of Jewish or Roman culture, and immerse Christianity into our Asian culture.

Even saying that is not easy, since the meaning of the term ‘Asian’ is not clear. To be an Asian living in India means something different from an Asian living in Cambodia, and that means something different from an Asian living in the Philippines.

How best can we learn to immerse our Christian faith into our own culture? One good way is first to learn what is Jewish culture, and what is Roman culture, and learn to separate Christianity from that, replacing it with our own Asian culture.

That’s sounds rather abstract, so let me give a concrete example.

In Roman liturgy, the sprinkling of water is a symbol of spiritual cleansing. During Easter, it is used in place of the penitential rite at the beginning of Sunday Mass.

In Mongolia, however, where it is winter half the year and temperatures fall to below 30 degrees Celsius, it is considered rude to sprinkle a person with water because it’s so cold there.

In European culture, it is normal to find meat and potatoes as part of a usual meal. People there eat it there, and so abstinence from meat on Fridays works as a form of penance and solidarity with the poor people in the world who cannot afford meat in most of their meals.

Bring that practice to Asia in which live most of the poor people that European Catholics find solidarity with on Fridays, and you get a meaningless practice. Many Asians eat rice and vegetables, and find their source of protein in eggs, soya bean, etc. Abstinence from meat is no penance. If anything, it’s a reason to save money.

As you can see, we cannot assume that what works in Rome or in Israel will work everywhere else in the world. We need to see how best to inculturate Christianity into the places that we bring our faith to. That’s the only way to make Christianity work in Asia, and to help remove from it the stigma of being a Western religion.

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