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Cape Town 2010 Advance Paper

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Peace To The Nations (Zechariah 9:10): Ethnicity in the Mission of God

Author: Ethnicity and Identity Advisory Group
Date: 31.05.2010
Category: Reconciliation

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Originally Posted in English

Editor’s Note: This Cape Town 2010 Advance Paper has been written by Dewi Hughes on behalf of an international advisory group, as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the Multiplex session on "Ethnicity and Identity." The advisory group includes Claude Nikondeha [Burundi], Gerard Willemsen [Sweden], Joseph Nyamutera [Rwanda], Joyce Dube [Zimbabwe/South Africa], Menna Machreth [Wales], Nyasha Manyua [Zimbabwe], Peter Nyende [Kenya], Philbert Kalisa [Rwanda], Prabu Deepan [Sri Lanka], Rhiannon Lloyd [Wales], Solomon Sule-saa [Ghana], Tito Paredes [Peru], CSW. Responses to this paper through the Lausanne Global Conversation will be fed back to the author and others to help shape their final presentations at the Congress. 

When a session on ethnicity starts by asking the audience to record the first words that come to mind when they hear the words ‘ethnic,’ ‘ethnicity’ or ‘ethnic identity,’ the most common word that usually surfaces is  ‘conflict.’ In fact, the majority of words that come to mind are negative. It is not surprising, therefore, that many evangelical Christians consider ethnicity a dangerous and/or divisive part of human identity to be de-emphasized or even avoided. And yet many Christians love their ethnic identity and see it as a gift from God.

Prior to investigating what the Bible says about ethnicity, some definitions may be helpful.

Ethnicity Defined:  The following definitions reflect current thought:

The transliteration of the Greek plural of ethnos is ethne, translated as ‘nations’ or ‘Gentiles’ in English Bibles. Ethnos [singular] and ethne [plural] will be used as English nouns in this essay.

Ethnos - A type of community with a consciousness of being a people distinct from all others with the following characteristics:

  • a common proper name; 
  • a belief in a common ancestry; 
  • a shared history, memories of a common past; 
  • elements of a common culture, such as language, customs, material culture, religion; 
  • a link with a homeland; 
  • a sense of solidarity. 

‘Ethnic Minorities’ - Ethne that for various reasons, such as migration or enforced transportation (slavery), are dispersed in a state.  

‘National Minorities’ or ‘Indigenous Peoples’  - Ethne that have been oppressed or marginalized in their ancestral territory. 

In light of these definitions, the term ‘nation’ becomes problematic, especially in the context of its common use. For example, many call the United Kingdom a ‘nation,’ while according to the definitions above, the UK is a country or state made up of three national minorities––indigenous peoples, a dominant national majority and many ethnic minorities. According to these definitions, a ‘nation-state’––implying a state ruling over an individual nation––hardly exists at all. Korea (North and South) and Lesotho are rare examples of states that are almost coterminous with an individual ethnos. 

The overwhelming majority of the world’s states have many ethne, although in many multi-ethnic states one ethnos is dominant. To illustrate what the definitions mean for an individual state, it may be helpful to consider the following typical example of a post-colonial state: 

Keywords: Ethnicity, identity, nations, distinctiveness, modernism, minorities, ethnos/ethne, ethnocentrism, mission, nation-states, diversity, purpose, unity, blessing

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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Michael_H (1)  

Hi Dewi

I have read your excellent article. You brought it really home with the idea of blessing the ethne. I am a pastor and missionary, not a historian. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to trace the roots of modernist political philosophy. No doubt, nationalism and its resulting imperialism are wrong. But what about different ethne who choose to form a nation-state (the US and Switzerland are good examples)? sort of a nation-building movement? These people are united by a common constitution. These questions went through my mind.



Reply Flag 1 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Joseph_Paul_Cadariu (5)  
United States

Superb presentation.  Nice to see scriptural references when so many papers have none.  I am a citizen of Heaven, living in the United States, of Romanian heritage.  I am very ethnic.  My wife is of Irish/English/French heritage, and my sons are half Romanian.  I’m not sure what their children will be.

I believe in nations and ethne.  And, I believe God’s desire is truly His desire: All Nations!  All Tribes!  All Peoples! Yet we are One in Him.  Interesting how things always come full circle.  America has been great because all peoples who have migrated there became "Americans." Moving to Kenya does not make me a Kenyan.

And what does inter-marriage do to one’s ethnos? And, why are most of us making our comments in the English language (or as Jim Harries defined: North Atlantic English)? Perhaps, the "Heavenly Language" of Pentecostals is God’s plan for all to speak one language. I want God’s nature, His ethnos, His heart and soul. 

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Bradford_Greer (1)  
United States

I suggest as a resource in the discussion about primary education in a child’s first language (mother tongue) this paper: Promise and Perils of Mother Tongue Education by Nadine Dutcher. It is accessible at this web link:

I understand that the research indicates that children who begin their education in their mother tongue will be better equipped to successfully transition to a national language than if they are required to study in the national language from the start.  

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Carlos-Sosa (0)  

Many thanks for this important paper.

Regarding initial education in mother tongue, I would like to add that here in Guatemala (Central America) it is an obligation in public schools to teach the basic courses in mayan languages. The idea behind this is that mayan languages must be preserved. Nevertheless, Guatemalan people do not want to learn these languages and, instead of that, they would like to learn English since English opens them more job opportunities. So, they are in a crossroad: preserve their languages or learn something useful to survive in this global era.

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Jim_Harries (-3)
@ Carlos-Sosa:

Hi Carlos, The assumption being that English = survival and indigenous languages = die out?

That is an interesting assumption. I think it warrants looking at? If we look around the world at countries that are considered to be prospering’, how many are doing so on the back of languages that are not their own? ... None come to mind (of advanced, wealthy, etc. nations)? Many instances do come to mind of countries using borrowed language who are struggling - especially in Africa (my home)?

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Carson_Weitnauer (2)  
United States

Dewi, and the Identity Advisory Group,
I’m appreciative of your article and thoughts on ethnicity.  Your definition of ’ethnos’ appears quite sensible to me - robust but flexible.
One of my hopes for the Cape Town gathering is that the ethnic diversity and unity of the church will be wonderfully visible.  I believe we need a great deal of humility and patience to engage in the kind of unified relationships that God asks His sons and daughters to have with one another.  
One way I wish the article had been extended was a discussion of emotion in the context of multi-ethnic relationships and communities.  Some struggle with guilt and shame.  Others with bitterness and revenge.  And so on.  Some find great joy and energy from the experience of other cultural ways of being and relating; others find it frustratingly draining and difficult to do so.  Bringing our hearts into this discussion is crucial; we need more than an intellectual understanding of the issues involved.
I have also found good stories to be a wonderful means of sharing wisdom, offering inspiration, and highlighting multi-faceted realities.  Sharing more stories of positive self-identity, communal identity, and both individuals and communities relating to one another with authenticity and other-centered love would be another constructive way to advance the conversation.
Again, my sincere thanks for your article.

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down kshalhoub (0)  
United States

I love the author’s quote, " In Jesus, the Messiah, we have a unity that does not destroy diversity and a a diversity that does not undermine unity." On a different scale we see the idea of diversity and yet unity in 1Cor.12 in the Body of Christ. 

Jesus called us to discilple all "nations", ethno linguistic peoples. We ought to  be living and serving Jesus with the anticipation of the vision of Rev.5:9 and Rev.7:9 coming to fruition at the second coming of our Lord.  (Kamel USA/Lebanon)

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Kim_Kerr (0)  
United States

Thanks, Dewi.

It seems uncanny that we still need to have this conversation in 2010. It seems as if we would have settled the matter of identity and diversity by the time we hit the 21st century. But the truth is that instead of celebrating our unique ethnicities, we are often still separated by them. It seems that this still limits the capacity of the Gospel entrusted to us. How sad. I look forward to the opportunity of embracing this conversation and looking for some good ways forward together.

I appreciate your questions, and I have some comments to post on these two:

How can church appointments reflect ethnic unity in diversity?

I’m sure that there are various stories of this theme being played out around the globe and radically different answers to this question. For example, one of our indigenous ministry partners in Sub-Saharan Africa recently held their denominational elections and decidedly elected the officials from their own ethnicity as opposed to those individuals with greater education, experience, or even demonstrated loyalty based on their tenure in ministry of a different African tribe/ethnicity. It appears that their concern may be that their own interests be protected, and their conclusion that (only) those of their own ethnicity can be trusted to do so.  This is a sad and confusing message for those who have served faithfully in the denomination but have a different African heritage.

A simple, yet powerful, answer may be a deeper study and understanding of God’s word and principles. It is possible that biblical and spiritual maturity would create an environment where the trust is needed for all members to be accepted and honored based on God’s measurements rather than man’s.

These things are always complex and not easily solved, but I really appreciate the following question as it does help frame a global conversation with local implications:

How does the biblical bias towards the protection of the lowest and the least apply in the context of ethnic identity (Deuteronomy 7:7)?

God’s loving choice of all nations, specifically Israel in Deuteronomy 7:7, to be His very own possession provides an excellent context for this conversation and the ensuing questions you’ve raised. The Bible is riddled with reflections and even commandments to care for the least and the last, and to place them and their needs equal to and at times above ourselves both as individuals and as ethnicities. But, the least and the last from the external measurements of this world, are often quite different than the measurements used by God to equate greatness in His Kingdom. Globalization of the church, and the advancement of the Gospel into the Global south with greater impact than ever before, has turned the tables on what and who is at the head of the table as we now see the ethnicities of the Global south advancing the Kingdom with great strength and numbers, while the ethnicities with seemingly dominant world power, find themselves (ourselves) lagging behind when the same measurements are utilized.

Yes, those with a mature faith in every ethnicity, especially those in leadership, will in fact respond with obedience to protect and provide for those whose faith is weak. Yet I believe the question now becomes which ethnicities can objectively be characterized as least and lowest, from a purely biblical perspective?

Of course we don’t live in the “perfect” world described in the Revelation passage you’ve noted, but if we did, (and when we do!) we will celebrate the ethnic diversities that each nation, tribe, tongue and people group as we worship together. I am looking forward to that grand celebration of our individual and group identity amidst ethnic diversity.

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Jim_Harries (-3)

Hi Dewi,

We’ve never met in person although we’ve corresponded, but it is good to meet over the net!

My comments:

1. Too much time defining terms in North Atlantic English for an inter-ethnic conference.

2. Interesting definition of colonial states being established on the basis of the ‘end of ethnicity’. This is actually quite threatening to a lot of post-colonial states. Not that it shouldn’t be said. But, it implies they are barking up the wrong tree … Maybe need a reference or two as to where this ‘theory’ arose for people to read up more?

3. I found the section on ethnicities in Gen. 10 confusing. Your end-note system is also confusing, as the numbers do not look like endnotes.

4. Two paragraphs are very good: a. “There is no coherent …

                                                       b. “In a modern …

5. Saying of Uganda “the state can only function by retaining English as an official language” is rather strong, and very worrying when one thinks of all the problems caused by English, and I believe very much its long-term unsustainability. I think this needs unpacking, and for it to be made clear that other languages can also unite people. English doesn’t have the corner on unity – although in Africa sometimes one would think it has.

Important issues being raised! You are coming from a very Western angle …

Hope those comments are helpful.


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