Xenophobia and Global Christianity
DR. TODD M. JOHNSON
PROFESSOR OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY AND MISSION
One of most rewarding things about studying Christianity around the world is encountering its astonishing diversity, embodied in people from every country speaking hundreds of languages. But this isn’t surprising given the clear Biblical message that the gospel will impact the whole world, and someday, welcome individuals from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 5:9 and others). In light of this, it is shocking to encounter xenophobia – fear or prejudice against people from other countries – as a major feature of different forms of Christianity around the world. As an American citizen, I am particularly saddened to see it embraced by Christians in my country.
Erika Lee, University of Minnesota immigration history professor, recently published America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States (Basic Books, 2019). Her book documents an unrelenting history of xenophobia in the US, with fear and hatred shifting from one group to the next over its entire history. Xenophobia was forged by White settler colonialism with the seizure of land Native American land and resources and the enslavement of Africans. She sees it as:
“a constant and defining feature of American life. It is deeply embedded in our society, economy, and politics. It thrives best in certain contexts, such as periods of rapid economic and demographic change, but it has also been actively promoted special interests in the pursuit of political power. It has influenced elections and dictated policies. It has shaped American foreign relations and justified American imperialism. It has played a central role in America’s changing definitions of race, citizenship, and what it means to be “American.” It has endured because it has been an indelible part of American racism, white supremacy, and nationalism, and because it has been supported by American capitalism and democracy.” (page 7)
She also points out that most of us think of xenophobia (and racism) as an individual prejudice, but it is in fact an ideology or set of beliefs that:
“promotes an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants and demonizes foreigners (and, crucially, people considered to be “foreign”). It defines immigration as a crisis, likening the movement of peoples to an invasion of hostile forces requiring a military-like response. It is born from a narrow and exclusive definition of who is American and who is not. It is easily weaponized during times of change and anxiety, but it exists and flourishes during times of peace and war, economic prosperity and depression, low and high immigration, and racial struggle and racial progress.” (page 8)
The vast majority of Americans have been Christians throughout its history. The connection to Christian nationalism (see earlier blog) is that “those who see being ‘Christian’ as central to being ‘American’ are highly resistant to the idea that immigrants—even Christians who have been here for years—those who cannot speak English, and those without an American ancestor can be ‘truly American.’ They are indelibly ‘them,’ not ‘us.’” (Whitehead and Perry, page 99). Xenophobia has become a defining characteristic of Christian nationalism.
Today, people of color in the United States are still targeted for unjust and unequal treatment, evidenced by the prejudice towards Asian Americans under the coronavirus and the ongoing brutality toward Black Americans by the authorities. In this context, George Floyd’s tragic murder in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota was not an aberration but an act consistent with entrenched view of racial inferiority with roots in an overtly xenophobic population.
What can be done? White Evangelicals in the United States have to renounce Christian nationalism, embrace their global identity and work toward racial equality, with the dominant voices coming from people of color. White Evangelicals also have to get past considering these entrenched societal problems as primarily the result of individual behavior. Instead, we should acknowledge the intransigence of structural sin. Repentance of this kind of sin is not done primarily at revival meetings but in the tough, face to face work of restorative justice and reparations. One of our greatest resources for this, as I noted at the beginning of this blog, is the global diversity of Christianity, where we find no room for xenophobia, fear, nationalism or racism. Instead, we follow one Savior on the road to reconciliation, equality, love, and global solidarity.