Because it is easier to see our own faults when they are on display in other people, let me share a few lines from the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus. He is introducing his readers to the ways and customs of the Persians and says the following about how they deem others worthy or honour (or not):
“They honour most of all those who dwell nearest them, next those who are next farthest removed, and so going ever onwards they assign honour by this rule; those who dwell farthest off they hold least honourable of all; for they deem themselves to be in all regards by far the best of all men, the rest to have but a proportionate claim to merit, till those who dwell farthest away have least merit of all.”
Did you pick up on the equations used for evaluation in there? Those who are most like me are the best, those who are least like me are the worst. Distance from me equals inferiority to me.
This sentiment is probably all too familiar. Herodotus was writing almost five hundred years before the birth of Jesus and this goes to show that this way of thinking is very, very old. In fact, although Herodotus is eager to point this out in the Persians it is not too difficult to see the same attitude at work in his own writing. We are safe ground attaching this kind of thinking to something gone wrong with human nature.
I hope that putting it on display in Herodotus will help us to recognize where this attitude resides in us. For our purposes here, we should think about our encounters with other Christian traditions. As you face expressions of the Church around the globe, do you rate them based on closeness to your own experience?
As we lean in to our position within the Global Church, we have to recognize that our expression of following Jesus is never the expression of following Jesus. There is no single expression of Christianity which is the lone standard for all Christians in all its details. The goal is not that we all look and sound the same. The goal is that the gospel is fully and faithfully translated into each culture that so it can be fully and faithfully transmitted from that culture.
Christmas is a good time to remember this. Jesus – who was different from us, distant from us, and superior to us – humbled himself to become one of us. Through the Incarnation he was translated into the terms of a particular culture at a particular time. In this we rejoice, because it means that his gospel can also be translated into our own particular cultures.
Let us also learn humility from this translation of divinity into humanity. It was not our culture that was the womb of the gospel. Our culture is not essential to the gospel. Our particular expression of Christianity is just one among the valid and valuable traditions where the grace of God has taken root. Let us take our place in the midst of the Global Church and serve another as stewards of God’s varied grace (I Peter 4:10).
(Quote is taken from Herodotus, The Histories 1.134; translation by A.D. Godley, Loeb Classical Library 117)