Against Ghetto Christianity: A theological lesson from Calvin and Hobbes

ghe·tto (gĕtō) n.

A part of a city, not necessarily a slum area, occupied by a minority group. The term was first used for the enforced concentration of Jews into specific residential areas in European cities from the Middle Ages, but has now spread to include other ethnic groups in unofficial ghettos, especially black minorities in the USA. Lifestyles within the ghetto differ distinctly from those of the ‘host’ population and the prejudices of the host confine the sub-group to particular locations. Although ghettos are characterized by social disadvantage, most ghettos display a spread of socio-economic groups and the better-off may move to the affluence of the ‘gilded ghetto’. (from Geographic Dictionary)

Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson

In India, and maybe elsewhere, there is a concept of the “mission compound.” This is described as a smallish collection of houses with Christians residing. The problem with the “mission compound” in Christianity is that it reflects a problem within a form of Christianity in India. Like any community, (including many Hindu communities I might add), we tend to limit our involvement to our own community concerns; almost to protect ourselves. However, as this cartoon from Calvin and Hobbes reminds us, any wall of protection can trap us from within.

For Christians living in a world where we are few in number, we need not fear our neighbours, even in the Indian context (in which we are falsely called minority communities), because God is our protector. We need not build walls to protect ourselves from others, because that would limit our engagement with others.

Jesus’ way of dealing with people was the incarnation, and it was the opposite of the mission compound. He CAME to earth (leaving heaven); and dwelt in our context (Philippians 2). That’s the model for us to live with and be involved with others.

But this mentality is worse when reflected WITHIN Christianity; when we desire to protect ourselves from our own people, like Christians from other denominations etc. While it is true we need to be clear on what we believe; still we also need to remember that learning; theology; our quest for God; is a co-operative affair. The church means that we live and learn together; we fulfil God’s task together. (Body of Christ, image). In protecting ourselves from what we fear as false doctrines, we are in danger of losing all sight of the larger vision of God’s plan/purpose. Ghetto Christianity isolates us from fellow Christians who may challenge (spur) us, and even teach us and help us.

How then, can we protect ourselves from others; forces against us from outside and forces against us, from within?

Firstly, we look to God for protection from forces outside (Psalm 121). We need not fear persecution; in fact, we know that our Lord warned us of it long ago (Matthew 5). The example of Jesus is worthwhile. Entering the world is a risky affair, we may lose our lives, but that is the cost/cross Jesus bore, and so must we. Like Paul, we recognise the value of living in context… Jew for Jew, Greek for Greek… knowing that only through an active engagement with the lives of people, with God’s living power within, can we impact our contexts. If we hide our faith, people will never know who/what our God really is.

Secondly, we can protect ourselves from wrong doctrines etc… not by limiting our involvement with others, but rightly learning together. The cooperative exercise of the Church, encourages us to learn from others, to check the mistakes we make, and others make. No one church; one organisation; one pastor; has all the answers. Because we rely on cooperate teaching, we encourage a system where many people are able to check answers from the Bible, many people are able to gauge whether what the pastor (local church) says is the best way to say things. All this, within the context of love, can really help us to correct doctrinal and personal flaws. And thus we are able to keep each other in check.

I know the mission compound mentality is still prevalent here; but maybe Calvin reminds us (visually) that it’s not the best solution for us all.

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Philippians 2:11-13 (NIV) (12)Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, (13)for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

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