Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The "Other" Contributes Equally: Some Theological and Psychological Perspectives on Constructing Inclusive Christian Identity

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The "Other" Contributes Equally: Some Theological and Psychological Perspectives on Constructing Inclusive Christian Identity

Article excerpt

This article addresses xenophobic attitudes and the construction of inclusive Christian identity. The provided perspectives contribute to the exploration of the 2013 World Council of Churches (WCC) tenth assembly theme, "God of Life, lead us to justice and peace." Inclusion of the "other" into our own identity creates space to act justly and peacefully, both in an ecumenical and social perspective.

We approach our discussion of xenophobic attitudes and "othering" from a psychological and theological perspective, while relating this to intervention strategies that aim for inclusion and the empowering recognition that the "other" can equally contribute. As xenophobia and "othering" exist out of a negative image of immigrants, in this article we will argue that xenophobia could be best understood and reduced by taking into account a social representations perspective. (1) The final paragraph intends to integrate proposed psychological intervention strategies with theologies of migration.

Seeing and Excluding the "Other"

During the last decades globalization and migration have brought many previously separate cultures into contact with each other. By now, "the other" who is culturally different from us often fives within the close proximity of the same town or neighbourhood. Ibn Noor, for instance, was born in Syria and migrated to the Netherlands about 12 years ago. Raised a Muslim, he became a Christian while living in his country of origin. Now he visits worship services of an Arab-speaking evangelical church in the Netherlands, as he is not enthusiastic about the welcoming attitude of native Dutch speaking churches. They "could grow in hospitality," he says, "for we are brothers and sisters and that is how we may treat each other." He continues, "The Dutch keep their distance and actually they don't have the guts to eat food that is unfamiliar to them." (2) His experience of being seen but not included is mirrored by many other migrant Christians, such as Gnimdou. This young man immigrated to the Netherlands in 2006. Being a Protestant Christian born in Togo 33 years ago, he visited Dutch-speaking Protestant worship services, but felt that he, an outsider, was hardly noticed. (3)

In the Netherlands live approximately 3.5 million first- and second-generation immigrants of a total population of 17 million people. (4) But while the probability for contact with immigrants has increased, there has also been a sharp increase in xenophobia in the Netherlands, something seized upon by newly emerged populist and far-right-wing political parties, such as Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), Trots op Nederland (Proud of the Netherlands; TON), or Geert Wilders's Partij Voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party; PVV), each promoting a strong Dutch identity while labelling immigration as a threat to Judaeo-Christian tradition.

In this light, remarkable research was conducted in the Netherlands in 2012. A group of nine first-generation Christians of non-Western ethnic origin (coming from Yemen, Syria, Iran, Ruanda, Togo, Ghana, and Angola), including Ibn Noor and Gnimdou, visited worship services of "native" Dutch-speaking Protestant churches in order to discover how they would be received and whether or not they would be noticed. All visited congregations were, according to their mission statements, intentionally hospitable and inclusive, and some even arranged special teams to welcome newcomers. Yet the young men and women of the research group had various experiences, ranging from very good and uplifting to embarrassing and discouraging. Surprised non-verbal responses to the unexpected visit of non-Western Christians were not experienced as negative in themselves, but the sometimes disapproving facial expressions (cf. Frantz Fanon's "gaze" (5)) were experienced as a painful form of exclusion (6) and seemed potentially xenophobic. The superficial nature of conversations with the visitors--if started at all--evoked additional painful moments for the immigrant Christians. …

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