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Spring 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 1 · pp. 63–74 

Ethnicity: Friend or Foe?

Donald R. Jacobs

Duty called! I am now unpacking my bags following a “peacemaking” ministry in a Tanzanian church. They invited me, a “third party,” to help repair a decade-old schism that divided that once-vigorous church. The problem began, as best I could learn, when a bishop felt his authority was threatened. To bolster his position, he did about everything that he possibly could to overcome opposition, including fanning smoldering tribalism. He died a few years ago and the church is trying to repair the damage.

The gospel does not condemn ethnicity, but it does emphatically condemn ethnocentrism; it is not against tribe but is against tribalism.


Tribal or ethnic feelings run deep in Tanzania as in many African states. 1 Southern Nilotic tribes in the Sudan, for example, have fought for freedom from the Arabic Muslim north for almost four decades. Nigeria also has a Muslim north and a Christian south. The ethnic differences between north and south in these two states are increasingly obvious. The religious differences follow cultural fault lines. Sierra Leone and Liberia split along tribal lines. Somalia tore itself to shreds along ancient clan lines. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia. Now the Ethiopian government has a daunting task, to build a multicultural state based on voluntary membership.

In the center of the continent, tribal fear, hatred, and greed have pushed Rwanda, Burundi, and large sections of the Republic of the {64} Congo over the brink to chaos. Ethnicity has reached such a pitch that when something dramatic happens in Africa, the thoughtful observer looks intuitively for underlying ethnic causes. African ethnicity is fed by its own deep springs. Nevertheless, it is not unlike India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the former USSR, the former Yugoslavia, the former Czechoslovakia, Northern Ireland, Spain, Iraq, Canada—and we could go on.

Where religious differences fuel ethnic hostility the problem is doubly difficult. Examples leap to mind: Northern Ireland where the British Protestants face off against Irish Catholics; Pakistani Muslims and Indian Hindus; Croatian Catholics against Serbian Orthodox. In these cases religion adds fuel to existing ethnic rivalries.

However, ethnicity does not require religion to give it life and cohesion. Ethnic conflict persists among Muslims; Christians are not much different. The “Christian” nations of Europe have been fighting among themselves for centuries. The basis of their conflict is ethnic. Ethnicity is alive and well as the twenty-first century opens. It could well be the dominant social force of the new century. As Senator Daniel P. Moynihan ponders the future he warns the international community to beware of ethnic “pandemonium.” 2

International strategists find their hopes dashed repeatedly by unforeseen ethnic tensions. Concerned analysts are addressing this matter. Books are now appearing which examine ethnicity in great depth, such as the very substantial book, Global Convulsions: Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism at the End of the Twentieth Century. 3 Sixteen experts contributed insightful chapters to this volume. Similar books continue to be published by major publishers. Ethnicity is finally receiving attention as one of the most troublesome issues facing this planet.


Few churches on the face of the earth are free from the problems that arise from ethnicity, yet missiologists seldom address this issue. This is strange because it is one of the most urgent issues in the life of the church today. David J. Bosch in his monumental book, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission—a book I appreciate immeasurably—raised the matter but did not address it as a major missiological issue. 4

In his thoughtful paradigm for the future of missions, Bosch calls for “ecumenism.” This is a lofty ideal and a compelling vision. Nevertheless, it can become reality only if we address the issue of ethnicity fairly and squarely. While pressing for ecumenism he acknowledges the reality, in fact the necessity, of the inculturation of the gospel. He makes a {65} great deal of that, develops a marvelous theology of inculturation, and finally concludes, “There is no eternal theology, no theologia perennis that may play the referee over local theologies.” 5

Bosch assumes that every theology is worked out in a local ethnic context, therefore giving validity to ethnicity. He hastens to describe how the many local theologies cannot only coexist but can in fact enrich the entire theological discourse. “While acting locally we have to think globally.” 6 This is correct, and precisely the reason we need to work hard on a Christian theology which addresses ethnicity.

Why do Christians become involved in interstate or interethnic squabbling? Why do Christians often go silent when their own “tribe” makes war on another? One of the greatest tragedies of the current Rwandan genocide is that the church all too often championed the causes of ethnicity. I personally heard many tales in which high church officials took sides in the carnage. How does the church get itself into this compromised position?

Lamin Sanneh’s writings help us to understand this. Every time the gospel enters another group or culture, he observes, it gets “retranslated.” 7 This is one of the wonders of the gospel. Believers can translate the Christian faith into any culture without losing its christocentric nature or its commitment to shape life according to the Scriptures. In this way the gospel is a friend to culture. The visible church is the result of the local interplay between gospel and culture. Dr. Sanneh takes ethnicity seriously. He, as Bosch, emphasizes the important role culture plays in the theologizing process, yet neither spells out for us a workable theology of ethnicity.


God employed ethnicity for his purposes under the Old Covenant. 8 He created a tribe with whom he made his covenant. From Abraham to Joseph the tribe was intact. Life in Egypt weakened the tribal nature of the Jews because there they mingled with the Egyptians who had their own ethnicity and religion. When they crossed the Red Sea from bondage to freedom, they were a “mixed multitude” with some Egyptian adherents (Exod. 12:38).

However, at the foot of Mount Sinai they divided themselves again into clans (moieties), each claiming descent from one of the eleven sons of Jacob (less Joseph) or Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. The Jews entered Canaan as clans. For almost four centuries they managed with almost no corporate state apparatus.

God seemed pleased with this arrangement and resisted their repeated {66} attempts to become a state. When they finally instituted the monarchy and became a state, the clan system continued to function to some degree, on until the coming of Christ. Anyone reading the Old Testament is made aware of how seriously God takes ethnicity. In the period just before the coming of Jesus Christ the Jews of the Diaspora were busy evangelizing Gentiles. They absorbed Gentiles into their culture one by one, thus making them Jews. They could not imagine any other way.


The gospel, while critical of ethnic pride and ethnic strife, does affirm culture. Its central theme is the incarnation, God taking on human “flesh.” The Messiah was a Jew. As the Man for all cultures, Jesus entered a specific culture. He was a descendant of David, raised in a small Galilean village. He accepted his cultural identity. That is consistent with the incarnation. To become human is to engage fully in one of humanity’s cultures.

Even though he took on “Jewishness,” he refused to carry ethnocentric pride. In all of his ministries he affirmed people in non-Jewish cultures and, following his death, the Apostles continued that good work. The Apostle Paul was vilified by Jews because he defended the Gentiles against the demands of those Jews who wanted all believers to adopt Jewish cultural habits. He insisted that conversion does not catapult a person from one culture into another.

So, on the one hand, culture is a friend to grace because it is in culture that Jesus Christ is lived, loved, and obeyed. Yet it can be the most devilish, destructive power in society. It unleashes war, it challenges all who would infringe on its sovereignty, and it lifts people up in destructive pride. Ethnicity humanizes: it also dehumanizes.

Every thoughtful missiologist must ultimately ponder this issue. What is the theology of ethnicity? How does ethnicity fit into God’s scheme of things? Let us consider, briefly, some basic truths about ethnicity and the kingdom of God.


Let me begin with the end, the climactic scenes of the Book of Revelation: “And they sang a new song: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9 NIV). The theme is repeated in Revelation 7, 14, and 15. The very ethnicity that we often deplore is “center stage” in the revelation of future events: tribe, language, people, nation (phyle, glossa, laos, ethnos {67} ).

Why this reference to ethnicity in the victory of the Lamb? Tribes in heaven? Perhaps John is emphasizing the scope of the church, including not only the twelve “tribes” of Israel, but all tribes on the face of the earth, or that the gospel is well suited to appeal to persons of all cultures. Or does John see in this vision the leveling of all cultures, when the mighty Romans will come to God in humble submission alongside the battered slaves of the empire? John does not tell us.

In any case, each redeemed person appears in the climactic scene as a member of a particular ethnic group. This does not square well with the assumption that many of us carry, that in heaven there will be no tribe or culture or tongue, just generic beings forever praising the Lord. John’s vision calls this into question.


Modern missions do take ethnicity very seriously and their work is not always understood or appreciated. Those who translate the Scriptures into the vernacular are often criticized for fostering ethnicity. On the other hand, the general opinion in academia is that missions have destroyed cultures. The review is mixed.

One modern proponent of mission is Donald McGavran who, with his colleagues, emphasizes the “homogeneous principle” which is that the gospel spreads most readily in a horizontal direction, that is, within ethnic groups. 9 They advocate an ethnic evangelism which produces ethnic churches. Yet some missiologists fear the specter of ecclesiastical apartheid if Christians embrace ethnicity. In summary, missiologists do not know what to think about ethnicity.

Ethnicity has several faces. First, the positive face. Cultures enable us to survive. They protect us when we are the most vulnerable, in the formative years. Second, our cultures give us a specific view of reality. Within our cultural worldviews we classify, sort out, and reflect on events that affect us. Hopefully we learn and therefore we direct our behavior to enhance our well-being. Third, it is in our cultures that we forge our identities.

Fourth, culture defines what is virtuous and what is evil. It rewards those who embrace the cultural “good” and punishes those who flout it. Fifth, it is in our mother culture that we are given a place to belong. Sixth, cultures define the rites of passage from conception to death and sometimes even after death. Seventh, in our cultures we are taught the basic humanizing lessons of privilege and obligation. Eighth, our cultures enable us to view others as similar human beings, with their cultures.

In addition ethnicity has many positive practical aspects, including {68} economic and sometimes political security. This holds true, particularly when the state collapses and is unable to enforce control. A recent example of this is the former Zaire under President Mobutu. As the state went bankrupt, the districts (essentially ethnic regions) took up the slack and provided a modernized form of a tribal safety net. Ethnicity was strong enough to sustain the services normally rendered by the state. If states destroy all ethnicity (an impossibility, surely) in the name of national patriotism, what happens when the state fails? Many people in Zaire owe their lives to the fact that ethnicity is still strong.


Ethnicity presents another face, fearsome and destructive. We are very familiar with this face. It is Arabs against Jews, Hutus against Tutsis, Irish against British, Basques against Spaniards, Kurds against Iraqians, Croats against Serbs, Ukrainians against Russians, Tamil Nadir against Sri Lankans. These catch the headlines, yet they are only the tips of the iceberg. Scratch almost any state and just under the surface lies, not a seamless cultural fabric, but a mosaic of groups, tribes, languages, and nations. It is trouble waiting to happen. 10

In his controversial article, “The Coming Anarchy,” which appeared in the February 1994 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Robert D. Kaplan described a future in which ethnicity runs rampant. He wrote the article while residing in Sierra Leone where the people fell to fighting along ethnic lines. 11 Kaplan believed that what was happening in Sierra Leone will happen in other African states with similar violent results. He predicted a future in which states will weaken and tribal wars will increase. He alluded to the power of ethnicity in the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Iraq, among Kurds, and others. Kaplan predicted that as populations grow and as pollution spoils our planet, every group will fight for its share of the dwindling resources. That is the anarchy which he foresaw, with no way out of an impending global tailspin.

Missiologists must do better than that. Ethnicity cannot be erased from the human heart. Patriotism is one of the strongest emotions, similar to the emotion stirred by religious convictions. To ignore the awesome power of whatever one might call it—patriotism, nationalism, tribalism, sectionalism—is to walk blindly into the future. Missiologists must examine the nature of ethnicity and the role of the state.


Having lived in East Africa for many years, I had the opportunity to ponder the role of ethnicity in the state, in the church, and in politics. {69} Before the coming of the colonial powers the people lived in ethnic units, usually centered on land, the burial place of the ancestors. They defended their lands and their resources against any who would dare to attack. Sometimes groups made treaties and alliances for purposes of mutual defense, but no single tribe dominated the others. Life in tribes marked the precolonial era. The only significant cohesive cultural structure then was the ethnic structure.

Each culture in East Africa had its own worldview that set it apart as different. The worldview enabled them to rationalize life and to control their circumstances. Each tribe, in turn, viewed itself as an entity, a “people” that included “every one” of them: the living, the departed, and the unborn. All of those included in the mystical group, living and dead, were “us”; all others were “them.” Since no tribe could isolate itself, they learned how to inhabit the same geographic area. Each tribe related to persons of other tribes in ways that were different from the way they interacted among themselves. So each was a self-contained universe, yet each interacted in some way with neighbors, both hostile and friendly.

Not only was the ethnic unit their “universe,” it was designed to meet all of their needs so that they could survive as a people. Their primary needs included security, a rule of law, economic viability, a place to belong, and group organization that enabled them to raise their families in peace.

East Africa had no “empires.” Surviving in those days was not easy. They managed by enforcing strict ethnic coherence. The colonial powers stepped into this state of affairs and were confronted by a tenacious ethnicity that had served those tribes well through the years. On one hand the colonial powers deplored it and did what they could to make it disappear. On the other hand, they employed the chieftain structures for their purposes of indirect rule. Unwittingly, they strengthened ethnicity. While deploring tribalism they exploited it in their colonial ruling system.

When the states became independent, the leaders waged war against ethnicity and regionalism. They assumed that the states formed by the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885 were the future realities. One writer has noted, “They [the state boundaries] remain unchanged today because the leaders of these artificially defined states all recognize that an attempt to rationalize frontiers would produce chaos.” 12

Some worked hard to create a “national culture.” Tanzania, under President Julius Nyerere, was highly successful in spreading the Kiswahili language through the entire state. With it a mildly identifiable Tanzanian personality emerged. However, ethnicity flourished under the veneer. In Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda, ethnicity played a {70} much more obvious role in public life. This fact has plagued efforts to democratize. Why should people vote for candidates not of their own tribe?

We missionaries saw all this happening. I think it is safe to say that we believed ethnicity would weaken to the degree that the state would provide the essential services the tribes once did, that is, security and freedom. We reasoned, Why should ethnic groups be concerned about their security and freedom if appropriate central governments take care of that for them? Therefore we threw our weight behind the dream that ethnicity would not matter in the modern state.


I fear that very few people, whether they were politically active or not, gave much attention to the role of ethnicity in the newly-formed, newly-independent states. It was as though the framers of the independent states simply decreed that ethnicity has no place in the modern state. Who among them reckoned with the power of ethnicity?

Things seemed to go well as long as the states were financially strong and viable. When funding began to dry up, from within and from abroad, tribalism raised its threatening head. Tribalism became as powerful, perhaps even more so, than in the colonial era. Ernest Renan noted that the state requires a daily plebiscite. 13 This is especially true in Africa where the idea of “state” is a very recent invention. Ethnicity is ancient and is not something that people choose. Ethnicity has formed them. Admittedly, people do not choose state citizenship, either, but states do not form persons; cultures do.

Right now in much of Africa, as it is in the former Soviet Union and many other regions, ethnicity is escalating. Each ethnic group wants its rightful place in the sun and each resists “strangers” settling among them. “Ethnic cleansing” is not limited to the former Yugoslavia.


In North America, citizens easily transfer their loyalty to the state. 14 Only rarely do persons perceive of themselves as Irish, German, Polish, and then as patriots of the state. 15 Most people in North America have difficulty comprehending the power of ethnicity. This is because we are an immigrant society. We do not anchor our ethnicity in land and geographic memory. Furthermore, we learned to disdain ethnicity as a vestige of the past. We find it hard, for example, to believe that modern Quebec truly wants to secede from Canada.

We view tribalism or ethnicity as a touch “primitive.” We have little {71} sympathy for Native Americans who tie their ethnicity closely to land. We find that absurd. Why do they not simply amalgamate with “us?” We have lost the ability to think tribally. However, we too easily forget that we are dedicated nationalists. Patriotism is a hallowed virtue among us. State patriotism is basically the same emotion as tribalism.

The nations of Europe are essentially “tribal.” The German “tribe” lives mainly in Germany. The Italian “tribe” lives mostly in Italy. The British “tribe” inhabits Britain, and so on. Switzerland stands alone as a state that contains several “nations.” The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were noted for their ethnic diversity. When the cohesive power of state socialism was eroded, the “tribes” emerged as powerful forces.

Switching to Tanzania, an example of an African state, we find more than one hundred distinct tribes in one political entity. No one tribe looms large over all others. The largest tribe is about thirteen percent of the total population. Each tribe resides, in the main, on its ancestral lands. Even those who go off to work in other places experience a tie to their homelands. The growth of cities has done little to weaken this spiritual identity which people hold to tribe and land. The picture is so complicated that the Western observer tires of trying to understand it. However, the only way to understand Tanzania is to recognize the importance of ethnicity. This is even more apparent in Kenya.


How does this tiger get tamed? How can ethnicity best serve humanity and promote world peace? What role should ethnicity play in the kingdom of God? Should carriers of the good news denounce ethnicity? How can they be for it if it is a force for destruction? Questions such as this demand attention.

I believe that we see contours of the role of ethnicity in society as we enter the new millennium. First, ethnicity is a fact of human life and any hope that it will just disappear is indeed a false hope. Second, planning for a future without ethnicity is neither wise nor viable. Third, ethnic groups will probably never transfer their full loyalty to the modern states. Fourth, the humanizing function of ethnicity is a very positive thing. Fifth, people receive their essential identity as they interact with their nurturing communities. Sixth, ways must be found to assure that ethnicity does not turn violent. Seventh, states must discover ways to rule which acknowledge the important role that ethnicity plays in the life of all citizens.

The church has a prophetic role concerning ethnicity. First, the gospel affirms the aspects of the local culture which are good according {72} to biblical principles and exposes those aspects of culture which are contrary to the Scriptures. In this way the gospel becomes inculturated and contextualized. Second, the gospel does not condemn ethnicity, but it does emphatically condemn ethnocentrism; it is not against tribe but is against tribalism. Third, ties of kingdom fellowship must be so strong that followers of Jesus in one ethnic group will not harm believers in another group. Christians must simply not harm Christians. That is minimal ethics. Fourth, the church must seek ways to portray what it actually believes, that people in all cultures are equal before Jesus Christ. The world must know that loyalty to brothers and sisters in the faith is stronger than loyalty to an ethnic group or a state.

Fifth, the church must take the gospel of peace into ever more groups around the world. Sixth, the church must refuse to employ ethnicity or state patriotism to advance its own cause. The church must stand clothed only in the armor of God, never in the armor of temporal power. Seventh, followers of Jesus Christ should be eager to give to him the gifts that their cultures contribute to the world. They do this by making their special contribution to the affairs of the kingdom on the earth, realizing full well that ultimately they will place their cultural gifts and achievements before the throne of God where they will serve him, the Lord of all cultures, forever and ever. 16


  1. In this paper I will use “tribe,” “ethnic unit,” and “nation” to describe cultural groups, and the word “state” to describe political entities.
  2. For further reading, see Daniel P. Moynihan, Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  3. Winston A. Van Horne, ed., Global Convulsions: Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism at the End of the Twentieth Century (Albany: State University of New York, 1997).
  4. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991. Dr. Bosch was no stranger to ethnic tensions, even violence, in his native South Africa. He worked {73} tirelessly to make peace among the hostile factions. Yet his writings do not address this issue directly. He believed that Christians who take daily discipleship seriously will act amiably toward their enemies. I think this is the assumption that we all make, even those who live in fear of hostile neighbors. If that is the case, why the carnage? I believe that we must face this issue head on.
  5. Moynihan, 456.
  6. Ibid., 457.
  7. Lamin O. Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989).
  8. Regina M. Schwartz, in her controversial book, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), believes that the covenant theology of monotheism in the Old Testament is inherently violent. I find it difficult to relate the two because some of the most violent ethnicity is between cultures who have little regard for monotheism.
  9. For full treatment, refer to Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980).
  10. As many others, I make a distinction between “nation” and “state.” Nation is an ethnic term while state is a political one. A state can and often does contain many nations. A nation can become a state like Botswana. In reality it is a tribe organized along modern state lines and recognized by the international community as a legitimate state. This holds true for Lesotho and Swaziland, nations who have become states. This is not true of Angola or Ethiopia. They are states made up of a number of nations. The United States is not like that. The only “nations” are the landed Native Americans. They are the very ones who feel alienated by the state. They simply do not fit. Imagine a U.S.A. as several hundred such landed “nations.” That is what most of the world is.
  11. Kaplan’s subsequent book, The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century (New York: Random House, 1996), is a much fuller treatment of his main thesis, but I find the book much more balanced than the Atlantic Monthly article.
  12. William Pfaff, The Wrath of Nations: Civilizations and the Furies of Nationalism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 154.
  13. Quoted in Gidon Gottlieb, Nation Against State (New York: Council of Foreign Relations, 1993), xi.
  14. For further reading, see Milton Gordon, Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion and National Origins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964). {74}
  15. This may not be true of some immigrants who cling to one another in tight subcultures. I think of some recent immigrants, like the Ethiopians, Vietnamese, and others, who probably identify more readily with their compatriots than with other Americans.
  16. Additional works which contributed to this essay include John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, eds., Ethnicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Dusan Kecmanovic, The Mass Psychology of Ethnonationalism (New York: Plenum, 1996); and Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Religion, Ethnicity, and Self Identity: Nations in Turmoil (Hannover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997).
Donald R. Jacobs is Director of Mennonite Christian Leadership Foundation, Landisville, Pennsylvania, and formerly a missionary to Tanzania and Kenya.
I served at conferences and seminars with Dr. Kasdorf through the years where I recognized him as a man of great wisdom with a compelling vision for the evangelization of the world. His love for Jesus, faithfulness to the Scriptures, and warm friendship have endeared me to him, and make it an honor to participate in this tribute.

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