Topic Article #13: Contextualization Among Cannibals
God promised Abraham, our father, that he would inherit the entire world (Romans 4:13). We, being his children by faith in Jesus (Rom. 4:1; Galatians 3:29), inherit with him. What does inheriting the world mean? – It means that we, like Abraham, are blessed in order to be a blessing to all the families of the world (Genesis 12:3; Matthew 28:18-20; Rom. 1:5).
One of the ways we children of Abraham bless the families of the earth, is through missionary endeavor. Whether you go or help send, if you are Abraham’s offspring through faith in Jesus Christ, you are called to participate in missions.
When a missionary goes to people of a different culture, he has, among others, these two challenges – To be faithful to the Gospel AND to communicate the Gospel so that it is understood by the other-culture people. Making the Gospel understandable in another culture is called “contextualization”.
An example of good contextualization is seen in missionary Don Richardson’s book, Peace Child. Don struggled long to break through with the Gospel message to the cannibalistic Sawi tribe of New Guinea. When Richardson told them the story of Jesus, the people listened attentively. To Richardson’s surprised chagrin, when he came to the part about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, the listening men erupted in delight and applause – Judas was seen by them as the hero of the story. Among the Sawi, treachery was the most esteemed quality a man could possess. They would fatten someone up with friendship and then, in his most unsuspecting moment, turn on him and kill him, and because they were cannabis, eat him. Such ways were held in high honor among the Sawi.
The breakthrough came when Don learned how the Sawi were able to make peace with an enemy tribe with which they had been at war for generations. Peace came when in formal ceremony the Sawi chief gave his cherished baby son to the enemy tribe. So long as this child lived, peace would be maintained. This child was sacred, and none would dare harm him. This was “The Peace Child”.
This cultural practice and orientation became the contextualizing link for the Gospel among the Sawi people. Richardson told the Sawis that they were at war with God, and that there was no way peace could be restored. But then God gave his Peace Child for the Sawi people. Jesus was the Peace Child. It was then they understood that Judas was the villain. Richardson went on to tell them that God raised the Peace Child from the dead and that through Jesus, God’s Peace Child, they could be at peace with God and become His children. In this way Richardson successfully “contextualized” the Gospel for the Sawi people while he kept the Gospel intact, true and uncompromised. This contextualization enabled Richardson to share the Gospel with the Sawis so the people of that darkened culture could understand it.