Enter N!xau, a member of the !Kung San bushmen of the Kalahari desert. He wears nothing at all but what might be termed a "mini-apron" around his waist and he speaks not a word of English. He was raised as a nomadic hunter-gatherer, but his tribe's way of life is changing because it's hard to be a hunter-gatherer in today's society, Kalahari desert or not.
He has never heard the Gospel and the only Christian influence on his culture was from a few missionaries decades ago. Thanks to them, a healing spirit named Jessu Kriste has joined the list of the many demi-gods, along with an evil devil-like figure.
Naturally, N!xau does not claim to be a Christian, by any definition. Let's ignore for a moment the debate on whether African bushmen can find salvation without knowledge of the Gospel and a relationship with Jesus Christ. That's not really what this post is about.
Now let's zoom halfway around the world and take a look at Jenny Smith who lives in a city somewhere in the prairie region of North America. During summer days, she doesn't wear much, but she still wears more than most San bushmen do. She speaks very good English and even understands some words and phrases from both Latin and Leet. She is still in school, living with her boyfriend, and intends to become a teacher when she graduates.
Jenny knows that her culture has a strong Christian heritage, but isn't really sure what the word "Christian" means. She's heard the song "Amazing Grace" many times and thinks it's very beautiful, especially when played by bagpipes. She's heard the story of Noah and the Ark and also of David and Goliath, but she couldn't tell you who Paul was or how many disciples Jesus had. She rides her bike past a United Church on her way to school and has even listened to her grandmother talk about the masses she attends at the Catholic chapel down the way. She's been inside several churches for weddings and funerals and once for a piano recital. She's seen televangelists a few times, and listened to people defend Creationism in a university debate. Once she was even stopped by a street preacher who shared with her the entire Gospel.
Jenny claims to be non-religious, though not necessarily atheistic. She believes that Christianity has done a lot of harm in some cases - just look at the Crusades and the intolerance - and some good in others - Mother Teresa was Christian, right? Jenny knows she's not perfect, but she's trying her best. The street preacher said some interesting things, but she's heard so many goofy ideas from Christians and seen so many hypocrites before that she's not exactly convinced of the man's reliability.
So here are the questions: Is Jenny truly in a different boat from N!xau? Can she be held any more accountable than N!xau for not converting to Christianity? Is there something magical about hearing the words of the Gospel that once exposed to them, they must be accepted, regardless of personal circumstance, or else? Is failing to understand the Gospel the same crime as rejecting the Gospel, or is it more akin to never hearing it to begin with? Is the presence of a church in her neighbourhood enough to make her responsible for not coming to Christ, especially when she has seen that churches make many mistakes and can be forces for manipulation?
Most people I know would say that N!xau's non-belief is not his own fault. But what about Jenny's? Could it be possible that she's actually in a situation quite similar to N!xau's, in that she has not really been shown good reason to accept Christ, even if she's one of the lucky ones that has run into an evangelistic preacher from time to time?
Basically, is Jenny just an urban bushman with white skin?
It's a question I've been pondering lately. I'm not entirely convinced that non-belief entails a rejection of Christ. Perhaps all it entails is a rejection of Western Christianity.
If this is the case, what does that mean, and what's to be done about it?
“The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification seems to me in present day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
"We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him." C. S. Lewis