I live in Benguet Province of the Philippines. It is the most mountainous province in the Philippines. Although the Philippines as a whole is pretty dependent on rice as its primary food staple, in many of the rural parts of Benguet, yams (kamote, prounced kah-MOH-teh) or potatos serve as the dominant staple. Also Benguet is one of the major coffee growing areas in the Philippines. The sub-tropical mountainous area is great for coffee plants (or kape, pronounced kah-PEH). I live on a seminary that is full of coffee trees.
I have often thought of the Lord’s Supper. The bread, a staple of the Middle East, and the wine, a drink staple of the same region make a lot of sense in many parts of the world… but not so much in Benguet. In Benguet, there is certainly bread. There is also wine (strawberry, bugnay, and rice wines are produced in sizable quantitites). However, neither bread nor wine have the same relationship to diet in Benguet as it does in the Middle East.
So is the use of coffee and kamote a good contexstualization of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper? Maybe Yes, Maybe No.
Andrew F. Walls, in his book “The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), speaks of two principles— Indigenizing and Pilgrim Principles. Christianity should be indigenized so that it feels “at home” in the culture it is in. On the other hand, Christianity should also exist, in a sense, as “a stranger in a strange land.” It could be said that there is a contradiction here… but I would prefer to say that there is a tension between the two principles.
But there is another tension as well. Jonathan Ingleby in “The Hermeneutical Principle in Relationship to Contextual Mission Training” (Part of the book “Contextualisation and Mission Training” edited by Ingleby, Tan Kang San, and Tan Loun Ling) speaks of the power dynamics that exists in the church in terms of missional contextualization. He speaks of Traditionalistist and Contextualizers. For my own comfort, I will use the terms “Traditionalists” and “Localizers.” Traditionalists seek to maintain consistency of doctrine. Even while they may seek to translate God’s Word into a new language, they want to maintain tight control over the translation process to establish the limits of what locals will find as the permissible range of localization. Localizers try to break from from these limitations.
I believe that the first tension gives insight into the second tension. Christianity is to be BOTH local and foreign. (The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, Chapter 5 is one of the best expressions of that tension in my mind. Look it up if you haven’t read this 2nd Century Christian work.) Jesus, in terms of language, dress, diet, appearance and more, was so local that local leaders needed help to identify Him in a crowd of 1st century Palestinian Jews. Yet in other ways He was so radically different from others in Judea and Galilee that thousands came to hear him talk and do what no one else could do. The trick is not whether to embrace an Indigenizing Principle or a Pilgrim Principle, but to know which one is correct in the situation. Many Christians fall into the trap of indistinguishability— embracing a culture or subculture that is not in line with the example of Christ. But other Christians (and sometimes the same Christians) can fall in the other trap— being different for the sake of being different. They build cultural walls that separate where separation was not needed. (I must refer back to The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, Chapter 5 again on this one.)
Returning to the Traditionalists and Localizers in the church, this same creative tension applies. The issue is not whether to be a traditionalist or a localizer, but when is it appropriate.
Let me use the Lord’s Supper as an example. A good localizing solution would be to have coffee and yams for the Lord’s Supper. I, personally, don’t believe that it is wrong to do this. It actually holds onto the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper better by sticking withe staples of the local people. A good traditionalist solution is to keep to the (grape) wine or grape juice and bread. Since I hate the taste of wine (“grape juice gone bad”) I would prefer grape juice, but that is another traditionalist/localizer discussion. Keeping the wine and bread connects with Christians around the world and through the centuries.
So which one is best here? I don’t know… but I think perhaps this is a place where siding with the traditionalists is better. The Eucharist is SUPPOSED to be a symbol of unity in the church. Yes, yes, I know it has become popular for it to be a symbol of disunity, with Closed Communion being very common to keep other Christians separated away. But the universality of the sacrament (except with some groups like the Salvation Army, that got rid of the sacrament because of the divisiveness that has arisen over the centuries) is important. This sacrament (or ordinance) should unite Christians. Holding more to a uniting form of the ritual is PROBABLY more important than localizing the staples.
Perhaps a middle ground would be good. Bugnay wine rather than grape wine could be used. Perhaps a more local staple (rice wafers for example) may be better than wheat. For outsiders visiting, it would feel pretty familiar despite to local adaptations.
But then, we can take things in a different direction. Coffee comes from East Africa originally. Potatoes come from South America originally. Yams come (I believe) from West Africa. These food and drink plants came in different ways to Benguet. They established literal roots in the soil, and figurative roots in the culture. I see this process as being rather organic… they filled both an economic and a biological need in the people. Christianity, ideally, comes in a does the same thing. It doesn’t come in to destroy what is good… but to meet the needs that are missing in the culture.
We want a Christianity that fits into the culture in a way that doesn’t feel foreign. No one in Benguet feels that coffee trees, nor kamote or potato plants are foreign. They meet a need and the culture embraced it. The plants changed the culture, but voluntarily by the people as they found value in these plants. In like manner, perhaps the localizer should be the one in power in the dynamic of mission work. It is in the power of a people to control the direction and decisions of what happens in the church and culture that makes true and good localization and indigenization possible