From Pastor Dan's Blog

Multiculturalism, Bible-style

“But hasn’t multi-culturalism failed?”

– Church leader, in my office, after a tense meeting

            I had been pushing to make “multi-cultural” a formally-stated value of our congregation, but I had overlooked a critical flaw, right up until I stepped in it.

            “Multi-culturalism” sounded like a suspiciously-leftist agenda piece to certain of my congregants.  Add that word to my talk about “power” and “structural justice,” and some people appeared to fear the presence of a fully-indoctrinated communist in their midst.  Much of my congregation could not hear those terms as meaning anything other than what the present American socio-political moment said they meant, and teaching with those words from a Biblical perspective was doomed unless I could cleave their value from secularism and to the Kingdom.  My congregants were right in thinking that words have enough power to be objects of suspicion.

            Broadly, the secular idea of “multi-culturalism” has to do with the relational structure among different groups within a diverse society.  In the United States in recent decades it has been advanced as a way to reckon with the “browning” of America and, in combination with racial identity politics, to seek empowerment and rights for those of specific groups.  It has also become intertwined with post-modernism, in which truth is relative to who you believe you are and in which ultimate meaning is a deception.

            In English, then, the roughly current feel of American secular “multi-culturalism” has been: “I’m me, so give me mine or we’ll take it.  We’re us, so give us ours or we’ll take it.  When you or we do, our society will function well because all individuals and groups will be satisfied and free to be their own self-defined selves.”  That’s a caricature, of course, but it is meant to draw out that my congregants may have feared the competitiveness and conflict of such an approach if it were presented as a model for becoming a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural congregation.

            Multi-culturalism in churches, though, is different.  Churches can certainly use the insights of secular sociology, psychology, history, and anthropology, but the church starts along a different path and has ends in a different place.  So, with regret that I did not have this years ago in this form or with enough thought behind it, I now offer a chart of a few ways that church multi-culturalism differs from secular multi-culturalism.

(Note: My CPU is a neural net processor, a learning computer. Today, I learned that putting a chart into a WordPress blog is almost useless. Sorry, it won’t happen again.)

What is basic to
human identity?
– the individual self, as self-defined & group-identified – being made in God’s image, which is inherently relational
What is the basis of human togetherness?– Being human or existing in the same social space
– agreed-on social arrangements
– being made in God’s image, and being
restored in Christ’s
– the Holy Spirit makes God’s people one
How should humans work together? – like a salad, with co-existing and
complementary flavors
– like a body, interdependent and essentially interconnected
How is togetherness accomplished? – redistribution of power, forced by
gov’t if necessary
– democracy
– tolerance, co-existence, diversity
training & education
– justice
– submission to Christ, who gave up power (Phil. 2)
– obedience to the theocracy
– repentance, voluntary redistribution of power
– “agape” love, which
includes inter-cultural learning
– justice, forgiveness, and grace, starting with God’s
What are the main barriers? – unequal distribution of power
– structural injustices (racial,
economic, etc.)
– bad people (other humans)
– history
– sin (human individual and collective choices, but at the
deepest level not the humans per se)
– brokenness (malfunctions in the world God made without them)
– evil (both as a spiritual force and personalized anti-God beings)
What is the value of ethnic diversity? – as an interesting byproduct of time & regional genetic variation?
– variety is the spice of life?
– that humanity has fulfilled God’s mandate to be fruitful and fill the earth, and that this brings glory to God (Rev 7)
What are the end goals? – Freedom for individuals to choose & self-express
– tolerance of others / harmony
– economic productivity and material flourishing
– Freedom to do what is right and express God’s Will
– love of God and neighbor
– the realization of God’s plans to bring those of all nations
to Him

            No doubt some of my congregants will still think that’s pretty academic, or perhaps even a highfalutin smoke-screen to bring liberalism into their church, because pastors are liable to do those sorts of things, what with their nettlesome insistence on love of neighbor over against the Pharisaism of traditional religiousness.  So let me bring it all down to reality.

            Back when I was a pastor in Holland, Michigan, I attended a diversity training offered by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, a local non-religious non-profit.  We walked through what are the typical and appropriate steps of first understanding our self-identified culture, then learning about the world’s ragged history of violence between in-groups and out-groups, the need for honesty about North American and United States history (Is a man who says, on the occasion of him simply showing up, that what belongs to someone else now belongs to a foreign ruler in order to gain his own profit, and then who enforces his statement by mass killings, a hero or a murderous mercenary?  Is a president who was more interested in national “unity” really a great principled liberator of slaves?[1]), and structural or power injustices.  We were all accomplished at critiquing reality by week four.

            But in meeting five, we were to discuss the question of what to do, constructively.  And that’s where we stalled out.  Our discussion ran in circles as we could not define the root of the problem.  Thus there was no way to be sure of the solution.  Those of the group who were not Christians realized that their vision of what to do conflicted with others’ visions, and since we were all so committed to post-modern tolerance, all our views had to be acceptable, even if they were directly contradictory.  I mused sadly and inwardly and perhaps proudly that naming racism as sin, let alone offering God’s transformative grace as the solution, wasn’t an option in this setting.

            I don’t remember if there was a sixth meeting.

            But I do remember the jarring moment when I realized that our new apartment neighbors were the training facilitator and her Nicaraguan husband.  I had been grousing about them for weeks.  She would come and go loudly at strange and late hours, and never seemed to have time to get to know anyone on our third floor, let alone acknowledge their existence.  He would rev his truck into functioning at roughly 4:goodness’ sake AM every morning.  Dude, I know you think you can fix it, and maybe you grew up like that, or it’s cultural or something, but consider yourself lucky that I have restrained my fantasies of water-based sabotage, whether in the gas tank or in the apartment complex swimming pool.  Though I had labeled them as undesirable neighbors, I kept my grousing indoors and private, like a good and moderate citizen of semi-communal living arrangements.  At least I could be friendly to the people who owned the blue-ribbon show ferret[2] because the animalian olfactory assault was at the safe distance of two floors and intervening Yemeni cooking.  For a secular point of view, I was doing good enough with the new neighbors, because I was firmly in the “live and let live” mode.  Multiculturalism is tolerance.  Yet in doing so, I had betrayed the second greatest commandment and ignored the fact that my undesirable neighbors were neighbors first.  And thus I compromised the exercise of the first great commandment.

            My Christian beliefs had now exposed sin in myself, and at a level that no secular philosophy could have reached, because no secular philosophy has so high a moral standard.  Correspondingly, secular philosophy wasn’t going to be able to fill the gap I had opened.  I mused sadly and inwardly that naming sin and claiming grace was the only worthy solution.

            When they had a baby a few months later, we were sure to give a gift.  And by then we knew the names of all three of them.

[1] See Abraham Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley, dated Aug 22, 1862.  Though President Lincoln’s views of slaves did shift over the course of the war, he never endorsed full equal rights for whites and blacks.  Maybe it’s not fair to fault Lincoln for being the politician that he was, but in that case is it just to honor him as the pure-bred moral champion he was not?

[2] I am not making this up.