Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Questions a Pastor Gets -- on Multiculturalism

These are the kind of questions that a pastor gets: “What kind of biblical support can you find for multiculturalism?” Bear in mind that the context of the question is a Christian who is involved in a multicultural arts ministry, so we’re talking here about multiculturalism in context of praise of God.

Here’s how my mind works – I immediately start thinking about possibilities. I translate immediately into theo-speak, and I think about cross-cultural mission and the call of God to the nations. I think of All Hail the Power of Jesus’ name and the great lyric from that hymn “Let every kindred, every tribe on this terrestrial ball, to Him all majesty ascribe and crown Him Lord of all.” (sheesh, I wish I could write like that). Quite simply, I jump right to a redeemed multiculturalism within which our Lord is praised in a variety of tongues and through a variety of cultural forms. This, I feel certain, is paddling down my questioner’s creek.

It takes a few days of pondering to remember that the term “multiculturalism” carries a dark scar inflicted by the culture wars of the past few decades. The scar was inflicted by ideologues who used multiculturalism as a club in their postmodern power games. Their core argumentation: If all language and communication is simply an exertion of power, and the dominant western culture has wielded power for so long, it is high time to wrest power away through other cultural idioms.

We find in the ideological form a default assumption that the mainstream of western culture and as suspicious as that month old box of leftovers in the back corner of the fridge. From these circles we hear fly accusations that the accomplishments of the broad western culture are injurious to humanity and the earth. We hear calls to dismantle the establishment. Ideological multiculturalism seems to hint that all cultures are basically equal, with the exception of the dominant western culture that needs to be swept away. In my mind I see images of chanting students with their “Hey Hey Ho Ho Western Culture’s got to go”. I hear the whenging of radical muslim elements in Minnesota with their “give us pork free shopping lines” and "no alcohol in my cab". I shudder at the controversial antics of professor Ward Churchill, who clarions from the rooftops that the United States has been a force for injustice in the world and that 9-11 was but our getting some comeuppance:

The implications of this were set forth in stark relief during the aftermath of 9-1-1, when it was first suggested that a decided majority of those killed in the WTC attack might be more accurately viewed as “little Eichmanns”—that is, as a cadre of faceless bureaucrats and technical experts who had willingly (and profitably) harnessed themselves to the task making America’s genocidal world order hum with maximal efficiency—than as “innocents.” (from an article in the Alternative Press Review)
Such ideological multiculturalism spoils the party for other stripes of multiculturalism – the aesthetic lovers (who are fascinated with art, music, food), the sociological thinkers (who are most interested in comparing and contrasting behavioral norms), and the global citizens (who are very interested in how economics affects and flows across all these different cultures). There is blend and overlap – but the ideological multiculturals have given the term a very bitter taste indeed. Faced with such ideology, many find it tempting to ditch the whole concept like we would a badly cooked omlette and run to Mickey D's for a mcmuffin and hash brown.

Christians, however, don’t have the option to toss multiculturalism like yesterday's trash. Rather, our calling is to proclaim the reign of Christ over all cultures. This is unmistakable in scripture. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a time when Egypt and Assyria will come to the Lord.

“In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of
Egypt, and a pllar to the Lord at its border….In that day there will be a
highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into
Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. IN that day
Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the
earth, whom the lord of Hosts has blessed, saying ‘Blessed by Egypt my people
and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel, my inheiritance.” (Is 19:19,23-25)
The ancient enemies of Israel being brought into the fold. They are still considered as individual peoples, but they are united in worship of the living God. There is necessarily change (the pillar at the border, signifying a new reign), but there is also a seeming continuity of cultural identity. It is a picture redeemed multiculturalism.

The Pouring forth of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is another fine picture – the gospel being proclaimed in every tongue so that all might know the great works of the living God. Though the multiplicity of tongues doesn’t directly say that all cultures as a whole will be redeemed, it does function as a stone in the foundation, a point in the case I'm making here. Consider also Peter’s dream in Acts 10 – it is a dream showing that all foods are declared clean. However it is a dream that is immediately applied to Peter’s evangelistic efforts – he’s not just sent to Israelites but to the Roman centurion Cornelius. Move on to the struggles outlined in Acts and Galatians about the “judaizing” controversy. Gentile converts (that is, people of other nations) were not required to become culturally Jewish. They maintained their cultural identity.

And even though they maintained their cultural identity, that cultural identity takes backseat to their primary new identity as children of the Living God through the grace of Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28).

So in redeemed multiculturalism, we see that individuals from every culture are welcome, by the grace of Christ, they are grafted into the community and maintain some of their individuality. But a necessary element of the grafting is that there is change. Just as the Holy Spirit sanctifies an individual spirit, that sanctifying change washes back and affects the culture that the person is from. Redeemed multiculturalism realizes that every cultural expression finds its fulfillment in Christ alone.

Redeemed multiculturalism also looks for the redemptive element in other cultures. The sterling example of this is Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17. He sees that the city is full of idols – he realizes that idolatry is sinful and he’s troubled. But he looks for the redemptive element and proclaims “Men of Athens, I see that you are religious people.” He saw the altar to the unknown God, and he proceeded to say “let me tell you about that unknown god.” (read the full story in Acts 17:16-34).

Scholars have also shown that Solomon appropriated pagan wisdom in compiling his proverbs. Proverbs 22:17-23 closely parallel the first two chapters of the Egyptian wisdom book The Wisdom of Amen-em-ope. Similarly, many scholars believe that David adapted a hymn to the pagan god Baal when he wrote Psalm 29. There are also similarities between Psalm 104 and the Egyptian “Hymn to the Aten” – it could be that the ancient Israelites adapted that hymn. Now in any of these cases, the adaptation could have gone the other way (adapting from Israelite culture, rather than Israelites adapting from the culture around).

Such adaptations should not threaten Christians. They demonstrate the old doctrine of common grace -- the idea that all truth, goodness, and beauty find their origin in God. The fact that Biblical writers appropriated previous pagan writings and used them to point to the covenant God gives great hope. We see that God’s common grace is all about us. Everything in the world points to the triune God, if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

I'm cautious to point out that just because there are redemptive elements in cultures, that does not mean that all cultures are equal, nor do they share in. Don Richardson, a missionary to New Guinea, wrote about his experiences in Peace Child. He tells the story of a hard society in which betrayal and duplicity is honored. It was a society that led to lives being nasty, brutal, and brief. But there was one custom that was redemptive -- when two tribes were at such war that everyone was threatened to be wiped out -- one chief would offer one of his own children to be raised in the other chief's household. That child was the Peace Child. It would bring about the cessation of hostilities. Richardson was able to latch on to that single cultural metaphor as a means of explaining the gospel of God's Peace Child, sent to end hostilities between God and humanity.

I hope these thoughts help my friend sort through some of theological challenges around multiculturalism. See my review of Lamin Sanneh's Whose Christianity is it Anyway for some more thoughts.

Soli Deo Gloria