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Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Rethinking Christian Unity and Diversity

In recent decades, it has become a constant cry of people inside the church and outside of it that the Church should show the world more unity. For hundreds of years before, segregation of belief and practice was celebrated with quite a bit of triumphalism.  Sadly, it also resulted in mean and demeaning attacks between Christian sects.  Now there is a desire to remove all barriers and eliminate most, if not all, diversity between the various streams of the Christian faith.

I used to be a part of that band wagon:We should all be together, under one roof, worshiping God.”  Recently, however, I have been seriously reconsidering that idea all together.  It is not the idea of the unity of the Church or the unity of all believers that I am opposed to in principal.  The idea is a grand one.  But how that is expressed and presented to the world  is something that I believe few have really thought through carefully.  I know that, up until recently, I had not considered all its ramifications.

This may rattle some people’s preconceived notions, but I have come to the conclusion that the idea of Christians from all different streams of practice and doctrinal emphases gathering under one roof is not a biblical one. Likewise, the idea that all our differences in faith and practices should be eliminated for the sole concern of uniting together in one place is not, I have also come to believe, a part of God’s plan for His world or His Kingdom.  The idea that unity is good and diversity is bad is a fallacy that too many well-meaning Christians have bought in to without really considering its implications.  I know that I was a part of that crowd.

The journey of rethinking the idea of diversity within the Christian faith and the desire for unity really began as I began to experience church practices and beliefs in different cultures; opportunity to experience a Korean Presbyterian worship service, church services for Vietnamese, and the church expressed through the African-American or Latino-American cultures as well as my travels overseas to such places as Albania and India.  The complexity that cultural expressions bring to the Christian experience and worship of God began to chip away at my idea of what it means to have the “unity of the faith” that the Apostle Paul talks about in the New Testament.

A number of years ago, the American church was denounced for its lack of unity in the faith becauseThe 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America!”  This is true.  However, what are the alternatives?  What would be the real cost to eliminate all diverse expressions of the Christian faith for the benefit of being in one place at one time?  I have come to think that it would be a colorless, culture-less and neutered Christian faith.

This idea became a more solid shape in my mind during a particular session of a missions course I took recently called, “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement.”  Miriam Adeney, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, spoke to our group about culture and mission.  She also had an article in the Perspectives Reader called, “Is God Colorblind or Colorful?  The Gospel, Globalization and Ethnicity,” which was adapted from her article in the book One World or Many?  The Impact of Globalisation and Mission (2003).

In her article, Dr. Adeney uses the Makah Indian culture as an example of cultural diversity and expression. She pointed to one particular Makah elder named Isabell Ides who passed away at the age of 101.  She was the Makah expert on basket weaving and also a Sunday school teacher in her local church.

Both of these facts captured my interest. First, my parents were living in Neah Bay, Washington, among the Makah Indians when I was born in 1961.  Second, my mother tells me that Isabell Ides attended the little Assembly of God church my father was pastoring and used to hold me during church.  The questions that Dr. Adeney pointedly asks her readers are, “Did Isabell’s basketry matter to God, as well as her Sunday school teaching?  How important was her ethnic heritage in the Kingdom’s big picture?

Dr. Adeney warns that ethnicity and culture can, in themselves, become idols. At the same time, Scripture affirms that diversity in culture is a part of God’s creative plan and purpose for humanity.  She observes that all cultures contain sin and must be judged.  However, pride in one’s ethnicity is not automatically sin.  Ethnicity and cultural diversity was created out of humanity’s God-instilled need for community.  The danger is to think that one’s cultural ways and ethnicity is the only way that God works and communicates in the world.

Hairy Catepillar, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

Hairy Catepillar, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

If cultural/ethnic diversity are rooted in the doctrine of creation, then perhaps it would behoove all Christians to not deny it but embrace it. By honoring one another’s cultural distinctiveness we honor God’s kaleidoscope creativity in and through humankind.  Each group of people, reflecting their God-given creativity, has developed their own culture.  They can offer complimentary views of what is beautiful and true as well as what is ugly and evil.  So, what does this mean for the local church?

As Dr. Miriam Adeney points out:

“Some people flourish in multicultural churches.  Others treasure their own tradition.  For them, culture remains important in worship.  They pray in their heart language, with meaningful gestures, ululations, and prostrations.  Their culture will affect the way they do evangelism, discipling, teaching, administration, counseling, finances, youth work, leader training, discipline, curriculum development, relief, development, and advocacy.  Their theologians complement other cultures’ understanding of the Bible.”

Perhaps the answer lies in what has long been embraced in the church:In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love” (Augustine, 354-430 AD).  Separate congregations, then, is not a bad thing.  To give place to our diversity in faith in practice and belief, we can honor each other’s differences.  The killer for church life is not our differences!  It is a lack of love.  This is true in a local church or across the board among all the various expression of the church universal.

God does not desire his Church – the Bride of Christ – to be dressed in beige. She is to be dressed in a coat of many colors, a mosaic, a kaleidoscope full of a whole spectrum of cultures.  If that can happen in one place at the same time, that would be good.  It is not required.  What is required and non-negotiable is the demand for love.  After all, it will be this spectrum of cultures with all their ethnic churches will enrich this world and color God’s Kingdom.  This, I believe, when we achieve it, will be a true foretaste of heaven:

I looked, and there in front of me was a huge crowd of people.  They stood in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb.  There was so many that no one could count them.  They came from every nation, tribe, people and language.  They were wearing white robes.  In their hands they were holding palm branches.  They cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, Salvation also belongs to the Lamb’.” (Rev. 7:9, 10)

This is the same vision that God gave to Peter at Cornelius’ house when he was about to go present the news of Jesus the Messiah to non-Jews. This was the vision that drove the apostle Paul to travel the Roman empire to present the gospel to all the various sub-culture groups without demanding that they become either Jewish or like any of the other expressions of the faith being created among each people group.  The Galatian church was as different from the church in Illyricum as it was between the church in Corinth and the congregation meeting in Jerusalem.  Diversity in the Kingdom could be culturally expressed while unity in the faith kept vibrant and alive.

So, perhaps instead of bemoaning the various expressions of the Lord’s Body at work and at worship in the world, maybe we should celebrate them. The strongest expression of our unity in the faith may be our love for one another despite our difference.  Our allowance for brothers and sisters in the faith to worship in freedom as they see fit while not demeaning them or seeking to upstage them may be what the world needs to witness most; not us gathered in a circle wistfully singing, “We are one in the Spirit.  We are one in the Lord.”  When the Christian faith truly treasures ethnic and cultural expressions, without worshiping them as an idol, perhaps then the rest of the world will sit up and take notice.  God’s love is large enough to embrace everyone.  Let’s work on that first.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Even before the founding of the United States of America, the question that bright minds have struggled with concerns the role of government in the life of the individual and the community. It is something that we are still trying to define today.  The answer really rests on one’s experiences in life and the attitudes that have been handed down.

Much of American life and culture is made up of the rugged settlers and individual entrepreneurs who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and earned their own success.  They left community, friends, and families behind to make it on their own.  As a result, their identity with a community is loosely based upon their individual fit in it.  If they come to a place where they do not feel they fit any more, they have no problem pulling up roots and moving – to a different job, a different community, a different church, etc.

These individuals came from families who left mother country and fatherland to start a new life in America. Then, they left comfortable lifestyles on the eastern seaboard of America to pioneer and settle the mid-west or start over in the gold rushes of the far west.  Later, their families left the family farms of the mid-west to find careers in the expanding industries and start-up companies on the west coast of the U.S.  There is a history of settlers, pioneers, adventurers, and entrepreneurs in this group.

Those that grew up in this cultural ethos tend to believe that government should leave the individual alone to do his or her best (or worst).  The role of government is largely relegated to ensuring the safety of the nation, the economic concerns of the nation on the international stage, and to provide, as much as is fairly possible, a level playing field for each individual or corporation to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Individual rights are more important than governmental interests.  Big business and their CEO’s tend to be suspect only when they are perceived as being in cahoots with the government.  Otherwise, they are content to leave well enough alone.

These tend to be what has come to be referred to as “conservatives”. They are conservative about cultural and governmental changes.  As such, they tend to believe that less government is better government.  The settler, farmer, rancher, entrepreneur, business owner and anyone else who attained the American dream by their own hard work tend to be in this mix.  America has a long history of such individuals: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (despite, among others, being a philosophical and social liberal), Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Rutherford B. Hayes, Booker T. Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald R. Ford, and Ronald Reagan among others.  Of course, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are also included in the conservative camp, but they also did much to expand the role and authority of the federal government.

On the other side of the discussion are those who have thrived and succeeded in the American dream not so much on their own rugged individualism as much as in cooperation with others. Many of these have been immigrants who came to America and settled in immigrant communities.  They survived the transition into a new life through the safety and cooperative spirit of that community.  Others of these have witnessed the success of cooperatives to better their lives, such as labor unions or social justice organizations.  They tended to gather in large cities and depended upon their smaller community within the context of the large metropolitan area to maintain identity and gain a measure of success and stability.

These tend to be what has become referred to as “liberals”. They are liberal about social and governmental changes.  As such, they tend to see that government is the promoter and prompter for social change on the individual and corporate level.  Whatever change is necessary to better the whole community is welcome.  They believe that government exists not only to guarantee a level playing field but also to guarantee, as much as is possible, that every individual succeeds and attains life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  America has a long history of such individuals:  John Adams (despite, among others, being a philosophical and social conservative), James Madison, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson,  and Jimmy Carter among others.

These are two distinct visions of America. For one group, government is the extension of the individual with representatives to carry out the interests of the individual.  For the other group, government is the extension of the whole community with representatives to carry out the interests of the whole community.  One sees a lone pioneer struggling to make it on his or her own.  Another sees a village working together for the survival and fulfillment of all of its members.  On one side of the aisle you have a group yelling, “Stay out of my way.  I can do it!”  Then, on the other side of the aisle you have a group screaming, “Together we can!”

Yellow Flowers in Seattle, Full Color, July 2003

Yellow Flowers in Seattle, Full Color, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Which one is correct? This is part of the struggle surrounding the current health care reform debate.  Do we need government intervention and control?  Or, do we need to let the individuals and corporations of our society work it out in the market place?  Until then, who pays the price?  Is it better to have a government bureaucrat or committee deciding who and what is covered by insurance or to have a corporate lawyer and committee decide?  Both may hold power over the individual and make decisions that are life changing.   Are we better off allowing the abuses and responsibilities of  insurance and medical corporations to continue or should we entrust the government to do a better job?  Is the track record of government bureaucracies better than the track record of public or private corporations?  And this is only one issue our nation is struggling with among many.

The question that must be answered, and perhaps never will be answered in our current American cultural climate, is simply this:  What kind of community do we want to make as a nation?  Is community made up of  individuals in cooperation with one another based upon contractual agreements?  Or, is community made up of  individuals in responsibility for one another based upon larger responsibilities to the whole nation?

The question that must be answered in our religious communities is this: What does the gospel say concerning the care of the last, least, and lost among us?  What are the commands and injunctions given to us in the Old and New Testament concerning how we treat the oppressed, foreigner, and poor among us?  If we deny the government the responsibility to care for them then where are we in actively caring for them?  While we have built multi-million dollar campuses and facilities, what impact have they had upon caring for the poor and disenfranchised in our communities?  What portion of our church budgets go to help the poor, unemployed, disabled, hungry, sick and homeless in our own congregation or neighborhoods?  How much do the community churches support the local food bank, homeless shelter, free medical and counseling clinics, and pregnancy centers?

If the government is only a representative of the independent individuals of our society, then perhaps it is time for these individuals to own up to their moral responsibility and put up or shut up when it comes to donating time and money to help the less fortunate around them.   We are all our brother’s or sister’s keeper.  It is in our best interest to care for those in need around us.  For the religious, it is the essence of the gospel and our true identity with Christ.

On the other hand, if the government is an extension of community and community care to our whole society, then it is in everyone’s best interest that the government by the people, for the people, and of the people hears from the people.  For a community is more than just one, whether that one be the president, a senator or representative, a bureaucrat or corporate lawyer.  Likewise, “we” is more than just “me”.  Perhaps now would be good time to hear everyone say, “We can do this together!”  And for all the individuals to answer, “Count me in!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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