A PEACEMAKING SERIES: REFLECTIONS, CONFESSIONS, AND CONFRONTATIONS. #4 -- "PEACEMAKING ACROSS CULTURES."
“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ . . . But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” Eph. 2:11, 13-16.
In the Biblical world there were only two types of people, Jews and Gentiles. We find in both Testaments (even all the way back to the Exodus) that some Gentiles were “God fearers” and were incorporated into the fellowship of Israel, although always considered foreigners. Following the death and resurrection of Christ, these two groups were further divided into two sub-groups: the Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah and those who received him as such. The Gentiles were also divided into those who rejected Christ and those who have been incorporated into the “one new humanity” and “one body” with believing Jews. Paul goes on in chapter 2 of Ephesians to call the Gentile Ephesians “no longer foreigners and strangers,” but “fellow citizens,” “members of his household,” part of the “whole building,” and together with the believing Jews a “holy temple.” They are both a “dwelling” where God lives. Bottom line, the most extreme religious, cultural, and ethnic barrier in that day was broken by Christ.
Now, here’s the irony. The last time I checked most of my friends, acquaintances, neighbors, fellow citizens, and even most of my global co-residents are Gentiles. That raises the question: If the gospel can break down such a deep divide as that between Jews and Gentiles, shouldn’t it be able to overcome deep cultural divides, real or perceived, among us Gentiles and especially Gentile believers?
Before answering that question, let me state some of my assumptions about culture, which includes, at minimum, race and ethnicity:
1. It is a Biblical given that all human beings are created in the image of God. There is debate over what the image exactly means (reason, relational ability, spirit/soul, etc), but the implications are several:
a. Humans are, as others have coined the term, the “crowning achievement” of God’s creation, of far greater value and importance than all other creatures.
b. The image of God is equally present in all humans, regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, intellect, and socioeconomic status. (The image is not, by the way, “God in us” or a “spark of the divine” that needs to be discovered, tapped into, or brought to the surface of our consciousness through spiritual knowledge or effort).The fact that the image of God is in all human beings demands an essential respect for human life and for people across any and all any cultural difference.
c. Because humans are fallen and sinful the image is marred. Sin has affected all humans and every aspect of humanity. We are not all as bad as we could be, but we are broken and sinful in all areas of our humanity.
d. The consequences of the fall are certainly horrendous on many levels. Still, humans and human life are to be respected and protected as much as possible.
2. Cultures and the elements of a culture (family, government, art, commerce, creativity, and so on) were created and given to us by God; however, because cultures are made up of humans they, too, are fallen. Like individuals, not all cultures are as bad as they could be, but all cultures are broken and sinful.
3. Consequently, both moral equivalence and moral relativism should be rejected in personal and corporate ethics. This means:
a. All human behavior and all cultures are to be judged by some absolute standard, which I would argue is Biblical truth. This is harder and more complex than some of us realize, because we are all part of a culture and wear cultural blinders. However, when we come to an ethical conundrum, the problem is not with Biblical truth but with our ability to understand and apply it.
b. Without some kind of absolute standard, then we have no ultimate grounds to call the pedophile worse than the shoplifter, or the Taliban’s treatment of women worse than, say, the Amish. Hear what I am saying: we may all agree the pedophile and the Taliban are in fact worse, but without some standard by which to make that claim we have no grounds beyond relative cultural or personal experience to do so. That relativism will take us some distance in our argument, but will eventually collapse when two relativistic ethics collide. Similarly, we can’t argue that the Taliban and Amish treatment of women are morally equivalent because both are imperfect and culturally determined.
c. Having said that, there are some things that are culturally relative and which are “relatively” harmless. Take for example, the way different cultures view time. What all these culturally relative things are and how to discern them is beyond the scope of this brief article.
4. Therefore, cultural differences are real and important. That is, worldviews, race, ethnicity, cultural practices, and cultural mores are real to those to whom they belong. Any effort at peacemaking across cultures requires the freedom, sensitivity, honesty, and the initiative to talk about and attempting to understand these differences. The old principle of “seek to understand before being understood” applies. Two extremes, should be avoided: One is cultural machismo; that is, automatically viewing “their” cultural differences as inferior, defective, primitive, or silly. Some differences may certainly qualify as such, but we don’t want to automatically denigrate another cultural identity in toto. This extreme is usually caused by and will certainly result in intentional and conscious bigotry. The other extreme is to be a cultural Pollyanna; that is, to minimize, overlook, or even deny the reality of cultural differences, claiming that we should “all just get along” or “get over” our differences, that differences are not that important, or even claiming that someone is a racist or insensitive or oppressive for noticing or attempting to talk about said differences. This extreme is intellectually dishonest and, surprisingly to some, caused by and also results in unintentional and unconscious bigotry, for it does not take people or their culture seriously.
5. When it comes to history and issues of race, ethnicity, culture, injustice, and restitution, the situation gets really messy. There is enough here to require a future article, so I will address history in my next article.
Now, back to the question above: Shouldn’t the gospel be able to defeat cultural, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic divides, however deep they may be? The short answer, of course, is yes. Some implications, and a few warnings, to that short answer:
1. The gospel is grounded in and assumes the image of God in all people, the love of God for all his creation, and the command to take the message of reconciliation to every tribe, nation, people, people group, and culture. Remember that the only reason any of us may have heard the gospel of reconciliation is because at some point someone brought it to our own Gentile clan, tribe, people group, and nation. This task takes lots of sensitivity and work – just ask any missionary.
2. Personally, because I am a believer, the gospel compels me to reach across cultures, both to those who are part of the “new humanity” and to those who are not and may even refuse to be. Put simply:
a. With those who are part of the new humanity – the Church, the Body of Christ, my fellow believers – I have no option but to see and treat them as fellow members of the Body of Christ, as brothers and sisters in Christ, as co-heirs of the promises of God, and as my real, eternal family. To do any less is sin and disobedience on my part. And, I pray they will have the same attitude toward me!
But, we need to be careful how we say and do this. This is the point where we (I) can fall into a bit of subtle cultural paternalism and ethnic superiority. We often correctly say “We need to treat them as equals in Christ.” If we are not careful, however, that statement can imply that “we” are those who are superior or who have arrived and that our recognition of “them” as equals somehow elevates them to our preferred cultural status or practice. To put it crassly, we pat ourselves on the back because we are treating our “little ___________ (insert color, ethnicity, socioeconomic class here) brothers and sisters as equals in Christ.” No, we may not actually say it that way, but do we sometimes think it or feel it deep down? Confession time all around!
b. With those who are not believers (or not yet believers), or who reject the gospel and who may never be part of the “new humanity” I still have no option but to see and treat them as equal creatures, made in the image of God, someone whom God loved and for whom Christ died (limited or unlimited atonement discussion for some other time!), and someone who I have been commanded to take the gospel of reconciliation to. It is my responsibility to reach across whatever barrier there may be.
3. I am not saying, by the way, that non-Christians cannot overcome deep cultural divides. History has shown that on occasion, to our shame, non-Christians have done a better job at peacemaking. We Christians have often failed miserably. What I am saying is that gospel believing Christians have no excuse and should take the lead in peacemaking across cultures.
4. None of what I have said so far denies that there is evil in the world, that there are evil people who do evil things, and that society, cultures, and human institutions can be and can do a lot of evil at times. Sometimes these have to be confronted and even fought against. Sometimes the government has to take up the sword to punish evil doers. Sometimes the people have to rise up against evil authorities. Taking these sorts of actions are sometimes necessary, but they can also be difficult, complex, and often are morally ambiguous.
As a believer and follower of Jesus, however, I have to first seek peace and take the lead in peacemaking, especially across cultural, racial, ethnic, and national lines. This is hard, because it requires self-examination, confronting consequences of the past, confronting past and current injustices, honest confession, sincere forgiveness, and possible restitution. It requires me taking the first step. It may require that I and those like me perhaps giving up some of our rights and demands in order to overcome the consequences of a past injustice. It sometimes requires taking responsibility for the actions of those who have gone before us. This brings us back to history, its messiness, and some of the real “yeah, but what about” issues. Come back next time for:
“Well, I never!: History, injustice, and things I never experienced (and a few I have).”