The Intercultural Imperative

Take a few minutes and watch this video Children Shall Lead Them.  The image of the four young people walking down the hall hand-in-hand — two Hispanic/Latino, one African-American, one with Downs Syndrome — is incredibly powerful for me.  It illustrates the world we need to be living in — not the world that exists in the vast majority of our churches.  In fact, our churches are not even trying to reach this model.  At a time when the world is becoming truly intercultural, we struggle with figuring out multi-cultural.  What’s the difference?  In a nut-shell, multicultural means that diverse people are present; intercultural means that diverse people are engaged.  HUGE difference.

I have noted this difference for years in churches all across the country.  Multicultural congregations take one of two basic forms.  Number one looks like this (and accounts for 80-90% of the churches that proudly call themselves multicultural:  a predominantly older white congregation gathers in the sanctuary.  In one corner sit a family or two from Mexico.  A row of African-Americans sits in back.  Young people are sitting alone in the balcony.  A couple of Asian descent sing in the choir or play instruments.  Multiculture!  Number two looks quite a bit different.  In each and every row, black, white, brown, pink, olive, copper, tan, wrinkled, brunette/blonde/auburn/carrot top sit intermingled and comfortable.  People struggle and laugh with words and phrases, as everyone makes an effort to understand and be understood.  One is a poorly stitched patchwork quilt; two is a beautifully woven tapestry.  Interculture!

Multiculturalism is not bringing us far enough.  It is not enough to note and celebrate difference.  Beyond difference is giftedness.  As we move our vision beyond tolerance and acceptance to integration and rapport, we are less and less aware of how strange other people are to how valuable and wonderful they are.  Too much time and energy is spent on what concessions and changes we will have to make if another (different) group enters into our comfort zone.  Not enough time and energy goes to acknowledging how we benefit and grow as new people with new ways of being enter our orbit.

As I meet with members of a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, I hear that they are tired of all the focus on diversity.  Yes, we are different, but the mere acknowledgment of difference says nothing about being valued or respected.  Often, focus on diversity heightens feelings of resentment and division.  Racial and ethnic labeling has not helped us understand each other better, it merely makes it easier to embrace poor assumptions as fact.  I spoke to a group recently about sympathetic intolerance.  My definition of sympathetic intolerance is “feeling sorry for injustice, unfairness, inequities, and basic biases with no real intention to change behavior.”  In other words, I will only act on that which costs me nothing.  In such an atmosphere, transformation is unlikely to occur.  Only when I am willing to think and act differently is there any hope that I can engage is real intercultural relationship.  Simply putting up with those who are different is not enough.  I need to want what others have to offer.  This requires a decision on my part — will I receive people as a gift to be celebrated and enjoyed or as a burden to be tolerated and patronized?

There are many people in our churches who feel they ought to be more open to people very different from themselves.  But when push comes to shove — an apt metaphor if ever there was one — we often don’t want “those people” disrupting our comfort, security and status quo.  We have yet to fully embrace the gospel vision that Jesus and Paul espoused of unity and oneness.  All the great religions — ours included — points us to a Promised Land of non-duality — where all is one with God/the Divine/the Ground of All Being, etc.  There is no “us/them” just “all of us.”  We can’t climb past our labels, categories, pigeon-holes, buckets, slots and slurs.  We hate that which is different from us.

Do we believe that all are created in the image of God?  Do we trust Jesus to look for the Christ in all people?  Do we have any conception what it means to be “they human family”?  What do we gain by the violence of exclusion and ostracism?  How does exile witness to the grace and love of God?  How does inequality and injustice fit with our concept of heaven?  Why do we work so hard here on earth to condemn others to perdition?  In what reality is it okay to think oneself superior to any other child of God?

We have a lot to answer for.  Instead of tearing each other apart, perhaps we could make a conscious decision to stand up for each other.  Instead of looking for disqualifiers that keep “those people” out of our sandbox, perhaps we could work to expand the playground to be open to all the kids.  Instead of infernally focusing on what makes us different and strange, perhaps we could find the divine spark and need for grace we all hold in common.  For those of us claiming Methodist roots, perhaps we could take seriously the “United” for a change.  Who knows?  Maybe the world will pay attention if we modeled good news — for a change.

3 replies

  1. Years ago I helped organize a conference called Combatting the Seeds of Hatred Intolerance and Violence. It was in Birmingham AL in the aftermath of 9-11. We felt pretty good about our efforts until the then DS now Bishop James Swanson came on to speak and challenged Us all. “Jesus didn’t call us to tolerate one another, he called us to love one another.” Powerful, prophetic reminder.

  2. I attended a 9/11 remembrance at the Islamic Center in Milwaukee in 2011. What stuck with me was the idea that tolerance is not good enough. Tolerance is really passive agressive. What we need is acceptance – acceptance is love.

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