I actually wrote this in the spring, to present at the “Emerging Theologians” conference at the American Baptist Mission Summit. It has gotten some comments on my facebook page, so I thought I would post it here as well.
Whatever God’s future may be, it must surely be multicultural. For us, as American Baptists, that is very good news. As one of the most diverse denominations in the United States, deeply committed to global mission, we already have considerable experience crossing cultural borders for Christ. This experience places us in a very good position to begin to grasp the radically diverse and inclusive nature of God’s future. Nonetheless, multicultural ministry is still deeply challenging for us. Doing it well means moving beyond changes in music, food, and worship style – all of which may be challenging enough – toward a deep fellowship with one another that can only happen if we are willing to uncover, confront, and release our own cultural idols.
Cultural idols are partial and particular aspects of our own experience of God to which we ascribe a false universalism. God meets us where we are, in the context of our own cultural experiences. This is not a bad thing. All human experience, including the experience of God, is contextual. That is, it has a container. To put it in the language of biblical parable, whether it is “new wine” or “old wine” it is in some kind of wineskin. Otherwise it just spills on the ground! (Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37)
The problem comes when the wineskin is mistaken for the wine itself. When that happens, the cultural context in which we encounter the divine becomes more important than the content of that experience. This habit of treating the partial as if it was the whole is a form of idolatry. Like all idolatry, it stands in the way of a right relationship with God and one another, particularly when it comes to fellowship between people of different cultures. One of the biggest challenges of multicultural ministry, therefore, is learning to overcome this particular form of idolatry so that we all might be more united in Christ.
As Christians, we affirm that, through Christ, God is reconciling the world to God’s self. We also recognize that, through Christ, God is working to break down the “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) that stands between people who are separated from one another due to cultural differences, prejudice, and social oppression. Identifying and releasing cultural idols is, I believe, an integral part of this process.
As a Euro-American pastor-theologian whose ministerial experience so far includes service to an African-American church followed by service to a predominantly Latino church, I have personally been convicted of cultural idolatry many times. If I continue in multicultural ministry, as I believe I am called to do, I expect I will be convicted of cultural idolatry many more times. As a multicultural minister, over and over again, I have had to find ways of affirming my own cultural particularity within which I first encountered God while, at the same time, releasing my attachment to cultural idols that separate me from other Christians.
I would like to share two examples of idols I have had to recognize and confront as I try to live more fully into God’s future. While my experiences, no doubt, just scratch the surface of all that is needed to fully engage in God’s reconciling work through multicultural ministry, I hope that, by sharing them, I will help others to identify and overcome some of their own cultural idols and open up a wider conversation.
The first idol I discovered had to do with the way I saw the cross. In the white liberal churches I grew up in, the cross was mostly bloodless, gold, and gleaming, a symbol for the way Jesus overcame the power of death. The fact that the cross was bloodless was, for us, a sign of hope. Unlike the fundamentalists, with whom we were in constant and ongoing controversy and against whom we often defined ourselves, we embraced an Abelardian vision of Jesus as a great moral example, not an instrument of vicarious, blood atonement. No one sang words like “power in the blood” or “saved by the blood” or “nothing but the blood” in these churches. Our cross was bloodless, a symbol of victory, not suffering. Our Good Friday led very quickly to Easter morning. In this message of life over death, I did encounter God. It is still part of who I am. But I now realize, it was only a partial vision.
As a seminarian, I had the privilege of serving an African-American church. Although their theology was not fundamentalist, they sang lots of “blood songs.” One day, after I had worshipped with them for about a year, we were singing “Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord to the cross where thou hast died. Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord to thy precious bleeding side.” I was overcome with emotion and began to weep.
I asked my brother minister why he thought that song affected me so. He replied, as if it was a weird question to ask, saying “because it’s the cross! Why, what did the cross mean to you in the churches you grew up in?” When I described that experience, he was horrified. He said “You can’t have a bloodless cross. If you have a bloodless cross you are saying our blood, the blood of black people, poured out on the streets in our struggle to be free doesn’t matter to you. Now that you have worshipped with us as part of this community, you don’t have that right anymore.”
That experience led me to completely re-evaluate my theology of the cross and, in fact, provided the basis for my doctoral dissertation. More importantly, I was led to a better and deeper understanding of the saving power of the gospel. I am still working on the many dimensions of what the cross can mean as it connects with different communities.
This project of a lifetime began with this one experience of being confronted with a cultural idol and choosing to release it in order to see a wider view of God’s future. But that is not the only time multicultural ministry has forced me to recognize and confront my own cultural idols.
After graduating from seminary, I was called to serve as Interim Pastor to a formerly Euro-American church that is now made up primarily of immigrants from Central America. Just as service to an African American church led me to recognize the idol of the bloodless cross, service to this particular Latino community has led me to confront the idol of independence.
The culture I grew up in places a very high value on independence. Children growing up and moving away from the parental home is seen as a good thing, a sign of maturity and growth. This “leaving of the nest” is something we celebrate in our homes and in our churches as a necessary rite of passage into adulthood. In this context, God-in-family is one who fosters and encourages self reliance. So, when my son came home from his first mission trip, I was thrilled to find that his experiences of serving others, far away from his home, had made him more independent.
Therefore, when I began, for the first time, to set up a similar mission trip in my new church, I tried to encourage the families to support it by saying “It will be so great. You’ll see. Your kids will come back so independent.” I couldn’t believe it when I got a really negative reaction to this. It was only after some very difficult conversations that I began to understand that I was being confronted with another cultural idol. While independence may be a prime value in some cultures, loyalty to the family is more important for others. For me having a kid come back “so independent” sounded good. For them, it sounded more like “this trip will take your kids away from you.” No wonder we were not connecting!
While God, for some, may mean one who helps us have the strength to leave the family nest and establish a new one, for others God is the one who holds the family together and protects the nest from harm. I have since learned to minister in this context by preaching about the family of God, and the way being part of that family helps us to love and help others. I have also re-evaluated my own ideas about what family can mean and the ways God helps us to have healthy families. Independence has its place. I still value it. But I now believe that inter- dependence and loyalty also matters. Both are important aspects, not only of earthly family life, but, I believe, of the larger family of God that the future is shaping.
These are only two experiences I have had of confronting and releasing cultural idols. I am sure that, as I continue on my own journey in multicultural ministry I will encounter many more, as will anyone who engages in this work. Although the way we experience God in each of our cultures is good, it is not everything. Sometimes we need to let go of our old wineskins in order to experience something new.
To be clear, however, I am not saying that everything about everyone’s culture is good. Saying “it’s cultural” is not the same thing as saying it is good. There are aspects of all of our cultures that directly conflict with the gospel. When that is the case, Christians are called to be counter-cultural as we resist the evils that are found in all of our communities. There are non-negotiable fundamentals of the faith about which we cannot compromise, regardless of context.
So, where must we stand fast and where can, and must, we bend? These are not easy questions. They need to be prayerfully answered along the way, with a deep sense of humility. There will be times when we need to say no to certain aspects of certain cultures, beginning with our own. But there will be many more times when we will be called to release our cultural idols in order to be part of a larger fellowship with God and one another. The challenge of multicultural ministry is finding new ways to affirm all that is good about the cultures we come from, so that we can be different together in a way that does not require anyone to sacrifice her or his particularity while, at the same time, not making idols out of these cultures in a way that prevents us from real fellowship with one another.
I am reminded of the story of Jacob’s ladder found in Genesis 28. While in a strange new place somewhere in Haran, Jacob has a vision that leads him to declare “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!” (Gen 28:16 NRS) I can’t help but wonder, what other places there are, what other peoples, what other cultural contexts about which we too might one day declare “surely the LORD is in this place and we did not know it.”
The places we first meet God are sacred spaces, but they are not the only spaces. There are other places where God might be found. This is God’s future and, being that this future really does come from God, and not just our limited imaginations, it just might be a little bigger than we think.