Last fall I participated in a dialogue circle hosted by an equity organization in our city. Fourteen men and women—seven black, seven white—gathered to talk about one of the most difficult things to talk about in America: race.
Our assignment for the second week was to bring an artifact from home that represented our culture. One black lady in the group took a flat iron and shared memories of her grandmother heating it on the stove to do her hair. Another black woman took out big hoop earrings and talked about how they connected her to hip-hop and Africa. A black man played us some gospel music on his phone and smiled as he recounted his family dancing to the music. Every person of color in the room shared an artifact that was unique and directly connected with identity and culture.
In our first meeting, I shared with the group that I was proudly Dutch, as we so oddly are. But I didn’t bring wooden shoes (I don’t own any), or Windmill cookies, or tulips (it was October). I brought my Bible. There were valid sentimental reasons for that, but looking back, it wasn’t distinct to my culture. I wasn’t alone. Four other white folks brought their Bible too. Another brought college swag. Another, a family heirloom.
The moderators asked if anyone had any observations. A black woman gingerly spoke up and asked, “I’m curious why so many white people brought artifacts that weren’t directly connected to their culture.” She began pointing. “I know you’re Dutch, and you’re Irish, and you’re Polish. Why didn’t you bring something connected to those cultures when that was the assignment?”
The room got very quiet at that point. Why didn’t we?
Since that class, I’ve wondered if we of European descent hadn’t unconsciously expressed a message our society has demanded we internalize: give up what makes you different and you’ll be accepted. The elimination of difference is one way our society has dealt with diversity.
Living with diversity is hard and messy. Even those of us who see diversity as a good should spend time reflecting on how we truly live with those different from us. My guess is that most of us have accepted diversity-in-theory versus diversity-in-reality. We’ve found it’s easier to speak about those who are different than us than speak with those who are different from us. It’s easier to say, “Of course I accept those who are different than me as brothers and sisters in Christ” when they’re over there. But when the comfort of distance is erased and our differences take up space in the same room, it’s much more difficult to accept others as they are, in the flesh.
In his extraordinary commentary on Acts, Willie James Jennings writes,
“The single greatest challenge for disciples of Jesus is to imagine and then enact actual together life, life that interpenetrates, weaves together, joins to the bone. We have been unable to imagine and enact a together life that flows inside the subtleties and intricacies of peoples’ differences, of such things as language, story, land, and animals. It has been easier to imagine either loss or resistance—loss of difference through assimilation or its control through conquest, or resistance to its loss through active segregation. How can people be joined together, truly joined together without loss, without the death of one (people’s ways) for the sake of another?”
This “joining together without loss” isn’t a technical problem that can be solved through simple steps or reading the right book. There is no roadmap to becoming a people knit together by the Spirit of God. One might point to the multicultural church movement in America as a place where differences are joined together. And while there is a lot to praise and celebrate—for example, the number of multicultural churches in the US is rising—there is still much work to be done. Korie Little Edwards, a sociologist at Ohio State University wrote, “In many ways (people of color) are expected to assimilate to the dominant White culture. They end up having to hide or let go of their own cultural preferences and minimizing their ethnic and racial identity.”
There it is again. The erasure of difference in the name of acceptance.
Coming together in our difference—whether those differences are racial, political, theological, or cultural—is an adaptive challenge in the most extreme sense. There are few examples of what it looks like for a diverse group of people to not just co-exist, but to celebrate each other’s differences. The problem of coming together with our differences runs deeper than logistics. It’s a problem of mental models. As modern people, colonial conquests and segregation practices shape our imaginations. It’s true that both colonial and segregation practices have ended in their explicit form, but their logic lives on, insidiously informing our belief of what’s possible. Shaped by these two histories, we all too readily accept the illusion that difference can only be dealt with in one of two ways: One, we effectively eliminate difference through assimilation, or two, the only way to preserve our differences is through separation and parallel lives.
These approaches undermine the very ministry of reconciliation Christ gave to the church. We believe Jesus is reconciling all things to himself. In Christ, the difference of every tribe, every nation, and every tongue belongs because the people who bear those differences belong to the God who marked them not with the same behaviors or exterior sign of the covenant. Instead, we have been marked in baptism by the living Spirit of God. Despite what we may think and how we may act, we are united to one another. There is no parallel life in Christ. There is no “over there” where people exist apart from us. There is one, and only one, body of Christ.
The Belhar Confession wonderfully reminds us of this truth and the calling of the church:
“We believe] that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.”
The work of reconciliation is not to be done in theory. It is to be done in our churches, with our neighbors, at our denominational meetings. We do the work in the flesh where it is visible, in order that “the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered.” We do the work, not to eliminate difference, but to dignify our differences as the Spirit of the living God knits together those who were once separated.