Incorporating Culture: Truth, Reconciliation and the Pathway to Peace
After this I looked, and behold a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” Revelation 7:9-10
Having come from every tongue, tribe and nation, the people gather together to proclaim great truths—that salvation belongs to God on the throne and that God is indeed theirs. The eschatological vision is clear. It is a culturally inclusive vision, one in which humanity is fully reconciled before the Lord.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that [Christ] has commanded.” The call to repentance and a new way of life is offered to all people—all nations, all ethno-linguistic groups, all cultures.
It would not be hyperbolic to ascribe microcosmic language to the North American context. Even when one searches the earliest annals of American history, one finds cultural and ethno-linguistic diversity. In Jamestown, we find Powhatans, Angolans and English. Their diverse histories, experiences and perspectives are woven into the foundational fabric of our nation. America is not and has never been a homogenous society.
Comprised of diverse subcultures and immigrant populations, the United States is a veritable laboratory, one in which the eschatological vision and the missional mandate are routinely tested. We are confronted over and over again with the imperfect reality of the “now and not yet.” Though progress has been made, we have yet to witness a fully integrated harmonious American society, one entirely free of ethnic strife. While we acknowledge the fallenness of our world and our own failings, we, the Body of Christ, are called to work toward that eschatological vision—where all people from every tongue, tribe and nation are gathered together around the throne of God. At present, this vision remains threatened. It stands in stark contrast to the reality of segregated American religious life.
Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?
While much of the current popular discourse has focused on the racial divide in evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, our Orthodox Christian communities are no less in need of an honest assessment. Regarding our own prophetic witness of peaceful and harmonious integration, how are we doing?
The cry of the assimilationist and the melting pot metaphor remain firmly ensconced in our descriptive language and yet, our national history attests to something more akin to a salad bowl. In the latter scenario, individual ingredients retain their distinctive characteristics— as opposed to melting into something entirely new. Ideally, cultures exist side by side—covered in dressing—united by an overarching national or civic culture.
We find throughout history, examples of intentional community formation, those working for peace and those hellbent on preventing it. We see celebrations of cultural uniqueness alongside attempts at forced assimilation. We see the formation of parallel communities in response to racism and cultural conflict.
Whenever persons are rejected by society, the result is a loss of place, the result is Exile. Whenever a pattern of oppression persists from one generation to another and is firmly rooted in an ideology, the rejected ones become destined to a permanent state of Exile wherein they have no sense of belonging, neither to the community nor to the territory. Since it is necessary for persons to be nourished by a communal eros in order to be fully human, an imposed Exile necessitates the formation of a substitute community…
The American historical record contains many examples of predominantly African American substitute communities. These communities were formed in response to offers of second-class citizenship, the denial of inherent human dignity and a failure to acknowledge ethnic equality in the eyes of God. The desire to thrive in spite of pervasive racism, led to the creation of self-funded towns like Allensworth, California. In Tulsa’s Greenwood District (also known as Black Wall Street) African Americans built businesses, civic institutions and raised families.
When faced with the prospect of receiving an inadequate education, they flocked to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). In these institutions, they found an affirmation of dignity and freedom to be themselves. The experience of marginalization in 18th Century Protestant churches led to the creation of new ethnocentric religious communities like the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the AME Zion Church.
To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law, though I myself am not under the law…To the weak I became weak to win the weak, I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I might share in its blessings.
The aforementioned biblical verse is often cited to support the need for gospel contextualization in missionary outreach. The idea of becoming all things to all people for the sake of mission is rooted in scripture, and an idea that has become important in modern missiological education. This has not always been the case, as Bria notes:
Too often those bringing the gospel to a new context made no attempt to understand and immerse themselves in the culture. They rather sought to uproot and radically change that culture without any regard for its positive values. We must repeatedly reassert that this is in contradiction to apostolic tradition.
The sin of racism bids us to deny the truth—the existence of a single human race with a common ancestral heritage. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is doubtful that St. Paul intended for the aforementioned passage to be preached in support of a “decontextualized androgyny”—for clearly there are Jews, Greeks, males and females. Instead, the words of Galatians draw us to a new reality, one in which the various social distinctions are equally valued. These are Kingdom values to be applied on earth as they are in heaven.
Racialization of the Beloved Community
During a 1963 lecture at Western Michigan University, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stated that 11:00 am on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of American life. Dr. King envisioned an America in which the church would prophetically bear witness to Kingdom values. For King, this meant an integrated church where all ethnicities would worship together freely. Through non-violent direct action, he challenged America to uphold the biblical ideal. In 2018, however, we see just how far away we are from the full realization of Dr. King’s dream. Most American churches are still voluntarily segregated. We find even in “multi-ethnic” churches a single ethnicity predominance. There remains work to be done.
As Orthodox Christians, what do we believe about the salvific role of the church, the sacraments—about accessibility and incorporation?
There are two missiological reasons for [an] emphasis on incorporation. The first is that only in Christian community can people participate in the life of Christ given by God. To be truly what they are meant to be, they must experience the grace of God. In Orthodox tradition this grace is transmitted to the people by the work of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments. In the Holy Eucharist, in particular, people partake of the spiritual nourishment needed to share in the life of Christ (cf. Jn. 6:53-58).
When we acknowledge the inherited legacy of racialized community development, we are better equipped as Orthodox Christians to identify stumbling blocks along the path to peaceful incorporation. We see more clearly the importance of reaching out to (and integrating) those from every tribe, tongue and nation into our communities. For when we take seriously the biblical mandate, we follow in the footsteps of Ss. Cyril and Methodius, St. Innocent and St. Nina, sharing the treasure of Orthodoxy with those not of our own tribe.
If, by the grace of God, they decide to “come and see,” what do they find? Do they find the type of environment that aids in “the sanctification of the people’s characteristics, so they become truly themselves, develop their own voice and add their own contribution to the common doxological hymn—always in harmony with the praise of the whole church?” Or will they be introduced to a cultural hierarchy and offered second-class Kingdom citizenship?
Given the importance of the incorporation process and its relationship to human salvation, the existing barriers to full community integration must be acknowledged with humility. Once again, guided by that great heavenly vision, we must confess the various ways in which we as Orthodox Christians have placed stumbling blocks along the path to peace and reconciliation. Must one be stripped of one’s culture to become Orthodox? We need only look again to our mission history to find the answer.
To accept a truly orthodox approach to outreach and incorporation is to accept the resulting implications. These implications prove challenging when applied to our heterogenous cultural context. Despite legal integration, American churches remain divided along racial lines. Given the history of substitute community formation, it would not be surprising to find ethnocentric parishes developing at the intersection of Orthodox Christianity and American subcultural contexts. At present, however, this does not appear to be happening—for Orthodoxy tells us that to create such parishes is to follow the way of heresy.
We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ.
–Article 1, Decree of the Council of Constantinople, 1872
With ethnophyletism officially condemned as heresy in 1872, the intentional formation of canonical Orthodox churches for “those of other tribes” is not an option. When we keep both the truth of American history and the eschatological vision in mind, we find only one way forward—toward an American Orthodox Church free of cultural supremacy. A church where there are no second-class citizens.
A recent report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center noted an increase in the number of US based hate groups and nationalistic organizations. Of course, the report was not without criticism. To some, the SPLC’s use of the term “hate group” appeared to be either arbitrary or biased. With that having been said, the report noted an increase in the number of both “black” and “white” hate groups. Inflammatory racial rhetoric has helped to catalyze white nationalist groups. The proliferation of these groups has triggered a reactionary response—an increase in black nationalist groups. Cultural insensitivity encourages hatred and hatred begets reactionary ethhnophyletism.
The Call to Heavy Lifting
“Build up, build up, prepare the way, Remove every obstacle out of the way of my people.” (Isaiah 57:14)
There are always ambassadors for peace, those agents of reconciliation who led by the Holy Spirit seek to understand cultures, share the gospel and remove stumbling blocks along the path. There are also glimmers of hope, glimpses of that heavenly vision on earth. We see it in events like the International Festival at St. George Orthodox Church in Pharr, Texas, where Greek, Russian, Romanian, Ethiopian and Ukrainian cuisine are celebrated alongside Native American dancing and a Mexican mariachi band. We are blessed with a glimpse of it each and every year during Agape Vespers, when the words of John 20:19-25 are read in many languages. Reminders that there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God.
There are signs that point forward and bid us to join in the work of heavy lifting, remembering the truth of Galatians 3:28 and removing stumbling blocks along the path to reconciliation.
*Footnotes available upon request.