Image: courtesy Kamal Weerakoon
Earlier this year, the death of George Floyd under the knee of white police officers caused protests, and in some places riots, to sweep the globe. It brought issues of systemic racial prejudice and marginalisation to the forefront of public consciousness. It also caused second-level ‘meta’ debates about how to debate those issues of systematic racial prejudice and marginalisation.
One of the significant issues underlying those ‘meta’ debates is what we mean by ‘culture’ and ‘society’. Can a society be multicultural? Or does diversity of cultures necessarily imply a plurality of societies, which have nothing in common and therefore always conflict?
The Christian gospel permits Christians to affirm two statements which, in today’s conflicted world, sound contradictory. A society can and should have a distinct culture which differentiates it from others. Yet precisely that enculturated sociability enables the people of that society to live well with ‘foreigners’— people who have been enculturated by, identify with, and live in ways that characterise other, different societies. So smaller, more intimate societies—families, ‘clans’, ‘ethnicities’— can live in a bigger society—a ‘nation’, a ‘country’. And the interactions between those smaller societies who live within this bigger society should not be superficial, distant, and characterised by mistrust and fear of being ‘polluted’—they should be joyful and curious, expecting to somehow learn, grow, and benefit from each other.
For Christians, this optimism is based on the nature of the Christian message, the ‘gospel’. We worship Jesus of Nazareth—a Jew who was born in Bethlehem as a descendent of David—as God incarnate. For the vast majority of Christians, this makes Jesus a foreigner. People rightly criticise pictures of a white-skinned European Jesus, because the real Jesus is not European. But neither is he Chinese or African or South American. This is one reason Protestant Christians reject icons—pictures of Jesus or the saints. The only reliable access we have to the real Jesus is via the written accounts of the eyewitnesses—the New Testament. And those eyewitnesses are united in proclaiming him as the Jewish Messiah.
But those eyewitnesses are also united in proclaiming that this specific Jesus, precisely as the Jewish Messiah, died and rose not just for one ethnic group—the Jews, or any other particular group—but for the ‘world’—for all people, of all ethnic and social backgrounds, in every geographic region (e.g. John 3:16; Acts 1:8). The Apostles Peter (Acts 10-11) and Paul (e.g. Ephesians 2:11ff) both asserted that Gentiles—people who were not culturally Jews—had the same access to Jesus, therefore the same status within the people of God, as ethno-cultural Jews who had put their faith in Jesus. They both relegated circumcision and kosher food laws from being distinctive indicators of Jewish religion, therefore signifying faith in the one true God, to being indicators of Jewish heritage and ‘culture’. Circumcision and food restrictions are nothing to be ashamed of—they represent the proud history of those through whom God saved the world, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But they are not necessary for eternal life with almighty God. All that is required is faith in the real Jesus—the Jesus of the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth, son of David, saviour of the world.
But this faith in Jesus requires us to worship him with our whole ethno-cultural selves. Christ thereby draws his followers into one ‘society’, the ‘church’. The term ‘catholic’ describes this one community of people who follow Jesus, and is made up of people from all the nations and ethnicities of the world. But this church is catholic, not homogeneous. It is united, not uniform. This harmonious unity-in-diversity is expressed theologically through creeds and confessions, such as the Canons of Dort, which, although bearing the name of the Dutch city of Dordrecht, were produced by the international, ecumenical Synod of Dort, therefore ‘represent an ecumenical consensus of the best minds in the whole Reformed community’ of that era. It is expressed through inter-church and para-church ministries such as Katoomba Christian Convention and the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Majority-world Christian scholars have documented how, opposite to the caricature of missionaries destroying ‘native’ culture, ‘missionary work catalyzed the preservation and stimulation of these cultures’. And this international, inter- ethnic, ‘multicultural’ nature of the Christian catholic church is one reason migrant background Christians like Kanishka Raffel (Sri Lankan-background Dean of St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, Sydney), Gary Koo (Chinese-background Anglican Bishop of Western Sydney), Peter Lin (Chinese-background Anglican Bishop of South-West Sydney), and myself (Moderator of the NSW Presbyterian Church, 2018-19) are finding our way to leadership roles within Australian churches. We foreigners have been welcomed in churches here, and have been accepted as belonging here, because we belong to Christ.
Christians therefore have a theological basis to simultaneously own their own heritage and ‘culture’, and enjoy, and expect to learn from, the heritage and ‘culture’ of Christians from different backgrounds. But in this, redemption testifies to a created reality. As humans bearing God’s image, we are all family, of ‘one blood’. Christians can simultaneously demonstrate how the Christian gospel unifies those who used to be divided (Ephesians 2:13), and also appeal to those who do not share our faith to at least recognise and respect our common humanity by seeking peace and joy instead of suspicion and hatred.
The Mormon-background journal Public Square has documented the distrust, despair, and consequent anger and violence which has characterised so much of the response to George Floyd’s death. The Christian gospel equips believers to demonstrate, and urge others to believe, that it is possible to simultaneously own one’s own culture and background and love the foreigner—people of ‘other’ cultures and backgrounds, who are different to us. It enables genuine multiculturality, where difference is to be admired and rejoiced in, not feared. May God’s people, his church catholic, be true to her peacemaking vocation (Matthew 5:9; James 3:18).
Rev Kamal Weerakoon was born in Sri Lanka and migrated to Australia in his teens. He is a Presbyterian minister and a member of the Presbyterian Church's Gospel, Society, and Culture committee. He has served in numerous multi-ethnic churches across Sydney, and is currently undertaking a PhD in ministry to and by migrants in the context of contemporary globalisation.
 The lower-case ‘c’ distinguishes this use from the upper-case ‘Catholic’, which refers to the Roman Catholic Church.
 W. Robert Godfrey, ‘Did the Canons Misfire?’ Outlook Vol.26 (6), June 1976, pp 18–21: 19, cited in Daniel R. Hyde, Grace Worth Fighting For: Recapturing the vision of God’s grace in the Canons of Dort (Leesburg, VA, USA, Davenant Institute, 2019), p38.
 Wanjiru M. Gitau, ‘The Legacy of Lamin Sanneh: Colonial Missionary Impact, World Christianity, and Muslim-Christian Dialogue’. Lausanne Global Analysis Vol.9 (3), May 2020, www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2020-05/the-legacy-of-lamin-sanneh (all URLs accessed July 2020).
 A concept explored by popular Christian pastor John Piper, in his book Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian (Crossway, 2011), where, inter alia, he confesses his youthful racial prejudice, and traces how he repented of it. Piper’s ministry is located in Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was killed. John Harris also draws on this concept in his history of Australian mission One Blood: Two Hundred Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity 2nd ed (Sutherland, 1994).
 Jacob Z. Hess, ‘A Rhetoric of Racial Despair’, Public Square Magazine 19 June 2020, publicsquaremag.org/editorials/a-rhetoric-of-racial-despair/.
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