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The church Christ died for

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I recently attended a government-sponsored event that invited the church into a conversation regarding the role and function of faith in our intercultural Canadian society. What does the church have to say about interculturalism in a postmodern, post-secular global community? What commentary can we offer on the human family made in the image of God?

Interculturalism can be described as an intentional exchange between persons representative of cultural groups with the hope of creating and maintaining:

  • a physical place for everyone;
  • an attitude of inclusion rooted in knowledge of self and others that promotes trust, respect, compassion, peace, and justice;
  • an environment of shared power and responsibility in the quest for a society equipped to negotiate disagreements and misunderstandings while recognizing and welcoming the identifiable other in the activities of everyday life.

This, more or less, is what the Canadian government pursues as subtext beneath its policies, what corporations and civic agencies have agreed upon as a core value. Along with Irish researcher Gavan Titley, I would argue that “interculturalism is not merely a re-branding of multiculturalism…but rather a way of life, a manner of being that does not assume cultural awareness.” Instead, interculturalism questions cultural assumptions that multiculturalism finds convenient to leave unchallenged.

“Interculturalism moves beyond recognition, tolerance and celebration to an inspection, nay, a dissection of the perspectives upon which we build our life,” writes Titley. “Not only does interculturalism encourage one group to recognize another, but it also explores how and why boundaries continue to exist and change as groups co-exist.”

Dissection of perspectives

As Christians, we are ever engaged in such “a dissection of perspectives” as we respond to Jesus’ call to follow him. This call requires a critical self-awareness regarding our identity and others (Mark 8:34–35). Through global mission, we are once again sensitized to why and how people remain different in the way they conduct themselves and conceive reality (Romans 9:30–31).

The dissection of perspectives continues through how we choose to conduct our life. While our faith compels us to stand on salvation in Jesus Christ and no other, humility instructs us to tolerate ambiguity and relinquish the types of certitude that give rise to arrogance and defensive patterns of behaviour (Philippians 2:3–4; Romans 14:1). Our concern that others experience the saving love of Christ compels us to at least attempt to understand the other’s value systems and how their worldview and beliefs help them interpret their experience (Ephesians 4:32–5:3).

Paul addressed intercultural realities head on. Simply labelling a group as such does not make it a group; belonging is much more complicated than drawing lines in the sand and deciding who is in and who is out.

God’s people are to be “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). To borrow a phrase from Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, Paul’s depiction of the church as one new humanity is God’s “fusion of horizons.”

Let us be clear: Paul does not intend that we divest ourselves of culture, language, custom, and tradition. That is not preferable or attainable; after all, we are grounded beings living in a real world. However, we are called to subject ourselves to the supremacy of Christ in a cooperative interculturalism.

Oneness in Christ means risking identification with and embrace of the neighbours God has given us, putting our feet under the same table, reading the same Scripture, being bound by the same Spirit to worship one God revealed in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:4, 8–9, 13; Ephesians 2:18; 4:4; Philippians 1:27). Why else, we might ask, would Paul go to the effort of writing his letter to Christians in Rome in the way he did if it were not supremely important that Jew and Gentile embrace one another in the unified body of Christ?

God’s intercultural community is not an option or preference. It is written that Jesus “loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). The question we must ask is, “For which church did Jesus die?” The oneness of God and the oneness of God’s people is a recurring theme embedded in the gospel.

The gospel of Jesus Christ does not simply point to an intercultural ecclesiology; it is an intercultural ecclesiology. God’s intercultural community lies at the very heart of the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation and the work he accomplished. When we operate with the understanding that ethnocultural segregation is a preferred option, we have ceased understanding the purpose for which Jesus came.

Ken Peters is pastor at Saanich Community Church, Victoria, B.C.

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