The seeds of bigotry…

The seeds of bigotry...

The seeds of bigotry...

James 1:22 “But be ye doers
of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own
selves”

Among the mega-trends of ageing
population (Age Wave), the Information Revolution, Monetary
Instability, Climate Change and Biodiversity Extinction, we are
experiencing significant multicultural challenges. One such trend
is the increasing attention to issues of culture, and ethnicity
in public policy around the world. Bigotry and racism are major
problems for which professing Christians could provide powerful
solutions. However, the relevance of the gospel is undermined by
the prevalence of bigotry, both perceived and real, in our
communities with many Church goers and leaders are unprepared to
respond to beyond the point of a general acknowledgement that
‘we are all created equal’. This has greatly
diminished the evangelical mission to be ‘ambassadors of
Christ to the world.’

I suggest that those who are
passionate about espousing the virtues of the Gospel ( and I am
one of them) need to do so with a sense that we do indeed have
answers for addressing the social evils of our time, among which
are bigotry and racism. In general, Christians and church-goers
(since the two are not necessarily synonymous) often do not have
a good grasp of the history of the Church, do not study other
religious faiths, and do not have a theological rationale from
which to base their views when discussing issues of faith with
those who are ethnically, religiously or culturally different.
This affects the legitimacy of responses which can be made, the
way the issues are prioritised in church activity, and the
authenticity of claiming to be a ‘light in a dark work of
hatred, prejudice and discrimination’.

Today, in mainstream education,
the general view held of Christian movements throughout history
is one of suspicion and disdain. Christianity is often aligned
with the worse abuses of colonialism, intolerance and oppression.
It has become part of the populace byte sized viewpoint
of Christianity and its contribution to society at large. Those
interested enough to look a bit further will find just cause to
both defend the benefits of Christianity to society, and to
challenge any self-righteousness of church goers who ignore or
wash over the very real horrors which have often been justified
under the authority of certain church movements. The complicity
of many churches (despite the efforts of a Bonhoeffer and others
of like passion) preceding and during the holocaust is a case in
point.

Several decades ago, Gordon W.
Allport wrote a paper on The Religious Context of
Prejudice,
which remains as pertinent today as it was
then. He argued that hate-prejudice is ordinarily a
matter of gross and unwarranted overgeneralizations and thus
departed from the norm of rationality. It led to
segregation, discrimination, and denial of rights and as such was
a departure from the norm of justice. It entailed
contempt, rejection, or condescension and was therefore a
departure from the norm of human-heartedness. Further,
the seeds of bigotry could be explored in three important
contexts; the theological, the personal-psychological, and the
socio-cultural.

The theological seed could be
found where religious doctrines claimed exclusive possession of
final truth with all the authority to interpret it and
to regard other interpretations as heretical. The right wings of
religious fundamentalism within the Christian and Islamic family
share similar rigidity in this regard and it ultimately leads to
religious extremisms even as political fundamentalism leads to
extreme Nationalism. It would be equally fair to comment that the
Christian principles of “freedom and equality of dignity
under God” is a value derived directly from the Gospel. It
is not a caste system. It is the Christian doctrines which
carried the seeds that gave birth to much of the social welfare
movement during the industrial revolution. The Civil Rights
Movement in United States, and the Reverend Martin Luther King
Jr’s inspiration for social justice is not the kind of
humanism which was anti-faith, but reflected a spirituality
derived from the Bible. Mother Theresa is a testimony to the
spirit of compassion imbued in faith and not a secular
humanitarianism. Indeed, the work with poor and outcastes which
she is so well known for was a stark contrast to the pervading
Hindu fatalism and caste system. The list of our cultural heroes
is long and the unsung heroes longer, but many people either have
not heard of or do not care to know, especially when the
‘public’ media is rarely reporting the positive
contributions of Christians.

One stream in the ecumenical
movement have tried to syncretise the major tenets of the Worlds
religions and create a common ground of worship by deliberately
removing the barriers of opposing truth claims. In so doing,
however well intentioned, ‘truth’ is sacrificed as it
is reinvented, based on adherence to the moralising mantra of
this generation, namely ‘toleration of difference.’
It is simply irrational to claim that every faith which has its
truth claims about meaning and ultimate reality can ‘so
easily be fused.’ If one reads history from a
Judeo-Christian perspective, the revelation of Jesus Christ is
the key linchpin of history. The unfolding of history and Gods
relationship to humankind and creation is so different from the
Hindu worldview, that they cannot be said to be representations
of the same thing. Nor can Buddhist and Christian worldviews.
There is simply no room to say Jesus was another
‘Buddha’ or another Muhammad or that these were so
similar that they were merely saying the same essential things
but in different contextual clothing. The famed author C.S. Lewis
put it bluntly, one must decide whether Jesus was who he said he
was, and we are left with very few choices. Was Jesus merely a
good man and not the son of God, in which case he was deceived,
or a mad man claiming divinity, a prophet but not a messiah, in
which case he was liar, or was he the Saviour? . Religious
syncretism is the political correctness of this
generation’s religiosity. Political Correctness has
imbedded in it an inherent dishonesty- that is while it still
speaks often in the language of social values in ‘policy
speak’ it tends to be considered by many people as
tokenistic and not genuine. Without genuine encounters across
cultures and religious groups we cannot grow. And instead of
growth we whither, becoming more bigoted, self-righteous and
isolated.

This does not mean that treating
individuals of other faiths with dignity and respect is
precluded. Indeed, from a Christian perspective it is
‘commanded’. But it does not mean that Christians
should feel less ’critical’ of others worldviews when
they conflicting truth claims worldviews. Religious syncretism is
really a reaction to Christian and other faiths exclusivism. It
is an attempt to answer the psychological needs of people to
belong to a spiritual faith community. It is not an adequate
response to the diversity of religious truth claims, nor to
cultural diversity but rather one way of trying to overcome the
ills of bigotry.

The psychological seed in which
bigotry can also grow is through our human need for belonging.
While this need for belonging, for community, is a healthy and
natural part of our design it can also become part of the reason
why people fear others and seek to diminish their value. Much of
the ‘in-out behaviour’ seen in groups is based in the
fear of being isolated or rejected. Fear is a powerful motivator
and controlling component from which spiritual abuse works its
mischief. For some, to fit in means keeping others out. With a
mixture of ignorance and insecurity, beliefs perpetuating
racism-such as superiority are cultured - the seeds of
hate-prejudice grow. To believe that someone else is not
as good, or not as worthy of equal consideration because of their
heritage, ethnicity, and their cultural beliefs is
bigotry.
The opposite mission of church communities is
to provide the necessary warmth and human-heartedness which
accepts people as they are, while also encouraging change and
growth. In this sense it legitimates its claim to be the family
of God.

So we are not all the same, and
within the Christian family of churches, diversity of emphasis
around doctrine, styles of liturgy, preference of worship, and
socio-cultural and class differences are real. Surely this
invites us to continually review the extent to which genuine
communication between our churches, parishes, congregations as
well as within our own communities is nurtured. Whilst we know
that ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek
nor Gentile’
, this should not be interpreted - as it
so often is, that valuing differences is wrong. The principle of
this scripture is precisely the opposite. Its purpose is to
acknowledge that God does not have favourites among the human
cultures, that none could claim exclusivity based on cultural
heritage or social status. As the early church grew, first as a
sect within the Judaism of the first century AD and as it spread,
these were very real issues confronting the Christian
communities. And it is why the encouragement of the apostle Paul
(and others) to the churches carry the theme of being one in
Christ, of being members of the same body with Christ as head,
with all being equally valuable members (this includes gender).
It is the same today. There is a unity in this diversity which is
not supposed to be melted in a pot of cultural and liturgical
conformity.

Today, many people do not consider
the gospel of much significance because it does not provide for
them an answer to the moral crisis of bigotry. When issues of
cultural significance emerge (in this country we could refer to
the Treaty of Waitangi as one example), they are often treated
not with genuine interest but with grave concern. Difference is
perceived as potentially divisive. Church organisations are no
different than other institutions in that by their nature they
are inclined to conservatism – so discussion around
biculturalism and multiculturalism is not encouraged, or worse,
receives a merely token response. Often, those who do raise the
issues as being important are considered as radical (outside the
norm) and therefore ‘dangerously wrong’.

There is an important challenge
facing us. The following questions are rhetorical and are raised
not so much from evidence based research, but from anecdotal
experience. Are church goers in our country more bigoted than
non-church goers? Extending the question further, are people who
profess Christianity as their faith more bigoted than those who
are secular? There appears to be wide spread public opinion that
this is the case. Further, we could ask among the world’s
major religions, do we find in the various expressions of faith
more or less prejudice than we would find outside of ‘the
faiths.’ It is perhaps the most critical issue facing the
relevance of the church today - because the politics of culture
are on the verge of becoming the most decisive issue confronting
the social-cohesiveness of civil society. Ethnic war (underpinned
by economic crisis, political scape-goating and religious
affiliation) has clearly emerged as a critical factor. (Bosnia is
a case in point). So how is it that we who profess the Christian
faith (however diversely expressed in our lives and worship), who
boast the inner freedom and the power of the Spirit, who claim to
be the children of our divine creator, who speak in many
languages, work in many fields of human endeavour, are also
perceived to be among the most bigoted, judgemental, and
prejudiced cultural communities of our generation?

Much of my professional work is
outside the church, within the mainstream professions of Health,
Social Services, Justice and the private business sector. I have
also been involved in many Christian organisations and community
initiatives. In my experience, those Christians who are least
secure in the knowledge of their relationship with God in Christ
are usually those most ready to act and speak in a way which can
only be described as mean-spirited and bigoted.

It is a shame that much of the
work that is being done addressing discrimination and racism is
happening outside of our Churches. I wonder if we should be
leading the way in terms of embracing the cross-cultural
challenges of our society? And if the answer is yes, then the
question is clearly why aren’t we? As long as it is not
seen as an important mission we will continue to miss
opportunities to counter the wide spread public criticisms
particularly endemic in our tertiary institutions that
Christianity is responsible for causing bigotry, rather than
building bridges and genuine relationships between diverse
peoples created in the image of God. We cannot defend the
legitimacy of the gospel when we are seen as part of the problem,
and not the solution. We have so much to offer. We do have
answers, and as someone who engages at many levels with others in
cross-cultural contexts, I believe we need to be more proactive
in demonstrating our Christian love “for all.” Social
Justice should be on the agenda of every church community, not as
a distant ‘issue’ professed from the pulpit, but as a
lived reality. For those of us who were raised in a cultural mix
there is a lot of work to do in raising cultural awareness and
sensitivities, and in building the emotional competencies of
Pastors, Youth leaders, Ministers, Professionals, Social Workers,
Counsellors, Psychologists and so forth to work and live well
together by celebrating diversity not diminishing it because of
fear, wilful ignorance, and prejudice. Christians in many
settings can be proud of the love they share, the compassion and
the integrity in which they do express their good will to others.
But this contribution to society is largely kept in-house. Bring
out the stories where people have embraced cultural diversity in
Christ and let others know that we know how to celebrate. Our
society is searching for real solutions to racism and bigotry not
tokenistic gestures.