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What Kind of Diversity? Seeking a Diversity that Matters Around the Table

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Much has been written about the segregation, both racial and economic, in evangelical churches. Sunday morning, they say, is still the most segregated hour of the week. For most of us, this state of affairs is horrendous. It defies the vision of the church in the New Testament (James 2; Rev 7:9). Emerson and Smith have written admirably on some of the causes of this segregation. Some of us have pointed the finger at the Church Growth movement and the so-called “homogeneity principal” for propagating this lack of diversity. Amidst all this, the megachurches, PromiseKeepers and other evangelical voices trumpet the need for diversity. All evangelical seminaries worth their salt preach and seek diversity on their faculties and student bodies. Emerging and missional churches have pursued a culture of diversity amidst their communities. And I would say that there appears to be at least some progress.

So it’s a good time to ask a deeper question: just what kind of diversity are we getting? True, there is more racial diversity taking place. But is it a diversity based more upon an Americanization and/or professional-ization of the various ethnic identities? In other words, is this a diversity masking a new sameness based in the common language found among American professionals as various ethnic groups move up the ladder of Americanized success? Instead of deepening our lives with various cultural identities in dialogue, are we getting a diversity that reflects the diminishing of ethnic cultural identities by the cultural forces of American democratization, professional-ization and mass public education? Are we really just a multi-ethnic bunch of professionals who have given up our ethnic cultural identities to look, talk and dress alike?

Many voices are criticizing the classic political liberalism as represented by John Rawls (A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism). The postmodern critique argues that classic liberal approaches to democracy (which organize diverse people into equal rites, equal opportunity and public reason) are in fact power discourses that strip cultures of difference before we are allowed to enter the public discourse. We are asked to leave behind our cultural, family and religious heritage behind in order to enter the public discourse of democracy. Any resulting racial diversity therefore masks the underlying sameness enforced by this political arrangement. This kind of democracy therefore thins out the conversations. In the process, the dominant ways of American public discourse and/or capitalistic exchange become hegemonic. They spatialize us into power relationships friendly to the white forms of domination. And in regards to gender, it spatializes women into roles as predetermined by men in the name of equality.

As opposed to this kind of political liberalism, Yoder asserts Babel (in the book of Genesis), was not a fallen condition that needs to be undone. Instead the dividing of humanity into multiple culture groups was redemptive in purpose. In Yoder’s article entitled, “Meaning After Babel: With Stout Beyond Relativism.” he sees Babel as placing the “multiplicity of cultures under the sign of God’s will … restoring His original plan.” True diversity, dialogue in concrete relations between particular communities, is God’s means to save humankind from “its presumptuous and premature effort” to become like God. As a result, for Yoder, this kind of diversity is the very condition for the outworking of God’s truth, grace and love in our midst. True diversity then is a condition for the work of God’s salvation in our midst.

In Romand Coles latest book, Beyond Gated Politics, he expounds upon Yoder’s vision of diversity as a piece to his own vision for a radical democracy. Coles describes Yoder’s articulation of a unity that maintains a diversity around the wisdom of Christ’s cross.” Yoder emphatically rejects notions of church unity based upon extant agreements that would provide a lowest-common-denominator foundation for identity, direction and tolerable pluralism.”(p.117) Instead according to Coles, Yoder argues for a church unity “that radicalizes the particular relevance of Jesus, enabling dialogue through the content of his message: the love of the enemy, the dignity of the lowly, repentance, servanthood, the renunciation of coercion.” Coles uses Yoder to tease out what might be possible in a radical democracy that allows tensions and borderlands between many culturally thick communities where they can live, talk and dialogue one with another. What I see here is the articulation of a diversity that trumps the diversity that comes out of assimilation into American political and/or capitalist professional life.

Perhaps this means we must see in the gospel of James ch. 2 and Rev 7:9 the basis of a new culture of diversity in and of itself. Instead of an amalgam of cultures, a melting pot, this new culture of the church possesses a unity born around the Eucharist Table. It is not a unity built out of some democratic principle of sameness or capitalist exchange. Instead it is a unity born out of the Eucharistic celebration, where we practice reconciliation in the cross, where we come into such a “peace” that we submit to historical forms of life and worship born out of who we are in Christ without losing our ethnic and gender differences. The church gathering is the place by which the coming together of cultures actually becomes the means to further salvation in our midst. Diversity is the very means of God’s working his salvation (sanctification) among us. This is why we must foster the conversation enabled by the Eucharist between Black, White, Oriental, Malaysian, Native American, etc. Because it is this kind of diversity that God uses us to heal the nations (Rev 22.2). It is this ongoing healing that is a foretaste of the eschatological future. It shows the world the way towards which all forms of inchoate democracy seek to move.

What would this look like? Well I have seen a little of it in our own community despite the fact we meets in a NW Suburban Chicago locale devoid of diversity. We are not a highly diverse community. Nonetheless, I have seen an Oriental man profoundly challenge the way we do community. I have seen women challenge the way we do leadership, I have seen a first generation Phillipino speak so eloquently and help us see what is going on with our children. I have seen an African American women challenge us to be open to the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King for our place. And I have seen a lot of Caucasians challenge us to receive all these things and more. I believe there is a unity here developing, yet hopefully it does not rely on the sameness of American politics. Whatever our failings, I believe it is a oneness that can only be furthered by the Holy Spirit as we regularly gather around the Table to practice Oneness in Christ.

Can anyone else out there reflect on the kind of diversity they are experiencing in their local gatherings? Is it diversity under a sameness like professionalization? Or is there real challenge and dialogue coming out of cultural differences that work together towards the same end under the Lordship of Christ? Examples?

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