Have you felt the clash of dominant cultural sensibilities?

Jul 21, 2014 by

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The Church is filled with divisions. It is almost impossible to find followers of Jesus committed to doing the hard work of having honest and hard conversations in hopes of discerning a more truthful way.

I’ve been glad to find some communities and networks that are trying to do just that. I have witnessed genuine attempts at true dialogue, speaking honestly and listening attentively in a manner that often results in clarified disagreement and demonstrable growth in common understanding and renewed solidarity. This only happens through perseverance and stick-with-it-ness because our one faith, one Spirit, and one baptism that we belong to under the One Lord, Jesus Christ. Many of these conversations are not for those that desire to avoid conflict (fake peace) at every turn, but instead demands vulnerability and a desire to pursue truth while guided by the Spirit. I can personally say that I have learned and grown much from many of them. That conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive and marginalized perspectives can come together in pursuit of mutuality despite at times having varying theological commitments and diverse experiences is a great testament to the possibilities latent in the Church that are scarcely attempted.

However, I believe that one important factor that often does not get taken into consideration is the “around the way” factor. While race is spoken of often, it does not always expose the power dynamics of cultural logics at work that often set the rules and norms of engagement. Because of this, there is constantly an unfair burden for folks from “around the way” to utilize their “code-switching” skills while operating in these second cultures that they have been forced to learn, but never seeing reciprocity. The result is that dominant cultural logics, which are predisposed to accept civility only by its own definition and terms, hegemonically shape and limit the nature of the conversation, and hence forth its outcome. This is not because it limits the topics being discussed, but because it dismisses the validity of “around the way” ethics, considering it as inferior to the dominant culture’s sensibilities.

More clarity is most likely needed here. Many middle class and suburban Christians that engage in dialogue on race or class, for example, tend to only engage “bi-cultural” code switchers. That is, people that have been formed “around the way” (aka the hood), yet also by necessity have learned how to embody dominant cultural norms in speech and behavior when necessary as a strategy and tool for gaining access.

These folks move back and forth into various cultural communities engaging fluently on the terms of both their original communities that formed them culturally as well as the dominant cultural space they had to learn. They are, in a manner, bilingual. The middle class and suburban Christian engaged in reconciliation work, often in reality, only engages with people on their own suburban and middle class terms. What seems to be lacking is any effort from those brought up in dominant culture to become fluent and formed by “around the way” ethics and norms. When will “Peter and Jane” so to speak, who claim to want reconciliation, begin to immerse themselves, not just physically but in cultural logics, in the poor urban centers, which would demand that they also code switch and embody a different set of norms?

It is one thing to converse with someone like me, whom has been conditioned to play by the behavior rules and speech norms of dominant culture when I occupy those spaces, and it is something else for Peter to do life together with “Jamal, Puddin’ and dem” on the block. If someone is intimidated dialoging and listening to me (who is committed to doing it in truth and love because of my faith and code switches culturally), how will you engage my neighbor who doesn’t want to have anything to do with white people because of the way this country has treated him?

The truth is that both the ethics on the corner as well as majority and mainstream sensibilities are culturally and contextually biased norms. Neither are better examples of civility than the other. The only reason so many unconsciously assume otherwise is because they have bought into a dominant cultural framework rooted in American Civil Religion. From there, dominant culture is universalized and moralized as right. No longer recognized as a cultural expression, it is deemed sacred and holy culture. (Western European civilization has always been erroneously conflated with being Christian culture, which explains western colonization practices historically.)

In relation to the specificity of the Incarnation of God found in the birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the universal claims of civility in American dominant culture are exposed as false, and instead we are forced to re-situate it beside every other cultural context including all its societal norms and ethical claims. By fixing our eyes on Jesus (of scripture and present among us) we can keep sight of all false claims of universality that our society tries to disciple us into rather than after the particularity of Jesus’ life, which is the only full revelation of God. Everything that we assume and take for granted, especially our “common sense” values, outside of the revelation of Jesus is speculative. Jesus is the Truth that entered in our finite historical moment so that we could see the Universal God. And yet, this type of discipleship that subversively follows Jesus, is never done in a social and cultural vacuum. Just like Jesus participated in custom and engaged concrete Jewish practices, so too must we embody our “followership” in varying geographical and cultural spaces that are always accompanied with power dynamics that are not being named.

One unique practice of Jesus, that I believe helped forge true Kingdom solidarity was his habit of entering into people’s own spaces and then speaking to them on their terms. Whether living water for the woman at the well, a word of liberation to an oppressed people, or utilizing shepherd language to communities that understood about grazing sheep, Jesus’ engagement was ‘fluent’ and adaptable because of his willingness to occupy marginal spaces and their modes of being.

True Christian solidarity and togetherness in Christ is fragile and cannot be controlled. And yet as followers of Jesus it always remains “at hand” when we yield to the Spirit and reorient our lives through constant immersion into the only honest story, the good news of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, and as we open our eyes to the truth about our society’s violent and oppressive history and current state. In response, when we collectively repent and join the Messianic struggle for liberation and shalom, committed to truth and love, Christian solidarity is not only at hand, but it can be experienced among you as well.

Drew G. I. Hart is a Ph.D. student at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, a graduate of Messiah College, and a former Brethren in Christ pastor. He writes at drewgihart.com, where this blog post originally appeared.

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  • Berry Friesen

    I read Hart’s piece at MennoNerds and am glad to read it here too. Its way of analogizing white/black dialogue to the experience of relating to individuals who speak a “foreign” language and see life through the eyes of another culture offers much food for thought.

    Hart is “bilingual” and thus can navigate the difficulties and complexities of these experiences. Few of us “whites” are bilingual, either vis-à-vis our African-American neighbors or vis-à-vis other-cultured people of other descriptions. So when we converse across these cultural differences, our conversation partners bear the burden of crossing a greater part of the distance between us, a burden that is very taxing, to be sure. Who of us hasn’t become vaguely aware of this as we have talked with persons of another culture? The conversation occurs in our language, with our cultural assumptions, within our cultural norms. They are the ones that must constantly adjust, translate, interpret, etc.

    This unequal sharing of the burden of “crossing the distance between us” is rarely perceived as an injustice when the other-cultured individual is an immigrant or a refugee, nor when s/he is a descendant of immigrants or refugees, nor in my experience when s/he is Native. This is probably as it should be; the world is a big and diverse place, much of that diversity is reflected in the U.S.A., and it is hardly reasonable to expect anyone to function in multiple languages and cultures, although some truly remarkable people do.

    More frequently (although not generally), I hear this unequal sharing of the burden described as an injustice by African-Americans. I perceive this as one of the legacies of slavery, part of the implicit reparations that must be paid so long as explicit reparations are not paid or even discussed.