Editor’s note: The following article is the fourth of four excerpts from Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s “Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity.”
If we are to practice the discipline of dialogue in this diverse world, we must become fluent in cultures other than our own. This was the genius of the apostle Paul, who wrote: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. … To those outside the law I became as one outside the law … so that I might win those outside of the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22). Paul developed the ability to understand and communicate with people from different cultures and experiences. The widespread effects of racism require us to work through stereotypes and develop a sensitivity to cultural differences. This is particularly true for those who are isolated in culturally exclusive ghettos, suburbs or rural areas. They may understand only their own cultural experience because they have no felt need to do otherwise. It is imperative that all of us become adept at understanding different cultures. We will never become “experts” on the lives of others, but we can become “fluent” in a variety of cultures. Some may choose to immerse themselves exclusively in another culture and become bicultural. But the mandate for most of us is to gain some expertise in the broad diversity of cultural experiences in our world. We must become “multicultural.”
We can only fully value and comprehend what it means to be human when we are at home with the perspectives of another’s culture. A part of us becomes African when we live in community with persons of African descent. We better understand what it means to be indigenous when we sit with Native Americans. When we commune with Latinas and Latinos, we become more familiar with Latin experience. We resonate with that part of us that is European when we engage with people of European heritage. When we are with Asians, we gain a more complete awareness of our “Asian-ness.” In addition to all of this, we gain a greater appreciation for our God when we embrace the many cultural reflections of God’s image.
How do we become fluent in other cultures? One way this happens is when we live outside of our comfort zones and relate in significant, ongoing ways to people who are different from us. Our fluency expands as we listen to and live with people from a diversity of settings. This helps us gain points of reference for communicating cross-culturally. If possible, we need to be mentored by persons who are from cultural or racial groups different from our own. Also men need to be mentored by women. Such an apprenticeship cannot be underestimated. Our ways of thinking and viewing the world will be radically altered because of this experience. It is also important to be in regular dialogue with those who are seasoned visionaries for unity and reconciliation.
One of the results of multicultural fluency is a greater awareness of our similarities. While there are many cultural expressions, there is only one human family. It is necessary for us to be fluent in a diversity of cultural understandings. Yet there are times when our distinctive cultures must be worn like loose garments. We must be able to interact free from culture in a manner that is simply “human.” I have a friend who was raised in Brazil, speaking German at home and Portuguese at school. When she moved to the United States as an adult, she acquired the ability to speak English. She now teaches Spanish at a university. I once asked her in what language she thought. Her reply was that she does not think in any particular language but rather in concepts. We must have this same ability when relating to individuals and groups of people from other cultures. The freedom to interact as sisters and brothers in the family of God, liberated from the impediments of our differences (but not discounting our cultural uniqueness), may be the most important foundation for future community.
Rev. Dr. Curtiss Paul DeYoung is professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University and the author of six books on the topic of reconciliation and multiculturalism. Excerpted from “Community in the Midst of Diversity” in Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s “Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity” (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 2009), 167-170. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.