In last week’s blog post we talked about the fact that “race” is a “social construction”: http://www.jesusforrevolutionaries.org/critical-race-theory-and-christianity-race-is-a-social-construction/
God created “ethnicity” and the various national cultures of the world, but human beings invented “race.” The division of races as we know it in the 21st century—i.e., “whites,” “blacks,” “Asian,” “Indians,” etc.—are the product of 500 years of European and Euro-American imperialism and colonization. Europeans created “whiteness” and “race” in order to distinguish between themselves and those they colonized, and as a means of doling out socio-economic and political privileges for themselves and their descendants.
If race is a social construction, then what should our response be to the continued use of racial language and race-based distinctions in the 21st century? This will be the blog focus for the next two weeks.
In response to this question, many people in America opt for the position of “colorblindness.” They say, “I know that racism is bad, and that the U.S. had an unfortunate racist past, so, I’m just not going to see people in terms of “color” or “race” or “ethnicity.” I.e., “I choose to be colorblind.”
Colorblindness is definitely better than racism, but it is fatally flawed in two important respects. First, colorblindness ignores the beauty of God’s cultural diversity. Secondly, colorblindness is bad social policy because it tends to ignore the very real, and devastating consequences of past, and present-day racism in American society. In this week’s post, we’ll focus upon this first fatal flaw.
Colorblindness misses the beauty of God’s diversity on both an individual and corporate level. We can reject social constructions of “race,” but still embrace and celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity.
Every individual uniquely reflects the image of God. The Bible teaches that “God created human beings in his own image” (Genesis 1:27 NLT). Every person holistically reflects God’s image in terms of his/her: (1) individual personality, gifts, talents (Psalm 139: 13-16); (2) cultural heritage (s) (Revelation 21:26) ; and (3) gender (Genesis 1:27). In other words, when you look in the mirror you are staring at a beautiful and unique reflection of who God is. This uniqueness encompasses all of who you are—your personality, gifts, and talents; your ethnic background (s), and your gender. Together, these traits make you uniquely you. You are beautiful, special, and unique, unlike anyone that has ever lived or ever will walk this earth. By God’s design, you are valuable and uniquely reflect who He is to the world.
One of the most beautiful declarations of our inherent individual value and worth to God is found in Psalm 139: 13-16:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
It may come as a surprise to many of us, but our cultural heritage(s) are critical components of the unique reflection of God’s image within each of us. By God’s design each of us is given a cultural heritage that helps make us who we are. In other words, our ethnic background is not an accident! God gave it to us! As we looked at last week, in his famous speech to the Greek Areopagus, the Apostle Paul reminds us of this truth:
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. “(Acts 17:26-27).
And so, it is not an accident that I am Chinese-Mexican-American living in Los Angeles in the 21st century. It’s not an accident that I grew up in a predominantly Anglo-American community and now live in a multi-cultural and multi-socioeconomic community on the east side of town. My parents might not have realized it when they met and married, but this was all part of God’s plan for me. Your ethnic background(s) are not an accident either. You are beautifully and wonderfully made just as God wanted you to be. Don’t ever let anyone tell you differently.
Not only has our cultural heritage been given to us by God Himself, but the Bible teaches that our various ethnic cultures are viewed by God as “treasure” which will last forever!
The inherent and eternal value of our national cultures is described in Revelation 21: 22-27(NIV):
“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
This passage states that the “glory and honor of the nations” will be brought into God’s redeemed creation for eternity. (For more discussion on this and the “New Jerusalem,” see last week’s blog post). The word “glory” which is used in this passage can also be translated as “treasure” or “wealth” of the nations. Surely John is not describing literal currency or national government coffers. I believe that he is talking about the cultural treasure or wealth of the different ethnic groups of the world. This cultural treasure includes food, music, dance, literature, architecture, etc., as well as the unique cultural personalities of the world.
The first category—food, music, dance, etc. is quite obvious. Every ethnic group has it’s unique food, musical styles, literature, dance, etc. This is one of the best parts of the “glory and honor of the nations.” You enjoy the “glory and honor of the nations” every time you go to a Thai or Mexican restaurant, go to ITunes and download a new song, and every time you renew your passport and travel abroad. The wonderful thing about L.A. is that us Los Angelenos can partake of the “glory and honor” of dozens of nations just by jumping in the car and driving 30 minutes in any direction!
The second category deserves more explanation. Have you ever noticed that different cultural groups possess different personalities? I have experienced this first hand because of my own cross-cultural heritage and because of my cross-cultural marriage. As previously stated, I am of Mexican heritage on my father’s side and Chinese on my mother’s. My wife is of Midwestern, German-American heritage.
When I attend a family gathering on my father’s side of the family, I observe distinct types of humor, ways of relating to one another, attitudes towards life, etc. The same with my mom’s family. I have especially noticed this to be true during my past four years of marriage to my lovely Midwestern wife. For example, I’ve noticed that German-Americans tend to be very time-oriented and financially practical. If we are even five minutes late in preparing for an event I can visibly see the anxiety levels of my Midwestern family members rise. From a Latino perspective it is “relationships” which matter more than being on time for an event. So, if I’m engaged in a deep conversation with someone it is of a higher cultural value to me to stay in the conversation and be a little bit late to my next engagement rather than to cut off the conversation and appear rude.
In Mexican culture it is also appropriate to “lavish” gifts upon loved ones and friends regardless of the cost. This is seen as a way of showing love, respect, and deference. You could say that one the Mexican “love-languages” is giving. In Midwestern culture, lavish giving can actually be frowned upon as waste. Nice gifts are valued and appreciated of course, but beyond a certain point it becomes culturally inappropriate.
I actually learned this lesson first hand when I met my wife’s family for the first time before we were married. I had made the long journey to Indiana for the annual meeting of the Christian Community Development Association and thought that that would provide me with the perfect opportunity to meet my future in-laws. In anticipation of our meeting over lunch, I went to the airport candy shop and bought mounds of expensive Godiva chocolate to give to my future in-laws. Without thinking about it very much, my Mexican side was coming out. I thought to myself: “I want to make a good impression and I want them to know that I care. I’ll be generous and spend lots of money by buying them good chocolate.” Erica was a bit uneasy when she found out because she thought that my generosity would be interpreted as “waste” and the absence of frugality. I was shocked! From my cultural vantage point such lavish giving should have made a positive impression and should have been interpreted as warm generosity. (I ended up giving them the chocolates and it turned out fine!)
What I’ve learned from my different cross-cultural experiences is that every culture—Mexican, Chinese, Taiwanese, Egyptian, German, Midwestern, etc.—uniquely expresses different aspects of God’s heart. As exemplified in the lavish giving of Mexican culture, God is very generous and gracious and sometimes gives us more than we can hope for or imagine (Ephesians 1:7-8, 3:20). No eye has seen or ear heard what God has prepared for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (1 Corinthians 2:9). Relationship is also at the core of God’s heart. The divine Godhead relates to Himself in a beautiful mystery that we cannot fully comprehend (Matthew 28:19).
At the same time that this is true, I learn much from my Midwestern family about God, too. I joke with my wife that I’m familiar with about 80% of Midwestern culture by virtue of my American heritage. About 20% though is almost completely foreign. This 20% can sometimes make me feel like an immigrant even though I was born in the U.S. and have lived here all my life.
I learn from them the values of industry and frugality (and starting a savings account for your child when he/she is 3 months old!)(Proverbs 6:6-11). I learn about discipline in our personal relationships with God (1 Corinthians 8: 24-27) and about the importance of individual relationship with Him (Revelation 3:20). (The food is also pretty good too!)
To use another example of what I’m trying to convey, I like to use the example of Mambo Cologne by Liz Claiborne. Trying to capitalize upon the J.Lo Ricky Martin craze of the early 2000’s, Executives at Liz Claiborne set out to develop a cologne which captured, in all bottle, the “essence” of what it meant to be Latino. They hired researchers to find out what made Latinos unique and what positive cultural qualities they possessed. Among other things, their research revealed that Latinos were “spicy,” “sexy,” and passionate, and that they were also family-centered. Drawing from their research, Liz Claiborne then set out to create a cologne fragrance which expressed these distinctively Latino qualities. The result was the “Mambo” perfume line, “an up-tempo twist of bergamot and zesty lime, mediterranean herbs and spices [which] raises the pulse and turns up the heat. A festive tandem of french clary sage and thyme is embraced by exotic, masculine floralcy, and an ultra-sensual fusion of cinnamon leaf, cumin and heart of cedarwood.” In 2007, Claiborne released a spin-off cologne–MAMBO MIX—which features an added blend of “spicy oriental fragrance.” As a Chinese-Mexican, Mambo Mix is perfect for me. Maybe it captures my unique “essence” and can be called the first “Asian-Latino” cologne (ha).
At first glance, the example of Mambo perfume seems silly. How could someone even attempt to capture the essence of what it means to be Latino in a perfume bottle? Also, Liz Claiborne’s so-called “research findings” about Latinidad are just a bunch of crazy stereotypes. Despite the inaccuracy of Liz Claiborne’s stereotypes, I believe they are driving at a profound biblical principle about Latinos and about cultural diversity in general. They realize that Latinos, and all ethnic groups of the world, possess distinct cultural “treasure and wealth” according to the biblical principle expressed in Revelation 21: 26-27.
On the flip side of things, the Bible also teaches that nations not only possess unique “glory and honor,” but also distinct cultural sin. This topic is addressed in verse 27 which states: “Nothing impure will ever enter it [the New Jerusalem]…”
This truth also comports with my own personal experience and interaction with the various cultures to which I am connected. In my own experience I have seen the unique ways in which my Mexican, Chinese, American, Midwestern, and German-American cultures have become distorted by sin. Each of the cultures which I am a part of has distinct cultural sins or “impurities.” This is true of every nation on earth which has ever existed since the Fall. Just as sin infects us as individuals, it also perverts our corporate ethnic cultures. These cultural impurities will not enter the New Jerusalem and the ultimate Kingdom of our Father. This truth—that each culture contains distinct ethnic sin is captured by Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua in her famous work, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza:
Though I’ll defend my race and culture when they are attacked by non-mexicanos, conosco el malestar de mi cultura. I abhor some of my culture’s ways… But I will not glorify those aspects of my culture which have injured me and which have injured me in the name of protecting me.”
“Machismo” represents an example of distinct sin flowing from one of my own culture. Mexican culture has “machismo” and patriarchy, and extreme honor and shame, which can wound and divide families for decades. Speaking of the destructiveness of machismo, Gloria Anzaldua also says:
“[Machismo] cripples its women, como burras, our strengths used against us, lowly burras bearing humility with dignity. The ability to serve, claim the males, is our highest virtue. I abhor how my culture makes macho caricatures of its men. No, I do not buy all the myths of the tribe into which I was born.”
Moving onto one of the other cultures I’m connected to by marriage, I can also say that Midwestern culture is sometimes too practical—to the point of violating God’s laws for the sake of practicality. American culture is sometimes so individualistic that it can forget about the importance of community in God’s plan for His church. In America, Christianity sometimes becomes “it’s all about my personal relationship with God and everybody else can take a hike.” Greed, materialism, and cultural arrogance are also fatal sins of U.S. culture.
And so, as a Chinese-Mexican-American, my unique cultural heritage is given to me by God and an inextricable part of who I am—for now and forever! Even though some people might try to take this away from me (by insisting that I speak only English or by denying the importance of my cultural diversity), I will celebrate and enjoy my unique blend of Chinese-Mexican-American culture from now into eternity! At the same time, my distinct cultures also have peculiar sins which I hope to excise from my life. I have personally experienced the painful consequences of such cultural sins and I don’t want my wife and children to have to go through what I went through.
Because cultural diversity is God’s gift to us, a “colorblind” approach to life is not biblical. It’s better than racism but it’s not biblical. A lot of people use the term colorblind to mean that God does not show favoritism to any ethnic group and that we all are equal. To say that God does not show ethnic favoritism and that we are all equal in his eyes is true, and vitally important (see Acts 10: 34-35), but it’s not the same as saying that God, and therefore, we, should not see color. As we’ve discussed in this chapter, our cultural heritages are a “treasure” from God that make us his unique children and we will celebrate them for all eternity. We can reject “race” as a “social construction,” but still celebrate ethnicity and cultural diversity as God’s good gift to us.
I’d like to close this section on cultural diversity with a beautiful quotation from the book of Revelation (7:9-10) which gives us a splendid picture of the “color-sightedness” of God. In this passage, the apostle John describes heaven and the fact that we “carry our color” into eternity:
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Thankful for all God’s color,