Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The RG3 Problem

A New Ism to Worry About:
Not Racism but Culturalism

On August 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his rhetorical masterpiece, the I Have a Dream speech. One of the most memorable sentences from that speech is: "I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!"
That was a noble dream, and one I share – the vision of a society in which skin color no longer matters, but character does. However, that vision no longer compels agreement in this age of multi-culturalism. Now it is not that all people are created equal in the image of God but that all cultures are created equal in the image of their makers.
The case of Robert Griffin III illustrates the point. RG3 said in response to a question about Martin Luther King:
For me, you don’t ever want to be defined by the color of your skin,. You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That’s what I’ve tried to go out and do.I am an African-American in America. That will never change. But I don’t have to be defined by that.

On ESPN Rob Parker said:
Is he a brother or is he a cornball brother?" ... Well, he’s black, he kind of does his thing. But he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us. He’s kind of black. But he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with because he’s off to do something else
 Parker cited the fact that Griffin is engaged to a white woman, as well as rumors he might be a Republican, as evidence against the his blackness. In favor of his blackness is  his cornrows.

Another illustration of the point if found in a pieice by Scott More, a white church planter,  which can be found at the Reformed African American Network website He wrote:
As racism becomes more and more taboo in our day (especially among those who claim some sort of decent morality), the act of demeaning, discriminating and devaluing others is taking on a new, less-obvious, form. I call it culturism.  Like a racist, a culturist (one who practices culturism) is one who allows culture to eclipse image. A culturist, either passively or actively, chooses to keep other cultures out of his or her life. 
This “phenomenon” was brought to my attention by a good friend at a church planter’s conference.  While the discussions were focused on the problems we face while planting racially diverse churches, he suggested that race was becoming less and less the issue.  He proposed that culture, not race, is the main issue. It is not uncommon these days to have multiple friends who span the racial spectrum.  What is more uncommon are significant relationships that span the cultural spectrum.

The writer confesses his own culturalism. He has black friends but not the right kind:
I grew up playing basketball.  I was told at an early age that if I wanted to be any good at all, I’d have to play at the park with the “black boys.”  So, rather pragmatically, I took the advice. Therefore, doing life among those who are racially different than I am has never been a huge problem for me.  Some of my best friends are, and have always been, black.
But recently I have noticed something.  While, I’ve never considered myself a racist, I am finding that I am a culturist.  My black friends are easy to befriend.  They like the same things I like.  They live (for the most part) like I live.  They have the same manners, time values, and social ethics as I do.  The same things that inconvenience me, inconvenience them; and because of this, we have an unspoken rule not to inconvenience one another.  Most, if not all, of my non-white friends read, learn, work, speak, and schedule their lives like I do.  While they (racially) look different, they are (culturally) the same.  Therefore, it is easy to love and befriend them.  Their culture qualifies them as lovable and worthy of my friendship.
But what about those who don’t work, learn, speak, schedule, or do life like me?  What about those who are different than I am?  What about those who are culturally categorized as needy, inconvenient, rude, dirty, awkward, socially unacceptable, or dangerous? What about the thugs who have dropped out of high school, are unemployed and are always late? What about the ex-con who struggles to find work, shelter, and reliable transportation? 
These questions reveal the destructive nature of culturism. It keeps us from following the commandments of Christ. The very people that Christ calls us to love – orphans, widows, immigrants, impoverished and impaired – are, because of different providential circumstances, forced to do life very differently than those of us who are not parentless, spouseless, nationless, moneyless, or crippled. These people have very different concerns, values, and personalities.  They are, in many significant ways, culturally different.
If this were about understanding other cultures and appreciating certain aspects of them, there would be no reason to object. If it were about having empathy for and seeking to help those who are disadvantaged by their culture, again there would be no disagreement. If it were about our loving our fellow image bearers regardless of their culture and our duty to evangelize them by denying ourselves and meeting them where they presently are, there would be no dissent.
But there is more than these things in the writer’s view. There is, as is already hinted in some of the above comments an equalizing of the values of cultures which all equally give glory to God “albeit from different perspectives”:
For most of us, these marginalized peoples are the cultural antithesis what we are used to. Loving them demands that we lose control. The cords of love would undoubtedly drag us into the areas of their unfamiliar world. There, we have no rights, no financial say-so, no temporal management, and no voice as to how much suffering we are to bear. And so we practice culturism. 
And here lies the irony. Being created (like us) in the image of God, they bring glory to our Creator; albeit from different perspectives – perspectives that we would never see if we were to stay in our own cultural climate. Because of this, the good Samaritan, the blind man, the widow, and the orphaned children, are cultural commodities of the Christian life. Without them, Christianity loses its distinct and robust color. We must love and embrace those who are different than we are. For when our love reaches across cultural lines, we show, with our lives, the power of the Spirit, the work of Christ, and the will of our Father in heaven. In short, we show we are Christians by our scandalous, cross-cultural, love.
Sometime ago this writer commented on multi-culturalism. Part of those comments are perhaps relevant, giving a different perspective from Scott More’s:
… what diversity has come to mean for our post-modern society is really not diversity of race or gender, but diversity of ideas and values. There are some interesting things to note about this diversity:
 (1) It assumes that no idea can make real claims to truth and morality. There is no truth or right in the traditional sense. There are ways of knowing, and perceiving, and deciding, which are each valid for the person or group using them and which each can lead to a statement of “truth for me” or “right for us.” The concept of the true and the good, which are discoverable, communicable, universal, and timeless, is characteristic of the old “Western” way of looking at things, which, is not to be tolerated in the age of diversity.
(2) This diversity requires uniformity among some groups. For instance, a black person who speaks “standard” English, who thinks like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, and who believes in merit admissions and hiring, may be “not black enough” to represent his/her group. A woman who believes in male headship in the home and puts children over career, may not be “woman enough” to represent her gender. There is a limited amount of diversity allowed among those who must represent diversity. 
(3) Diversity rules out of court questions of value and quality. Willy Nelson once sang about the cowboy, “he ain’t wrong, he’s just different.”  That is what diversity sings about everything – culture, music, painting, grammar, moral systems. Nothing is allowed to be “better.” In fact, those who before were considered to be “better” and who have been given privileged status (for instance the “dead white guys” who dominated the western canon) must be diminished and demoted, if not dismissed and destroyed. One is likely a racist, paternalist, cultural chauvinist, and religious bigot, if he says that western Christian civilization is the best yet produced by man, superior, for instance, to those which are eastern or Islamic. Diversity demands radical equality. (Don’t misunderstand me here. One needs only to recognize superior quality and know when it must be insisted upon, not chose it at every juncture. I can keep on listening to Merle Haggard and eating moon pies, so long, as I don’t think it’s the same as listening to Bach and eating crème brulee.)

I am for reaching out across cultures. As Paul said, we must "become all things to all people that by all means (we) may save some." But just as Paul is not endorsing all means irrespective of principle, he is not approving everything about every culture. If he becomes as one under the law to reach Gentiles, he does not observe the abrogated ceremonial laws, but he does not jettison the moral law.

The goal is not  equalizing of all cultures. There are things about all cultures that need to be changed, and some need more change than others. That, I think, makes me a culturalist. I could plead guilty to culturalism except that culturalism seems to be becoming a code word for racism to which I am not prepared to plead guilty. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, this phenomenon was predicted about a decade ago or so by Prof. Amatai Etzioni. He has said in a number of places that the trend in ethnically-mixed and free societies that inter-marriage occurs on an increasing basis and the resulting new generations do not identify with the older racial categories. As the racial categories become more and more blurred, this result is not less prejudice but the use of new criteria for prejudice and this is class. Class can be defined in many ways, but two of the most common bases are social and economic. Social entails the kinds of cultural affirmations you mention in your interesting and sobering post.

Etzioni has a range of positions one does not have to adhere to to appreciate his earlier challenges to organizations regarding their emphasis on race as the basis of prejudice and warning them that this basis was not the only one and that, in fact, it was one that was slowly eroding.

Thanks for taking the time to put together these examples.