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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cultural Heritage and Faith

The lines are getting blurrier and blurrier.

The U.S. Constitution codified an Americanized version of British Common Law tradition that went all the way back to the 11th century and became the basis for the American identity and a culture that, for good or ill, has been unique in human history.

Now that identity is disappearing in America; drowning under wave after wave of unassimilated immigrants. This is not a new development. It has been going on for decades but has been steadfastly ignored by the political class. Republicans are happy because their corporate benefactors profit from cheap labour and continue to prop up their fading political hopes. Democrats are happy because immigrants and welfare dependents swell the ranks of potential Democrat voters.

Everyone (except perhaps the American middle class) benefits, so it is thought. Why rock the boat?

Well, the boat is rocking now. And we might wonder what the attitude of the American Christian caught in the middle of the culture wars really ought to be.

The ‘R’ Word

Any honest analysis of the brewing hostilities across the border requires pointing out that race is very much at issue. The “melting pot” concept of America only works when: (i) the cultural preferences and allegiances of those who cross its borders are subsumed over time in the American identity; and (ii) when there is an actual American identity into which they may be subsumed.

Neither is any longer the case, if it ever truly was. U.S. Immigration, legal and illegal, is at a level such that true assimilation has been impossible for decades. And the cultural confidence of white-and-assimilated America has been shattered by an increasing polarization in vision between the political Left and Right. When push comes to shove, many new “Americans” identify primarily with their country of origin, rather than as citizens of the U.S.A.

So what is the “American identity” today? Who knows?

Race has always been an issue for American minorities and for the political Left, the greatest beneficiary of professional victimhood and grievance-mongering. But now race is rapidly becoming the only issue that matters for white Americans who are paying attention to what is happening around them. American Christians with Anglo-Saxon roots are being offered the choice between being pawns of the Left or the Right; of accepting the increasingly unsustainable cultural status quo in the name of Christian tolerance and colourblindness, or else becoming militant in defence of home and country.

Neither prospect is particularly appealing.

“My Kingdom is Not of This World”

Those are the words of the Lord Jesus and he backed them up by going to the cross. I don’t think any Christian fails to recognize that his or her primary allegiance ought to be to the Kingdom of God.

But those with wives and/or children to care for must still make some very practical decisions in times of crisis: where to live; whether to defend themselves and if so, how; whether to run or fight; how to deal with militants who insist they take sides and family members who elect to do so; the question of whether they owe greater allegiance to the federal government or the state government in the event there is civil unrest; and so on.

If this sounds alarmist, bear in mind that a significant number of American believers are already debating these issues online, and more than a few of these are well armed.

When two sides go to war, the first casualties are often the would-be peacemakers on the fence hoping the problem will just go away. But here there are not two sides. The U.S. situation is complicated by multiple racial factions with agendas at cross-purposes to one another. Whether this makes it more or less dangerous for those who don’t choose a side remains to be seen.

In the coming decade, American Christians are likely to be pushed in directions they do not expect and in which they would rather not go.

The Culture Wars are Nothing New

One thing we need to remember in the middle of all this is that the battle for political and cultural dominance is far from uniquely American. Ancient history records numerous examples of one culture dominating or absorbing another: the Greeks by the Romans, the Medo-Persians by the Greeks; the Chaldeans by the Medo-Persians and the Assyrians by the Chaldeans, just for starters. Modern history echoes similar themes.

Most of us cannot even imagine such things as we have lived through decades of relative peace, but they are very much common to man.

The early church lived through a time of similar tension. Jerusalem fell to the Romans in AD 70, less than 40 years after Jesus was crucified and probably before the last book of the New Testament was written. First century Jerusalem was riddled with racial and cultural tension.

So where should the Christian’s priorities lie? Acts 6 records two very different responses to issues of culture and faith:

1.  Hellenists vs. Hebrews

In case we think the first century Christians never came up against the race/culture issue, Luke records for us a significant disagreement within the church in Jerusalem:
“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”
The Greek-speaking Jews and the Hebrew-speaking Jews were at odds. Canadians who have worked alongside their fellow citizens born in Quebec can probably relate. There are significant language and culture differences, even though we are both technically “Canadians”, and these can easily become sources of conflict: “You racist, youre just saying that because I’m French!” and so on. Now such an accusation may be true, and it may even have sometimes been true in the early church. Cultural allegiances are not always easy to shake off.

That aside, the reaction of the apostles here is instructive:
“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”
While the cultural issue was potentially divisive, it would not have been right (aretos, or “pleasing”) to prioritize it above the preaching of the word of God, and the apostles made it very clear they did not intend to. It was necessary to find a way to resolve the culture-based issue without disrupting the primary purpose of the church. The Kingdom of God must come first.

Luke records that (i) the position of the apostles on the issue was received positively by Hebrews and Greek-speakers alike; (ii) a method was found to deal with the problem; and (iii) the word of God continued to increase.

Short version: Faith trumps culture every time, and we need to be sure not to forget it.

But culture and faith clash again later in the same chapter.

2.  Hatred That Trumps the Cultural Agenda

Stephen was doing wonders and signs among the people of Jerusalem. His preaching drew the attention of several communities of Jews from Africa, Egypt and different parts of Asia that banded together to falsely accuse Stephen before the Jewish Sanhedrin.

Amazing how opposition to faith can also trump the cultural agenda, isn’t it? These groups, despite being racially and culturally different, found common cause in their hatred of Christians.

Notice that they knew exactly which buttons to press with the Sanhedrin, and these buttons were also cultural. The false witnesses said:
“We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
They mention the temple, about which every Jew was both proud and highly sensitive, and then for good measure they throw in the accusation that Stephen intended to “change the customs that Moses delivered”.

“Oh no! Our culture is under siege!”

I wonder where we’ve heard that one before …

Learning from History

What can we learn from the experience of the early church? It would seem Satan is happy to introduce race and culture at every possible turn: as a distraction, as a way of stirring up dissension, as a way of turning the world against believers. Where the Lord would have his followers learn to put aside such differences in our valuation of one another, Satan would be delighted if we never forget them.

William Macdonald says this about first century Christians:
“[The early Christians] did not engage in the politics of this world. Why? No explanation is given. But this much is clear: they were people of one purpose — to preach the gospel of Christ. They gave themselves to this task without distraction. They must have believed that the gospel is the answer to man’s problems. This conviction was so strong that they could not be satisfied with subordinate approaches, such as politics.”
The culture wars are here, and they’re not going away any time soon. Very soon, Christians may be facing some hard choices. Stick to your principles and, like Stephen, you may find yourself labeled a traitor.

Cultural heritage or faith: what’s really more important to you?

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