For 500 years, immigration has shaped the culture of North America. Recently, and not for the first time, the arrival of a generation of immigrants has sparked national debate. Fortunately, an increasing number of Christian leaders are working to bridge cultural differences. Many of these leaders have been nurtured by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical organization that has gone farther than most in living out the biblical example of interracial partnership on America's university campuses. Orlando Crespo, a second-generation Puerto Rican American who is director of InterVarsity's LaFe ministry with Hispanic students, exemplifies this commitment to both ethnic distinctiveness and multiethnic partnership, themes he explored in his 2003 book, Being Latino in Christ. Because multiethnic reconciliation is all too rare in mainstream culture and in the church, and because it is so evidently crucial to the flourishing of the common good in the United States' third century, Crespo is an ideal person to respond to our big question: How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good?
In April 2006, a British producer named Adam Kidron launched a musical volley into the heated American debate over ethnicity and immigration: a new Spanish-language version of the national anthem called Nuestro Himno. The song's release provoked condemnation from conservative commentators and a disavowal from President Busheven though his first presidential campaign frequently featured Spanish-language versions of the anthem. "I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English," he said, according to The New York Times. "And they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English."
What do Christians have to contribute to debates like these? The Spanish word himno can be translated as anthem, but it also can be translated as hymn. Is there a uniquely Christian perspectivea Christian hymn, nuestro himnothat could serve the common good of a uniquely multiethnic society like America? As the child of Puerto Rican immigrants and as a child of God in Christ, I've become convinced the answer is yes.
God's Creative Intent
At the core of a biblical understanding of ethnicity is the question of whether ethnicitythe specific and diverse human traditions of culture and languageis a regrettable mistake, an inconsequential accident, or a result of God's creative intent. In recent years, Christians have begun to recover the biblical emphasis on culture. They have looked at the so-called cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28"fill the earth and subdue it"and asked whether it could have ever been fulfilled without the accompanying cultural diversity.
As Richard Mouw writes in When the Kings Come Marching In, "God intended from the beginning that human beings would 'fill the earth' with the processes, patterns, and products of cultural formation." Kinship groupings would inevitably form as the human race grew in number, along with varying cultural traditions. On the vast earth, with its varied climates and conditions, cultural diversity would flourish naturally, allowing humanity to fulfill God's intent in a variety of ways.
Yet very quickly in Genesis human culture becomes distorted by the Fall. Instead of "filling the earth," people huddle in Babel, where they hatch the plan of building a tower so as not to be "scattered over the face of the whole earth." But this attempt to seek human unity at the expense of filling the earth draws God's intervention. The resulting profusion of languages has often been seen as purely judgment, but it is also gracethe provision of a way to return to God's original plan.
As Randy Woodley writes in his book Living in Color, God's intervention at Babel "merely sped up the process of developing the various ethnic groups." To underscore the point, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the first Christians, the miracle is not that they speak the same languagerather, those gathered at Pentecost each hear the mighty works of God being declared in their own language. The barrier to human communication imposed by God at Babel is removed at Pentecost, but the glorious diversity of human culture is blessed.
When Christians seek to be "colorblind"a word that suggests that ethnic distinctions are ultimately irrelevantthey unknowingly imitate the tower-builders' fear of diversity. In practice, colorblindness usually means persons from minority cultures allow their cultural distinctiveness to become invisible, while persons from the majority culture expect others to adapt to their culture. A colorblind church is unable to appreciate the amazing cultural diversity to which God brings salvation: "You are worthy to take the scroll and break its seals and open it," the elders sing to the Lamb. "For you were killed, and your blood has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9, NLT).
If God begins with a cultural mandate for us to fill the earth, doing so by means of the rich diversity of ethnicities and cultures, and if Scripture ends with all ethnic groups worshiping God, then living a vibrant ethnic life in the here and now is something deeply blessed by God. What are the practical steps we can take toward a life that blesses and affirms cultural diversity?
The Courage to Be Different
For many of us who are ethnic minorities, the first step is having the courage to live out the fullness of our ethnic identity. When I was 7 years old, my family became the first Puerto Ricans to move into a white neighborhood. We endured taunting from the family directly across the street, as well as racial insults based on our Latino heritage. It was all too easy to learn the lesson that being Puerto Rican was dirty and unacceptable. Bigotry and racism left an indelible mark on my soul.
But as I studied Scripture, I observed God working through the ethnicities and cultures of prominent figures like Moses (a tri-cultural person, Hebrew-Egyptian-Midianite!), Mordecai and Esther (Persian Israelites), and Paul (a Jewish Roman citizen). For each of them, their ethnic identity was central to God's plan for the deliverance of his people. If any of them had chosen to simply assimilate to the dominant culture, they would have missed God's deepest purposes for them. I began to believe that God could have a purpose for my ethnic identitythat my Latino identity was not an accident or a mistake, but a gift.
I discovered when I had trouble praying in English, my heart language of Spanish helped me overcome spiritual stagnation. The Latino value of fiestacelebrating life even in the midst of painhelped me hold onto my faith in difficult times. The closeness of my Puerto Rican family gave me a window into the love of my Father in heaven. I started to see that my bilingual abilities gave me opportunities for ministry, especially among second-generation Latino youth, who were trying to straddle two very different cultural worlds.
As I grew in confidence in my ethnic identity, I was able to bring elements of my Latino culture, like our great capacity for hospitality, into the work of the predominantly white organization where I served in ministry.
Five years ago, I left a job I very much loved, co-directing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's ministry in New York City, to take on a role that had never existed beforeas the first national director of LaFe, InterVarsity's Latino ministry. This decision has brought out gifts in me, and in others in our organization, that would not have been discovered otherwise. In five years, we have grown from 19 Latino campus ministers to 45 across the country. Of the 32,000 students InterVarsity works with in the U.S., 913 are Latino, a 21 percent increase over the last five years.
The Courage to Be White
Whites, too, have something to contribute to a uniquely Christian approach to ethnic identity. In InterVarsity, we are learning that it is not enough for our ethnic minority campus ministers to see their ethnicity as a blessing. It is also vital that our white campus ministers live out of the beauty and strengths of their ethnicity. The first step for them is simply to recognize that they have a God-given ethnic identitythat being white is not just neutral or "normal," but a particular cultural heritage that can be redeemed and used for good.
White identity is invisible until it engages actively with other cultures and discovers what other cultures are reacting to and why. So it is essential for whites to enter into real relationships and partnerships with non-whites, even to the point of feeling out of place.
As our white staff have pursued such partnerships, they have developed a new and deeper sense of their white identity and a greater commitment to stay engaged in difficult issues of race. They are also being set free from a common affliction of whites who have become aware of the history of white privilege in America: immobilization by shame, guilt, or apathy.
One result of this process in InterVarsity has been Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp's book, Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multiethnic World. Paula and Doug identify some of the unique gifts and values of white culture, including the inherent worth of the individual, the importance of self-determination, and the commitment to take risks and solve problems.
The Courage to Work Together
In Living in Color, Randy Woodley, a Native American, gives a powerful account of what cultural partnerships can accomplish in addressing social issues. The state of Montana wanted, in the interests of safety and economic growth, to expand Highway 93, which ran through beautiful land in the Flathead Indian Reservation. The Salish and Kootenai tribes, however, were concerned that such an expansion would destroy wildlife, bring in new development, and eventually lead to unsustainable population growth.
As these two ethnic groups worked with the majority culture, they created a plan. They would build a four-lane highway that would respect the land and its inhabitants, following the natural contours of the land and including 42 wildlife crossings under and over the highway. In the end, not only did this design honor the tribes' concern for respect for land and animals, it actually made the highway safer, furthering the state's original purpose.
The two Native American tribes sought to protect the land, while the Montana Department of Transportation, representing white culture, placed great value on safety and economic growth (by expanding job opportunities through tourism). The priorities of each culture ended up serving the common good of the others.
Can the church, with its unique reach into nearly every "tribe and language and people and nation" represented in the United States, become a model of this kind of partnership? What might our song, nuestro himno, contribute to vexed questions about ethnicity in America?
In the case of the national anthem, Christians could begin by observing that Pentecost affirms the value of every culture and language. So when Latino citizens sing the national anthem in Spanish, we understand that they are embracing their bicultural and bilingual American Latino identity. They are singing about the nation they love in the language that resonates in their soul.
At the same time, Latino Christians understand that the national anthem is an important cultural icon in its original languagea key part of white American culture. No translation of our treasured anthem should be a replacement for it. So we could well agree with President Bush that every citizen, including Latino citizens, should also be able to sing the national anthem in English.
Finally, we might recognize that the national anthem is translated into myriad tongues every day. It is impossible for someone dominant in a language other than English not to translate a song like the national anthem in his or her head. Furthermore, the national anthem has already been translated into Spanish a number of times during the past hundred years, and until recently, this was not politically controversial. The question for our time might become who should do an official translation that would do justice to the original text but also free an important group of citizens to hear and sing the text's original meaning in their own language.
A Vital Purpose
Whatever happens with the national anthem, my hope is that the church in America will embrace its ethnic diversity as a vital part of humanity that can be redeemed for the purposes of God. If we do, we can offer something special to the wider world.
We are beginning to understand that racial healing is one purpose of the church, tearing down the walls that still separate us as brothers and sisters in Christ. May Jesus' prayer to the Father for us be answered in our generation: "I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:20-23). That, indeed, is nuestro himno.
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Previous Christianity Today articles from the Christian Vision Project include:
A New Kind of Urban Christian | As the city goes, so goes the culture. (June 9, 2006)
The Conservative Humanist | Those who are pro-life and pro-family should have no problem being pro-human. (April 21, 2006)
Loving the Storm-Drenched | We can no more change the culture than we can the weather. Fortunately, we've got more important things to do. By Frederica Mathewes-Green (March 3, 2006)
Habits of Highly Effective Justice Workers | Should we protest the system or invest in a life? Yes. By Rodolpho Carrasco (Feb. 3, 2006)
How the Kingdom Comes | The church becomes countercultural by sinking its roots ever deeper into God's heavenly gifts. By Michael S. Horton (Jan. 13, 2006)
Better Than a Cigar | Introducing the Christian Vision Project. By David Neff (Jan. 13, 2006)
More CVP articles from our sister publications are available on ChristianVisionProject.com.
Christianity Today's April 2005 cover story declared All Churches Should Be Multiracial.
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