Recognition and unity: A challenge for the devout

After five years in Toronto – much of it living and working with refugees and other newcomers – I’ve discovered that a great tension exists within diverse communities between the desire to express unity, and the need to preserve uniqueness. Proclamations of “I’m Canadian now!” are frequent, but they speak less to a budding nationalism than a desire to share the legal, social, and political aspects of citizenship they have in common with their new neighbours. At the same time, such folks actively strengthen ties within their respective ethnic communities, and show constant resolve in retaining their cultural traditions. It’s fair to say this is a tension that needs to be seen to be believed: many political and media figures speak of the impossibility of holding multiple ethnic and cultural identities concurrently, and anybody who doesn’t experience diversity in the context of deep community is vulnerable to falling victim to such sensationalism.

I’m fortunate to have been welcomed into a couple communities that intentionally strive to foster an environment where unity and diversity can coexist. Romero House, a refugee transitional housing organizations that I’ve been involved with since 2009, has a professed mandate to welcome newcomers regardless of their cultural background, language skills, or intention to “integrate” into “Canadian culture”. Romero House was founded in 1992 by a group of Catholic activists heavily impacted by the liberation theology tradition that has influenced the Latin American ecclesiastical and politician scene since the 1970s. This tradition – advanced by figures such as Gustavo Guitierrez, Leonardo Boff, and the community’s namesake Oscar Romero – understands Christ’s teaching to be primarily directed against the prevalence of economic, political, and social injustices. Particular emphasis is placed on Jesus’ mission to empower society’s poor and marginalized.

Although it is easy to see how liberation theology would inspire the devout to welcome – and advocate for the needs of – vulnerable people such as refugees, it is primarily concerned with material, or redistributive, justice. In A Spacious Heart, a volume he co-edits with Judith Gundry-Volf, Miroslav Volf observes that Christian justice-seeking traditions – including the liberation movements that grew out of Latin America – have placed comparatively sparse importance on protecting diverse cultural identities. Drawing on the ideas of political philosopher Charles Taylor, Volf asserts that ethnic conflict is exacerbated by lack of recognition and respect between cultural groups. As such, in addition to continuing to fight for redistributive justice, the Christian church has a responsibility to confront forces of cultural domination and assimilation (which, he claims, have been bolstered by the progression of technology and economic globalization).

Does this mean that Christians are obliged to defend official government policies of multiculturalism, many of which have been directly inspired by Taylor’s theories of recognition? Not necessarily. According to Volf, however, greater efforts must be made to develop theological responses to cross-cultural conflict. Furthermore, adherents who note the degree to which Jesus struggled with the unity-diversity tension throughout the course of his mission will recognize that it is a question central to their spiritual formation. In her contribution to A Spacious Heart, entitled “Spirit, Mercy and the ‘Other’,” Judith Gundry-Volf compares two examples of Jesus encountering gentiles – his meetings with the Samaritan and Syrophonecian women, respectively – to demonstrate the degree to which questions of ethnic identity characterized Gospel narratives.

Gundry-Volf begins by discussing  Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well [John 4:1-42], widely considered by theologians as a paradigmatic account of his cross-cultural mission to both Jews and Gentiles.  Jesus – thirsty in the midst of a long foot-journey from Judea to Galilee – stops to have a drink while passing through the region of Samaria. A resident woman, busy drawing water from the well, is surprised when he asks her for a drink; animosity ran deep between Jews and Samaritans, and they tended to avoid contact. A conversation ensues, in which Jesus reveals his divinity to her and alerts her to the redeeming power of God’s forgiveness. Gundry-Volf explains that by offering the woman the same ‘living water’ that he offers to the Jews, Jesus “transcends the boundaries dividing the figures in (the) story and envelops them in a new, inclusive fellowship” [p.15].

In light of this cross-cultural exchange, Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophonecian woman [Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30] comes across as shockingly ethnocentric. The woman (who is alternatively referred to as a Canaanite in some accounts) implores Jesus to intercede on behalf of her daughter, who she says is being tormented by a demon. Jesus initially doesn’t reply to her, and she persists in her request; he subsequently appears to try and deter her, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” [Matt. 15:24]. The woman is driven to her knees in supplication, but Jesus persists with an ethnically polarizing metaphor: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” [verse 26].

Gundry-Volf observes that Jesus channels what would have been a commonly-held view that a Gentile had no “right” to expect the salvation of the Messiah, and the Syrophonecian woman doesn’t challenge this view. Instead of appealing to a sense of ethnocultural justice, she implores Jesus to have mercy by alluding to the fact that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” [verse 27]. Recognizing the power and creativity of her faith, Jesus supersedes his previous reluctance, declaring that her daughter is healed. Gundry-Volf emphasizes that Jesus wasn’t suddenly overcome with some type of  universalist sensibility; indeed, the content of their conversation highlighted ethnic (in addition to gender) otherness more than it overshadowed it. Instead, “Jesus’ sense of his mission (was) expanded” through the principle of mercy, in which the woman has so much faith [p.29].

While reading, I realized that although I was very familiar with the story of the Jesus at Jacob’s well, I had totally forgotten about his encounter with the Syrophonecian. This is likely due to selective memory: regardless of the outcome of the second story, to say Jesus’ initial comments unsettled my liberal sensibilities would be an understatement. Moving beyond initial impressions, however, it has become clear to me that Jesus’ mission was characterized by very similar unity-diversity tensions that we encounter in modern, diverse societies. Furthermore, it’s clear that he struggled with it: Jesus – just as much human as God – couldn’t comprehend disassociating himself from his ethnic heritage, and was passionate about liberating his people from the very real, material oppression of an invading empire. At the same time, the divine qualities that empowered him – mercy and unconditional love – made outreach to the “other” utterly irresistible.

Although I’m no longer at Romero House, I still live in a hugely diverse city, and as such constantly struggle to fully respect the other.  I’ll continually strive to learn how to acknowledge the common humanity I share with my neighbour, while also recognizing the differences that they cherish. More immediately, I look forward to working through the rest of Gundry-Volf/Volf – I’ll keep you appraised.

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2 Responses to Recognition and unity: A challenge for the devout

  1. Victoria says:

    hi Tom, it was really nice to see you and your wife again this evening. You are a very fine writer, and I hope you do a doctorate some day. You have strong analytic and critical skills, as well as excellent observational and assessment abilities. Your writing is outstanding, well said.
    I sense that after you get a few years of front lines behind you, you will have some great material for a thesis!

  2. Pingback: Imperialism in Ukraine: Community beyond Putin | Space to breathe

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