Saturday, June 13, 2020

Love Me, Love My Culture

American discourse on "race," "ethnicity," and "culture" stinks to high heaven, because it's rooted in concepts that are antiquated to begin with, and flat wrong beyond that.  (Things are no better in other countries, but I'm talking about us.)  I sympathize, since I'm trying to make sense of these issues too, but I recognize that the categories are incoherent at best.  I'm not sure they can be fixed.

On Thursday morning NPR posted this story, about racial divisions among churches around Washington DC.  They interviewed the pastor of a church that's trying to work toward a more "multicultural" approach.  What seems to be the problem isn't so much overt racism as cultural differences between white and black churches, and the expectations of the worshipers from each.  As I listened to him, I began to suspect that the problem might not be a problem after all, and that racism is not going to be eliminated by erasing cultural differences.

The pastor makes some remarkable admissions here, perhaps unawares.  That worship is not a pure, timeless and ahistorical expression of service to deity but a human construction shaped by culture and habit.  That culture is not something "natural," fallen from heaven, but the product of human choices.  If white churches should modify their liturgy and other practices to make them more "multicultural," then why shouldn't black churches do so as well?  Of course, black churches are already heavily shaped by white culture: the services are performed in English using a religion that channeled Jewish and other west Asian sources through centuries of European culture, appropriate dress is European, church buildings are European, the musical instruments are European.  The Pentecostal elements, in those churches, aren't African either.  But I don't know, maybe African-American Christians have already compromised enough?  One could make the case, except that they seem not to be aware of it. African-American culture generally is also largely assimilated.  It's not very persuasive to invoke cultural survival of a culture that is already 'impure.'  But all cultures are.  Whether he knows it or not, this guy is moving toward atheism: I'm rooting for him.

The same applies to the white churches, of course: their Christianity is already a patchwork stitched together from many disparate sources.  You know, all those "pagan" elements that have found their way into Christian celebrations - "Christmas" trees, Yule logs, Easter eggs, and so on?  But also: Christianity originated in Palestinian Judaism, but the versions we know now came through Gentile ("Greek," as the New Testament writers call it) churches, with considerable conflict between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians (it all hangs out in Paul's letter to Galatians), and then through Rome (a catch-all for the multicultural Empire) and Western Europe.  The Eastern churches, lumped together as Orthodoxy, reflect other cultural differences.  More differences are emerging as Christianity spreads through Africa and Asia, and as Evangelical Protestantism competes successfully with Catholicism in Latin America.  Would people from these churches feel at home in a majority-white, middle- to upper-class D.C. service?

In all these cases, social construction relies on a heritage of forgetting that what feels comfortable, natural, neutral, is the current state of many centuries of change and learning.  Just within a given stream of tradition, whether the church be white or black, there are details that will trip up a visitor from one denomination to another.  A white Episcopalian who visits a white Presbyterian church will find many things about the service that feel 'wrong,' and indeed people have died over such things, though from a larger perspective they're of no more moment than how to hang a roll of toilet paper (over? under?).  Where does the burden of adaptation lie: on the visitor, or on the host?

I don't think white churches should have to assimilate any more than non-white churches should.  If a congregation wants to develop liturgies and worship practices that will work for an ethnic rainbow, that is their choice, but it's likely that they'll end up with everyone feeling dissatisfied, at least until they adjust to the changes.  What we need is not the erasure and elimination of differences, but respect for differences, and that inevitably means judgment about which differences matter and which don't.