On Christmas Eve, my wife, Michelle, and I welcomed the world into our home. People from around the world and from different religions came to experience a little of our Christian tradition. Some of our Sikh friends and Muslim friends joined us for dinner.
Altogether, eight kids and six adults enjoyed rich, delightful conversation and great food from around the globe. In the heart of southern Indiana, people hailing from India, Malaysia and the United States were able to enjoy a wonderful time together.
The depth of our friendship has grown since we have known both of these couples. Our families have eaten meals together, laughed together. Our children have played together and most of all learned much about one another. My family has really grown to love both of these families, and that love has been reciprocated.
This fact was evident when my wife recently was diagnosed with cancer. When both couples heard about what had happened, they contacted us about their concern and asked if there was anything they could do. Both of the families even brought over a meal for us so we didn’t have to cook.
Two other families from the Islamic Society of Columbus later contacted me to let me know they also wanted to drop off meals for us.
How could such relationships be possible?
Christianity has a long, storied history of multicultural engagement. Following the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the Catholic Church began to establish a number of missions to places such as Africa, Asia and the Far East. In Protestantism, there is the modern missions movement that began during the latter part of the 18th century by the father of modern missions, William Carey.
Mainline church leaders were both involved in the Civil Rights and Ecumenical movements. What’s more, during the past few centuries, there has been a decided shift regarding the balance of power worldwide in the Christian world, as more than 60 percent of the world’s Christian population living in the southern hemisphere rather than the West.
The world has become flat. In other words, we live in an interconnected, global world. America is the perfect example of this with a robust ethnic and religious diversity.
Sydney Ahlstrom in his book “The Religious History of American People” shows how Protestantism dominated the American landscape for nearly three and a half centuries, beginning in the 17th century. He calls this period The Great Puritan Epoch, which began with the New England Puritans arriving in the 17th century and continued until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Until Kennedy, every president was from a Protestant background, but now the first Catholic president had broken the mold and this signaled a shift from Protestant dominance to religious pluralism.
The challenge to respond to this new pluralism would become much more pronounced a few years later.
In 1965, John’s brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, began to heavily promote the Hart/Celler Act, the immigration bill that did away with the U. S. immigration policy that favored immigrants of northern European ancestry. This act, coupled with this new cultural shift toward pluralism, is why today we enjoy the rich diversity that is present here in Columbus.
Even though America has become a pluralistic nation, it is my Christian faith that compels me to be drawn to cross-cultural relationships and provides me with the rich resources needed to develop relationships with people who have much different backgrounds from me.
Despite Christianity being a multicultural and multiethnic movement and providing the resources for cross cultural relationships, it hasn’t fulfilled this mission historically in America. The racial divide has been firmly entrenched, particularly on Sunday mornings.
While the American church has reached out to those of other countries in the form of missions, that same commitment has not been fully lived out at home.
So given racial and ethnic diversity that exists, how can Christians reach out and love their neighbors? What exactly are those resources I previously mentioned?
What is needed is a practical theology to supply us with those resources, and New York Times Best-selling author Tim Keller offers great wisdom that I will tweak on how to do this. He says that there are at least three great barriers that the Gospel addresses that provides the resources for cross-cultural relationships.
The first barrier is pride. Pride compels me to think more highly of myself than I should. It causes me to find ways to set myself apart from everyone else, like the clothes I wear or the income I have, or even my religion.
Traditionally Christianity teaches what philosophers call Christian particularism, meaning there are not several ways to God but one particular way, and that is through Jesus Christ alone. This is an essential truth the Christian must affirm and not do away with for the sake of reaching out to other cultures and religious faith traditions.
One might think that this would enhance pride, not do away with it. And certainly that can be true. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support that claim. But it doesn’t have to be true.
For example, Christianity teaches that salvation is a gift one receives by grace through faith alone, a gift from God, not a reward that is earned. Consequently, I have to shun any sense of moral superiority because my justification before God is not of my own making.
The second barrier is fear. The kind of fear that shows its ugly head the most is the fear of rejection. But if my identity is placed firmly in who I am in Christ, based on what Christ has done on the cross, then fear is minimized as a hindrance. This truth supplies the boldness to be open, engaged and vulnerable which are essential ingredients to build healthy, cross-cultural relationships.
The third barrier is indifference. The gospel should bring joy and love for people because one has experienced the love of God. The Gospel of John says God loves the world, the whole world, which contains every tongue, tribe and nation. If God does, shouldn’t we?
Since Protestantism is no longer dominant, and the world has come to us, how should Christians respond in the face of religious and ethnic pluralism? It is in humility, boldness, and love, deeply rooted in the Gospel, which should motivate us to love our neighbor.
Columbus’ Tim Orr is an adjunct faculty member in religious studies at IUPUC and author of the recently published book “We Named Her Faith: How We Became a Gospel-Centered Family.” He can be reached at email@example.com.