Friday, March 11, 2011

Multi-culture and the Christian Imagination

As previously mentioned, I've been reading Willie James Jennings' The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race for a seminar here at university, and have been finding it very thought-provoking. In a chapter following the trail of a Jesuit missionary and theologian named Jose de Acosta Porres in his travels to the "new world" of 16th century Peru, Jennings tells us some of the ways that the seafaring Europeans altered the landscape of South America. Despite the fact that they thought they brought civilization and salvation to these aboriginals, we see that the new settlers and colonizers brought a lot more:
'By the end of the sixteenth century, only eight decades after the Spaniards arrived, the picture had changed. The Indian populations were decimated and their fields reduced... The processes by which sheep grazing displaced agriculture, and sheep displaced humans, resulted in the formation of a new and far less hospitable landscape within which the indigenous populations were marginalized and alienated, their traditional resources degraded or lost, and their access to the means of production restricted.'...

This meant that the skills and abilities of native peoples to work the land were rendered null and void even as the Andean peoples tried to continue their own pastoral practices. It also meant that they were forced to place their 'products' into new economic networks alongside new alien crops and produce. The reputation created by this transformation meant that the native peoples' agricultural practices were perceived as backward at best or of poor stewardship of the natural resources at worst.

This gives a bit of an insight into what happened when the assumption was that it was the settlers who could teach the aboriginals a thing or two about how to use the land rather than vice versa. The settlers may win the day, but at what cost? And why the assumption that all the learning is one way? Here the aboriginals are going out of their way to be hospitable, and are being extinguished for it. All under the settler's assumption that it is they who are the hospitable ones; it is they who must civilize and convert these barbarian hordes. As we see next, even in the face of the dreadful results of these assumptions, the settlers could not seem to rise above this basic premise: That it was they who brought salvation and civilization, and it was the aboriginals who were the problem. Even the theologian Acosta was pulled into this colonialist frame of mind:
Acosta failed to acknowledge the [aboriginal] miners' humanity because his theological vision was overdetermined, drawn into a circular logic energized on the one side by [new problems] and on the other side by the need to assert [presumably Christian, European solutions]....

In an astonishing statement in the Historia, Acosta ... speculates that the reason for the rapid depopulation of many areas and the massive deaths of natives is their own fault:

'In our time the population of these coasts or plains is so much diminished and impaired that twenty-nine out of thirty of its inhabitants have disappeared; and many believe that the remaining Indians will disappear before long. People attribute this to various causes, some to the fact that the Indians have been overworked, others to the changes of food and drink that they adopted after becoming accustomed to Spanish habits, and others to the excessive vice that they display in drink and other abuses. As for me, I believe that this latter disorder is the chief cause of their reduced numbers.'
I am not sure what is more shocking: That 29/30 aboriginals were dying, or that it was blamed on the fact that they drank too much.

Of course, Jennings' argument is not for the complete innocence of the aboriginal population, nor is it for the untruth of Christianity or evil of the church. Things are undoubtedly more complex than all that. The argument is basically to show that when the social imagination is not intent on seeking to be truly Christian, it can be usurped by a great many of forces. In this case the assumptions of "civilization", racial superiority, colonial progress, the logic of the "free" market, and so on. The theological assumption that gets into bed with all these other assumptions is also quite intriguing.

Faced with differences in this new world, rather than look for ways that the Creator God and Holy Spirit might have been present among the indigenous population all along (perhaps preparing them to learn of Christ), the Christian settler
imagines the demonic work to be far more extensive, expressive, and operative than the work of God could ever have been had the Spanish not been in the new world.... Acosta is cut off from a simple Gentile remembrance [i.e., the recollection that he, too, had been grafted into the one people of God in Christ] that would enable a far more richly imagined possibility of movement toward faith from within the cultural logics and spatial realities of Andean life.

The point of all this is not to raise the guilt-level, but to ask how the Christian imagination could be corrected, especially in an exponentially increased multi-cultural society. We encounter difference all the time. What do we do with it? Are our assumptions the same as those taken on by Acosta? How many of our cultural norms get thrust into the heart of Christianity when in fact they are simply activities and ideas that Christianity was able to work with (both in subversion and redemption)?

I am reminded of a paper I wrote in seminary examining the residential schools in 19th and 20th century Canada and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that has been set up to come to grips with this dark history. I had always suspected that the usual rhetoric about the problems faced within Canada's aboriginal population (which sounded much like Acosta's above) were misguided, but did not realize to what an extent this was the case. In research I learned that the United Nations had actually determined that the Canadian government (with the assistance of some of its churches) had committed decades of 'cultural genocide'. I saw that the ramifications of this were not confined to past decades but continued to live on and affect future generations, not only of aboriginals but of non-aboriginal Canadians. I realized that though we had not committed the original crimes we could later still be complicit in past evils simply by (ignorantly) perpetuating the myths that allowed those evils to take place.

So it was that I was faced with the possibility that the only way to true healing would be to face up to the truth of our past and take responsibility not only for the conditions of society but for the reshaping of our social imaginations for the future. Furthermore, I was convinced that it is indeed the Christian social imagination that is best equipped for such healing and reconciliation, and yet convicted by the fact that in many cases it probably has not troubled itself to wrestle with such possibilities and has considered this either a past or a political problem that did not touch its own missional goals.

So I post this as a challenge to myself and my churches. What do we actually think is our mission? Are we merely about the salvation of souls or are we also (and more fully) about the ministry and the ambassadorship of reconciliation? Are we always the teachers, or do we ever have something to learn? Might we witness to Christ not only in proclamation but also in confession? What posture does the gospel require of us? What social imagination does it inspire?

What has Pentecost to say to Babel?

How much of what we equate with Christianity is actually a product of cultural assumptions? How often do we guard against going along with 'culture' in its present and future trends without analyzing the ways we may have already (and wrongly) gone along with it in the past? Is it possible that sometimes there is a 'cultural' repentance in regard to the past that is more Spirit-led than our own resistance to such a thing?

It occurs to me that what our multi-culture needs from the church (and what God asks of it) is neither a bed-fellow nor a strict-resistor but a community of people who confess the Lordship of Christ and endeavor to follow His ministry of reconciliation in the world - even where it calls for our own repentance and our full engagement with the problems of our society in a posture of truth-seeking, justice-seeking, graciousness, and love. Truth is, I can hardly imagine such a society or such a posture, except for the revelation of God and humanity that has come to us in Jesus Christ.

(Excerpts from Jennings, Christian Imagination, pp.. 77, 94, 98, quoting Elinor G.K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep, pp. 39-40.)


Stewart said...

Well put Jon. Culture is a big deal isn't it. Fundamentalism in the past has displayed an arrogance in areas of culture that still has ramifications for today. Oh for humility, wisdom and true love for others!

Dave M said...

I like the inxs cover, especially the St. Vincent vocals, it's pretty hard not to like anything she is doing.

Tony Tanti said...

I appreciate your challenge here for us to consider if we are repeating the mistakes of the past, or even acknowledging them.

Those were some chilling quotes about past attitudes but just as I start to feel like they were so out to lunch I remember that you don't have to go far to hear modern day attitudes much like them.

The last place that should be is in the church and in fairness to the church I think it less common there.