"May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me." - Jesus, John 17:23

Principle 2: Just As You Are in Me and I Am in You

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 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 have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” – Jesus Christ (emphasis added)1

Curing color-blindness

Occasionally when I am talking with someone about multi-ethnic community they will say something like, “I don’t know why everyone makes such a big deal about ethnicity.  I think everyone should just be color-blind.  I don’t see anyone any differently because of their color.”  I can appreciate what they are trying to express — that they don’t look down on anyone because of their ethnicity.  But, it is important to realize that we should never try to ignore another person’s ethnicity. It is a very important and divinely crafted part of who they are.

It is usually those of us in the majority culture who talk about color-blindness. Whether we realize it or not, most of society is “painted with our culture”. (see the assimilation model below) So, when we say, “I am color blind” what we can unintentionally be saying is, “I am color-blind to every color but my own.” That is part of why the concept of color-blindness is so offensive to many ethnic minorities. If we were surrounded by another culture we would appreciate having our “color” (or lack of it, in my case) recognized as well. As Dr. David Anderson writes in Multicultural Ministry (p.119):

My prayer is that the church, whether Anglo, African, or Afghan, would refuse to be color-blind. Why would we ever want to dull a sense that we’ve been given by our creator? We don’t need color-blind stages, staffs, and structures. We need churches who know how to see beauty and celebrate diversity. Who among us would ever desire to walk through a garden to behold only one color and one kind of flower?2

I learned the value of “seeing color” when I lived in the Middle East. As a fair-skinned, light-haired American, I felt like every time I walked down the sidewalk I had a big neon sign on my forehead declaring “FOREIGNER”. I appreciated it when my Middle Eastern friends went out of their way to acknowledge and accommodate the unique needs of my culture. They could have just said, “We’re color-blind to the fact that you are American” and asked me to act like their culture was my culture. Their lack of color-blindness was a way to show me love and respect.

How should colors mix in multi-ethnic community?

Ignoring colors is not the answer.  But, that leaves us with an important and difficult question… how should our colors (or ethnicities) mix in multi-ethnic community? Or, should they mix at all? In People of the Dream, Michael Emerson provides a helpful section titled, “A Brief History of Metaphors for U.S. Race and Ethnic Relations” (p.173-193). He describes several metaphors which have typified ethnic relations in the U.S. from the beginning of its history. I have attempted to summarize some of the most common of these metaphors below:

Let’s assume we have the following ethnic groups on the right trying to form a multi-ethnic community. The largest group represents the majority or dominant culture.

Assimilation (A + B + C + D = A): All groups are expected to assimilate into the culture of the majority group. This has been the expectation for minority groups throughout much of America’s history. It has also been the model adopted by many, if not most, Christian organizations.

Melting Pot (A + B + C + D = E): The groups are expected to melt into a distinct new type of culture — letting go of their old ethnic identity for the sake of embracing their new ethnic identity. The culture of each individual is not valued nearly as much as the new “melting pot culture”.

Mosaic (A + B + C + D = A + B + C + D): In this model the various ethnic groups must learn to coexist for their own advancement and that of the community but the groups are not expected to lose any of their ethnic identity or to assimilate with the other groups.

Beef Stew (A + B + C + D = AE + BE + CE + DE): In this model, “each ethnic group is distinct but both contributes to and absorbs the flavor of the stew” (Emerson). Some cross-cultural influencing and assimilation takes place but each ethnic group still retains its own culture.

What difference does it make?

You may be wondering, what is the big deal about which metaphor we follow? The metaphor we choose (consciously or unconsciously) will have a powerful influence on the day-to-day decisions we make as we interact with one another in a multi-ethnic community. For example, let’s look at a typical question that multi-ethnic groups face: “What should our worship music be like?” Here are answers you might hear from those who follow…

  • Assimilation: “People of all ethnicities are welcome to worship with us.  Our worship style should reflect the desires of the majority of the people in our group.  We can’t be all things to all people.”
  • Melting Pot: “We should take all of the ethnic styles found in our group and try to merge them into a completely new and different style of worship music.”
  • Mosaic: “Our worship should reflect all of the ethnicities in our group. We will showcase a different ethnic style of worship each meeting.”
  • Beef Stew: “Our worship should be a mixture of the ethnic styles in our group and a new, blended style which we develop together.”

How biblical are these metaphors?

The most important question isn’t what metaphor that you, or I, or anyone else thinks is best — it is, which metaphor is biblical? Each metaphor (except assimilation) contains some elements that fit (), semi-fit (), or don’t fit the biblical model (). In the chart I compare these metaphors to some of the biblical principles of multi-ethnic community (it is not intended to be a comprehensive list):

Biblical principles Assimilation Melting Pot Mosaic Beef Stew
Differences are valued (1 Corinthians 12)
Ethnicity is not ignored (all of the Book of Acts)
We are a part of an entirely new culture (1 Peter 2)
We are intimately connected in love and unity (John 17)
We powerfully influence one another (Ephesians 4)
We are both individuals and one body (Romans 12)
Hostility between the groups is removed (Ephesians 2)

The biblical metaphors

The Bible contains a wealth of metaphors for Christian community. These, of course, are the most “safe”, accurate, and healthy ways for us to think about multi-ethnic community.  Some examples:

  • branches on a vine (John 15)
  • a field of crops (1 Corinthians 3)
  • God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3)
  • the body of Christ with all of us as the parts (1 Corinthians 12)
  • the bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11)
  • the body of Christ with Christ as the head (Ephesians 4)
  • a family (1 Timothy 5)
  • God’s house — with Jesus as the builder (Hebrews 3)
  • living stones being built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2)
  • a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2)
  • a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2)

It is important that we keep all of these metaphors in mind when trying to understand and build multi-ethnic community — none of these metaphors are meant to completely describe Christian community on their own.  As Dr. Wayne Grudem explains in Systematic Theology (p.859):

The wide range of metaphors used for the church in the New Testament should remind us not to focus exclusively on any one. For example, while it is true that the church is the body of Christ, we must remember that this is only one metaphor among many. If we focus exclusively on that metaphor we will be likely to forget that Christ is our Lord reigning in heaven as well as the one who dwells among us.3

The doctrine of the Trinity and multi-ethnic community

At first you may think, “Wow, we are way out there now — what does the doctrine of the Trinity have to do with multi-ethnic community?” Everything! We know from Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that our relationships with one another are supposed to be so intimate that they reflect Jesus’ relationship with God the Father. This is an incredible, mind-blowing, metaphor-shattering concept! How could our relationships be anywhere near as intimate as the relationship between God the Father and God the Son? It can almost feel like heresy to even think in those terms. Jesus’ prayer helps us to realize just how incredibly deep, powerful, and “real” he wants our relationships to be.

In Systematic Theology Dr.Grudem also provides a summary of the doctrine of the Trinity (p. 231):

In one sense the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery that we will never be able to understand fully. However, we can understand something of its truth by summarizing the teaching of Scripture in three statements:

  1. God is three persons
  2. Each person is fully God
  3. There is one God

He goes on to discuss limitations of analogies for the Trinity (p.240):

Sometimes people have used several analogies drawn from nature or human experience to attempt to explain this doctrine. Although these analogies are helpful at an elementary level of understanding, they all turn out to be inadequate or misleading on further reflection. To say, for example, that God is like a three-leaf clover, which has three parts yet remains one clover, fails because each leaf is only part of the clover, and any one leaf cannot be said to be the whole clover. But in the Trinity, each of the persons is not just a separate part of God, each person is fully God. Morever, the leaf of a clover is impersonal and does not have distinct and complex personality in the way each person of the Trinity does.

There are many things we can learn about the Trinity from the Bible but it is impossible to find a metaphor or analogy for the Trinity that will make it completely understandable or capture the entire doctrine. This is not surprising. It makes sense that it would be impossible for created beings with very limited understanding (us) to find an adequate analogy in our finite world for an infinite, far more complex being like God. As Grudem points out, “… it is interesting that Scripture nowhere uses any analogies to teach the doctrine of the Trinity.” Since Christian community is meant to be a reflection of the relationships within the Trinity (John 17), it is not surprising that it also cannot be completely described in terms of human metaphors.

Putting it all together

Christians are never called to be color-blind. We are called to recognize and value each other’s ethnicity as an important part of who we are and an expression of God’s amazing artistry. Our American society’s approach to dealing with our ethnic diversity can often be associated with four metaphors: assimiliation, melting pot, mosaic, and beef stew. Most Christian churches and organizations will tend to follow one or more of these metaphors. Although the metaphors may contain an element of truth, all of them fall short of the biblical model of multi-ethnic community. Amazingly, our relationships within multi-ethnic community are meant to be a reflection of the relationships within the Trinity (John 17). Therefore, it is not surprising to find that both the Trinity and multi-ethnic community contain a spiritual reality that is impossible to completely capture with a human analogy or metaphor. We must look at all of the teachings and metaphors in the Bible in combination in order to get the most accurate picture of what biblical, multi-ethnic community is meant to be like.

Footnotes:
1 The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Jn 17:20-23). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
2 Anderson, D (2004). Multicultural Ministry: Finding Your Church’s Unique Rhythm. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
3 Grudem, W (1994). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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