When someone asks you to use a few words to describe yourself, what words do you use? Would you change those words to describe yourself when you are with your family? At work? Travelling to some distant place?
I discovered that the words I use to describe myself change, depending on my cultural context. When we lived in Toronto, the two most basic words I used to describe myself were “Christian” and “woman.” Those were the two parts of my life that made the most difference in how I lived. Imagine my surprise, then, when we moved to southern Africa and those words didn’t really matter as key parts of my identity! Everyone we interacted with defined themselves as Christian, so that was taken for granted; and it was far more important that I was a mother than that I was a woman. By contrast, in southern Africa, the most important thing was that I was white – an aspect of identity I had taken for granted in Canada.
A Christian woman – those were the important parts of my identity in Canada. A white mother – those different parts of my identity became the most important in Lesotho. My self-understanding of my identity changed, even though I had not changed.
This change illustrates the first point I want to make: Culture matters, because culture defines who we are.
The second point I want to make is that language matters. I have learned a little bit of several languages, and I am fascinated by words that exist in one language and have no direct translation into another language. In Sesotho I learned that there is actually a word for a body part that heals badly after a break or a wound – we have no such word in English. And in Spanish and French there is the lovely word animateur or animador, someone who plays a facilitating and encouraging leadership role in a group of people, a concept that just does not make it into English. And in German we have the lovely word gemeinschaft, a word that English speakers have translated into “brotherhood” and “community,” though these translations fail to capture the depth of meaning that word has in German. Each of these examples underscores the fact that language matters, because language gives us the concepts that are important in our culture.
There are some deep differences among all our various languages and cultures around the world, differences that go far deeper than we sometimes realize. Culture, shaped by language, impacts our worldview, our self-understanding and our sense of identity. And this is particular challenge for Christians, whose beliefs and practices are shaped by culture and language even though our faith transcends those categories.
Biblical examples of difference
The Bible gives us some images and stories to explain and understand our differences in language in culture – and to show us how these differences can in fact be part of God’s plan for building the Church.
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells the story of the Tower of Babel. This story gives two reasons for all the different language groups. One reason is that unity based on sameness leads to pride, and the other reason is that unity based on sameness is a response to fear. In Genesis 11:4-6, we read that the people wanted to be famous and that they were afraid of being scattered. Both impulses are rooted in dependence in oneself instead of depending on God: “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do.”
The theologian Walter Brueggeman says this is a story of people who wanted to be great because of their cookie-cutter sameness – same language, same food, same clothes, same culture. There is a lot that can be accomplished in a homogeneous culture. Brueggemann suggests that God scatters the people to show them a better way. The unity God wants for the human race is diverse people drawn together by common faith and values, not drawn together by sameness in language and culture. Brueggemann says that the many languages and the scattering in this story are not a punishment, but are actually an opportunity to live up to the much greater potential God wills for the earth. God gave the people of the Tower of Babel the opportunity to experience difference in order to learn to depend on God and to be drawn together through faith rather than through culture. It takes a global village to be who God wants us to be.
Another biblical image of difference occurs at the other end of the Bible – in the last book, Revelation. In Revelation 7:9-14, we read about an uncountable number of people, from every nation, every tribe and every language, all singing and worshipping God together. This is the opposite image to the Tower of Babel. This is a little glimpse of heaven!
This image comes to us as part of the story in Revelation of the opening of the seven seals – seven events with terrible consequences for the people. This image is actually in between the opening of the sixth seal and the seventh seal, like a little break in the story. Here we have this image of the people of God, from every culture and language, together worshipping God, regardless of the ordeals, persecutions and tribulations that they are experiencing.
In the previous chapter (Revelation 6:17), a question is asked: “Who is able to stand in the midst of all these ordeals?” The answer is given in this image: it is the multicultural people of God who together worship and praise God from every country and every language, and who are able to stand throughout persecution and tribulation. It takes a global village to be the people God wants us to be, and to be able to stay strong through persecution.
Becoming God’s multicultural people
For the Jewish people in Israel who thought they alone were God’s chosen people, this image of a multicultural people of God is a drastic shift in thinking. In Ephesians 3, Paul very directly states that once the Gentiles were not only foreigners and aliens but uncircumcised, and therefore not part of Israel, not part of God’s people. But now, he concludes, through Christ they belong – fully belong. Paul’s commentary was an immense shift in thinking for Jewish Christians. Only then could they begin to understand that there could be different ways of worshipping God than their own Jewish traditions, particularly the practices that gave them identity, such as circumcision and food laws.
For those of us who think our ways of worshipping and understanding God are the right ways or the best ways or even the only ways, the image of God’s multicultural people in Revelation 7 is also an immense shift in our own thinking. It takes a global village to be the people God wants us to be.
We are cultural people, and our own cultural traditions and languages are the means through which we understand and worship God. There is much to celebrate in many of our ways of worshipping and understanding God, wherever it is that we live and worship. But our own ways are not the only ways! Our ways are comfortable and familiar, and our leaders can even usually give extensive biblical explanations for why we think our practices are the right way.
Like the people at the Tower of Babel, we are too often afraid that differences will create disunity and will scatter us. We are too often ready to depend on language and culture and tradition to hold us together, instead of depending on God’s ways to hold us together across our differences. We need to become like the people in Revelation, a multicultural group praising God together, who are able to withstand all persecution. It takes a global village to be the people God wants us to be.
A glimpse of heaven on earth
Having studied sociology, I know that every group works hard to create its own identity and its own way of doing things, and that those ways of belonging are important. We all want to belong to a group with whom we share identity; that is normal human nature. Belonging is a good thing! However, these stories in Genesis, Revelation and Ephesians help us to see that God intends for us to share our primary identity with other Jesus-followers, rather than with those who share our language, culture or nationality. We belong to a people whose worldview is shaped by God, the Bible and our faith community. Our primary identity is as Christians. We belong to a local church and a global church. This identity and belonging should be the primary influence on who we are.
Our congregations are places where we belong, where we know each other and where we enjoy similar styles of worship and following Jesus. Belonging to a local congregation where we like to sing the same songs or pray in the same way is a good thing. Many of us also belong to regional or national conferences – another setting in which we share customs and traditions that bind us together in common identity. And yet I know that even within congregations and conferences there is always just enough difference to bring conflict and tension. Those differences are magnified when we put a large number of congregations and conferences together within one country, and then across cultures, languages and countries.
Mennonite World Conference is different from belonging to a local congregation or conference. MWC is our global Anabaptist church community, where we come together because we share convictions about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the church. It is our place to catch just a little glimpse of heaven on earth – a glimpse of what it is like to worship God together with a multitude of others from different nations, different cultures and different languages. It is a glimpse of being the people God wants us to be – a people bound together by more than language, culture or local customs and traditions.
MWC is a place for us to learn from our cultural diversity about what it means to follow Jesus. I believe that we can best answer the question, “What does it mean to be an Anabaptist Christian in my cultural context today?” by finding out how people in other cultural contexts answer that question. MWC is the place where we walk this journey of faith with others who are different from us – different cultures, different countries, even different types of Anabaptists in different conferences. MWC is the place where we are bound together by our shared convictions as Anabaptist Christians. Together, we are a bit of heaven here on earth. Together, we are strong enough to resist persecution and temptation.
Together with all the saints
Let us look back again at the passage written by Paul to the Christians in Ephesus – not to the Jewish Christians, but to Gentile Christians. He reminds them in chapters 2 and 3 that they are fellow citizens of God’s people, full members of God’s household and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus. That was an amazing, new, yet controversial idea way back then, and it continues to transform our understanding of God’s actions in our world today. We are all full members of God’s household, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus, across all the differences that so easily divide us.
Paul offers a prayer for this Gentile church in Ephesians 3:14-21. He prays that they might comprehend the immensity of the love of God – the breadth, length, depth and height of the love of God. And he prays that they might know it “with all the saints.” I love that little phrase in there. I read it to say that we cannot really know the immensity of God’s love without all the saints. It is only in the messiness of difference – cultural and linguistic and political and theological and economic – with all the saints, that we can begin to grasp the love of God. It takes a global village to begin to understand the immensity of God’s love, and to be the people God wants us to be.
Arli Klassen is chief development officer for Mennonite World Conference.
Anabaptists from around the world share in a communion service during the 2012 MWC General Council meeting, held in Basel, Switzerland. Photo by Merle Good
Two Mennonite women, one from North America and one from Indonesia, converse. For Anabaptists, MWC is the place where such intercultural contact is possible. Photo by Merle Good