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In Defense of Multiculturalism

March 19, 2015

by Dr. Robert P. Sellers
Originally published in April 2001 in ChristianEthicsToday
My wife and I spent almost a quarter century living among the peoples of Colombia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. For more than two decades we were Baptist missionaries on the Indonesian island of Java, one of the most densely populated places in the world, with 100 million people living in an area the size of Tennessee. Our home for 13 years was the cosmopolitan mega city of Jakarta, with its multicultural collage of 10 million faces drawn from Indonesia’s 300 or more ethnolinguistic people groups. Later we lived in the Central Javanese seaport of Semarang, a bustling “country town” with only one and a quarter million inhabitants. All around us we observed striking reminders of the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of our adopted homeland.
Every neighborhood, for example, had its own mosque, where faithful Muslims went each Friday to pray, give alms, and repeat their confession of faith. On I’dul Fitri, the day of celebration that marks the end of the fasting month, almost 200,000 would crowd the city square in front of Semarang’s main mesjid, bowing toward Mecca in submission to the will of Allah. Less than a kilometer from the Baptist seminary where Janie and I taught classes-and well within the sound of the Muslim call to prayer-is Gedung Batu. This centuries-old shrine was built to honor the Ming Dynasty sea captain Cheng Ho, whose visit to Semarang in 1406 led the Chinese of the region to identify him as the deity Sam Po Kung.
Today thousands of supplicants come regularly to this grotto to burn incense and pray before one of the brightly painted plaster images-or to sit, as we did, beneath the huge, blossomed trees to honor the memory of their ancestors. Overlooking this temple complex and dotting the lush hillsides surrounding Semarang are dozens of smaller communities populated by simple farming families. Many of the villagers plant and harvest their crops under the watchful eye of Dewi Sri, the rice goddess, or annually carry orchid offerings to the rocky, southern coastline to placate the jealous Goddess of the South Sea. Not far from these traditional folk religionists are located two of the ancient wonders of Javanese religious life: Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and its magnificent Hindu counterpart, Prambanan-each a noble testament to the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms that flourished in Central Java more than 1200 years ago. Late one balmy night in May, Janie and I watched as saffron-robed monks led a candlelit processional of worshipers up the winding pathway of Borobudur to commemorate the Buddha’s birth. On another occasion, under a full moon, we sat listening to the gongs and clangs of percussion instruments as hundreds of Javanese dancers enacted stories from the Hindu Ramayana on the hand-carved stone terraces of Prambanan.
Living amid these treasures of religious antiquity, among peoples who practice such disparate rituals but with similar dedication, gave us an appreciation for the rich cultural diversity in the world. Relating to neighbors, friends, and colleagues of so many ethnolinguistic backgrounds forced us to accept others whose ideas, beliefs, and customs differed from our own.
Multiculturalism Locally
Multiculturalism can be expected when one lives in another part of the world. But what about in America? How about here in Abilene? And more to the point, why should multiculturalism be a concern on our Hardin-Simmons campus? The fact is that America is becoming more culturally diverse each year. But the “melting pot” of my grandparents’ generation has become the “mosaic” of the present generation. No longer will Americans contentedly perceive themselves blended into some generic stew as citizens of the United States, but rather require a specific and proud focus upon each group’s distinctive cultural contributions to American life. Today our country-even our city-is a place where ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse peoples interact with increasing regularity. You need not move to Java to discover that your neighbors, friends, and colleagues are different from yourself! Moreover, it is a goal of our university to encourage the diversity of faculty, staff, and student body so that our campus will more accurately reflect the plurality of the larger world.
Tragically, however, prejudice and intolerance continue to create a festering wound on the face of America. I grew up in Florida of the 1950s, first becoming aware of racial unrest through the frequent fistfights between Hispanic and Anglo boys on my inner city junior high school playground. Later, I attended a high school where the lines of distinction were drawn, not racially, but economically. It was a school of the rich and the poor, with few friendships that successfully crossed over those material barriers. Graduating at 17, I headed for college in Mississippi-where my first serious encounters with racial prejudice would occur. I was shocked that September of 1963 when, en route to Jackson, my Greyhound bus made its first stop in the Magnolia State. There at the bus station were separate bathrooms, water fountains, and lunch counters designated for “Whites” and for “Coloreds.” I remember being vaguely uncomfortable drinking from the “White Only” water fountain. I had a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that I couldn’t really articulate. I was entering Mississippi College, then an all-white bastion of Baptists, many of whom didn’t seem to notice that we were living through the days of “Mississippi Burning.” It had been just a year since President Kennedy had sent 10,000 National Guardsmen to Oxford to protect one black man, James Meredith, who wished to register for classes at the University of Mississippi. By the fall of 1963, the local newspapers often headlined stories of church burnings, freedom riders, and racial violence. Ross Barnette and George Wallace, the governors of Mississippi and Alabama, were heroes of many white Mississippians, who supported their segregationist policies.
Two experiences during my freshman year of college shaped my views concerning racial distinctions for the rest of my life. First, I spent the weekend at the home of a friend in Meridian, Mississippi. On Sunday morning, as we sat in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church, he pointed to two men seated near us in the all white congregation. “See those men over there?” he gestured. “They’re two of the men who’ve been indicted for the murder of those freedom riders from Philadelphia. They’re out of jail now, awaiting their trial.” “Why are they here?” I stammered. “They attend this church regularly!” I was dumbfounded that active church members might commit murder. Since that weekend in 1963, I’ve learned the embarrassing truth that Christian history is stained by brutal crimes of intolerance perpetrated in the name of religious or racial purity. But I was na￯ve then and so that shocking moment, as I watched two accused murderers calmly singing Christian hymns with their children, etched itself unforgettably in my mind.
The other event occurred one evening as four college friends and I arrived at the campus of Tougaloo College, a black educational island in the midst of a vast sea of cultural whiteness. We slipped into the back row of the auditorium to hear the concert of Joan Baez, the famous folk singer so identified with the Civil Rights movement. We were, as far as I could see, the only whites in the crowded auditorium. The concert was wonderful, but the most stirring song of all was her trademark closing. As she broke into the opening lines of the Freedom Hymn, the beautiful “We Shall Overcome,” everyone in the audience stood and began singing with her. We five were linked to all the rest, arms intertwined, raising our voices to sing as one mighty choir: “We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand some day. O deep in my heart, we do believe, that we’ll walk hand in hand some day.” The emotion of the moment was overpowering. A feeling of profound rightness burned itself indelibly onto my heart. We were not frightened being the only whites in a huge crowd of blacks, for at that moment we were all one in spirit. Our concern, to be perfectly honest, was that after we left Tougaloo and began crossing the dark countryside toward our own campus, our little company of idealists might be pulled over by some carload of angry Anglos. But if we were tense, we were also hopeful-speeding through the night on eagle’s wings of optimism and passion.
Any anticipation we had, however, that the sort of powerful message about love and mutual acceptance expressed that night could eventually end racial strife was certainly unfounded. America today remains a nation where racial, religious, and social discriminations are common. Globally, there is international terrorism, sectarian conflict, ethnic cleansing, tribal wars, gay bashing, spousal, child, or elderly abuse, and much more. In the 37 years since I entered college, how far has our society progressed? Sadly, there are still people in America who are excluded, ridiculed, manipulated, oppressed, battered, falsely jailed, and even murdered because of their racial, religious, gender, social, or sexual differences. The 1998 dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, is a horrific reminder, much too close to home, of what some people still do to one another!
Welcoming Multiculturalism
And so I raise the question some of you are probably asking yourselves: why, on our campus-where we have very little diversity anyway and no ethnic, religious, or social violence-why HERE do we need a program on multiculturalism? Why must WE embrace others who are unlike ourselves? Why must Hardin-Simmons initiate conversations about such distinctions? I’d like to suggest five reasons.
First, because it is appropriate. This is the personal answer. Racial, religious, or social discrimination is our problem. Perhaps our awareness has been dulled by our insulation on this predominantly white and Christian campus. Therefore when we hear about the clash of cultures, we assume the conflicts will always be out there. We mistakenly think these are African American, Native American, Asian American, and Hispanic American problems, or that they are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist problems. But intolerance and injustice are our problems. We have to think about multiculturalism and the acceptance of others because discrimination is a problem we suffer personally. One might argue that there is no one, regardless of racial or religious identity, that has never felt intolerant or held some untested, unfair opinion about others. While this may be true, WE are not excused from our prejudicial thinking simply because everyone is similarly tempted.
Nor, in our defense, may we claim that prejudicial ideas have been instilled within us from childhood. It is true that we aren’t born with these views. Our unfair attitudes and stereotypical thought patterns have been passed on to us. To quote from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a different shade, You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught! You’ve got to be carefully taught![1]
We are not free from culpability simply because we may have been taught this intolerance all our lives. For racism is more than the racial prejudice one has learned since childhood. Racism is individual prejudice PLUS the power of the system to enforce those prejudices.[2]
It is the unique problem of the dominant group, because they are the ones with enough power either to keep others subservient or to grant them freedom and equality. It is therefore our responsibility-those of us who are in the white majority-to take the initiative toward minority groups, because for far too long we have been part of the problem.
“How,” you might ask, “am I a racist? I don’t use racial slurs. I don’t tell offensive jokes about minority groups. I don’t hate people who aren’t like me.”
Nevertheless, according to Will Campbell-a white, grizzled, old Tennessee lay preacher and Baptist defender of human rights-you and I and ALL white people of our society are “racists.” In his words:
If we are white we are racist. For racism is the condition in and under which we live. It is the structures in which we live and move and have our being. . . . By the accident of my white birth, I could have become President, Governor, manager of a major league baseball team or pastor of [the largest church in my city.] I can and do live where I want to. I can and do participate in a society every facet of which has afforded me the edge. I can change my attitudes. I can be educated out of a mind filled with hate and bigotry. But I cannot stop being a racist. It has nothing to do with how liberal, or radical, or enlightened, or educated, or good I am. Nor does it have to do with how reactionary, conservative, ignorant, or bad I am. It just has to do with being white within these [white] structures.[3]
At Hardin-Simmons we MUST talk about what it means either to discriminate or to accept one another in love because most of us here at HSU are white. We are part of the problem, even if unconsciously!
Second, we should accommodate discussion about multiculturalism because it is smart. This is the practical answer. It’s also somewhat egocentric. To put it in the language of ethical reasoning, it’s “utilitarian.” It’s useful to us to welcome cultural diversity. We learn from others whose viewpoint differs from our own. Their life experiences, drastically different from our own, enrich us and bring us new insights. Their stories challenge our presuppositions and narrow assumptions. They stretch us and cause us to grow.
Some time ago I had the privilege of hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa lecture on “Forgiveness and Justice.” This elderly recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize stood before the large, predominantly white audience, his face both reflecting the pain of all the hatred that he has witnessed and yet shining with the hope he feels for reconciliation. Tutu described how he counseled forgiveness for the white South Africans on trial for their role in the oppressive system of apartheid. “We blacks need the Afrikaner whites,” he concluded, “and they need us. Just as a rainbow needs all the colors to be most beautiful! The rainbow would not be so glorious if it consisted of only one color. Its diversity creates the beauty.”[4] We at Hardin-Simmons MUST celebrate our distinctions, because our lives will become more beautiful and rich because of this diversity. At one level this sounds self-serving, but the truth is we all will be enriched by a mutual celebration of our differences.
Third, we accept others because it is right. This is the political answer. “Justice for all” is our national heritage. Our founding fathers’ and mothers’ dream was to live in a place where people of religious, cultural, and ethnic differences could coexist and flourish. “We hold these truths to be self evident . . . that all are created equal . . . with certain inalienable rights . . . that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This statement expresses our Constitutional convictions about how life should be ordered in our country. People fought and died for the freedom to live in such a place.
But unfortunately, political rhetoric-even such a hallowed sentiment as this-doesn’t guarantee the cooperation of the governed. Consequently, our ancestors were plunged into Civil War, the nation split down the middle so that brother fought brother, sister betrayed sister, and blood was shed throughout the land. That dark conflict having finally ended, legislators began to pass laws to bring society back into line with our national vision, the American Dream.
One whose courageous life was spent calling for all Americans to be given the same opportunity to realize this dream was a Baptist pastor from Alabama named Martin Luther King, Jr. In the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, he stood before the quarter million blacks and whites who had flooded the nation’s capital to plead for justice. Not even the featured speaker of the afternoon’s rally, King electrified his audience and became a national symbol. Among his prophetic words were the following:
We are simply seeking to bring into full realization the American dream-a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege, and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where [people] no longer argue that the color of [one’s] skin determines the content of his character. . . . When [this dream] is realized, the jangling discords of our nation will be transformed into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood [and sisterhood], and [people] everywhere will know that America is truly the land of the free and the home of the brave.[5]
King’s message and eventual martyrdom helped to bring about the passage of federal legislation outlawing discrimination against minority groups-first on the basis of race, but later also due to differences of gender, physical or mental well being, or sexual orientation. But again, realistically, ratifying new laws can’t always regulate attitudes or behaviors. Even on denominational campuses like ours. Years after the enactment of some of these laws we are still a nation that lives a segregated life. In so many ways, don’t we really still live apart? We may attend school together, work together, and play together. Sadly, however, we are not so much doing these things together as we are simply in the same place doing them separately, but in each other’s presence.[6]
Here’s a valid reason to begin relating across those barriers that separate us: we do it because it’s right-because it’s the law. We MUST guarantee that everyone at Hardin-Simmons has equal opportunities for success and happiness, because our nation was founded on the belief that this equality is a basic human right. Yet, there’s a higher motivation for welcoming multiculturalism.
That is the fourth reason-namely, we look out for others because to do so is good! This is the moral answer. Morality demands more of us than legality. Why do we try to get along with others? Well, we relate to each other with tolerance because that’s the way we should act.
Moral philosophers have long taught this kind of regard for others. Plato considered the crowning human virtue to be justice, understood as “the virtue of harmonious action [that] forges a link between the individual and the social dimensions of life.” Justice, thus, “is not merely a personal virtue but is preeminently a social one”[7] that determines how one treats others. The German thinker Immanuel Kant argued centuries later that people should act in such a way that they could be satisfied were their action to become a universal behavioral norm.[8] But these European ideas were preceded in time by similar wisdom from Asia. For example, Confucius taught his followers to cultivate loyalty, humanity, integrity, mutual respect, personal self-restraint, and harmonious family and social relationships.[9] Likewise Shantideva, an ancient Buddhist philosopher, taught the importance of a proper attitude toward one’s enemy. “If you can cultivate the right attitude,” he said, “your enemies are your best spiritual teachers because their presence provides you with the opportunity to enhance and develop tolerance, patience, and understanding.”[10]
We tolerate those who are different from ourselves because sages and saints of world history have believed that this kind of mutual acceptance is the just way to act. At Hardin-Simmons, we MUST treat everyone fairly, for such actions will distinguish our campus as a place where all can feel at home and where none is excluded. To do less would be to behave unjustly and immorally.
But there is a higher reason still for embracing multiculturalism on our campus: we reach out to others because it is compassionate. This is the Christian answer. Tolerance is the secular answer, the philosophical norm. But love is Jesus’ way. And love is more demanding than tolerance. Jesus crossed all kinds of barriers that separated the respectable religious folk of his day from the “riff raff” of Palestinian society. He gathered his disciples from among simple and uneducated Galileans. He related positively to women, ministered to them in ways that were daring, and praised their examples of godly living. He touched the diseased bodies of the infirm to restore both their health and place within the community. He took the side of the poor and the dispossessed. He did battle with spiritual, demonic powers to rescue the helpless and hopeless. He celebrated the innocence of little children. He reached out to social outcasts, Samaritans, and Gentiles. Little wonder that Paul, one who felt accepted by Christ and miraculously called to be his missionary, penned a tribute to Jesus’ risky, inclusive love. Paul wrote: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all . . . are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Because of Jesus’ embrace of diverse peoples, in other words, Christians should not practice racial, socioeconomic, or gender discrimination, for all are one in Christ. We can only speculate what other barriers, knocked down by Jesus’ compassion, Paul would articulate were he to write this reminder to believers in today’s divisive world!
We MUST love others here because that’s the godly thing to do, for God is love. That doesn’t mean that we will necessarily appreciate someone’s behavior or choices, even as we love them. It certainly doesn’t mean that we have tocondone their actions before we can accept them. That would be conditional love, yet we know that God’s kind of love-the agape we are commanded to practice toward others (John 13:34-35)-is unconditional. Frankly, if Jesus walked the streets and hallways of our campus today, he would meet everywhere people who differ from him-people whose behavior and choices sadden him. How might he respond? What would Jesus do? I believe he wouldn’t demand that we first conform to his standards or look exactly like him so that we might become loveable! He would love us in all our diversity and in spite of our many limitations. He would accept us as we are while encouraging us to become everything we’re intended to be. He would treat us with unconditional, sacrificial, and abundant love-despite our failures and foibles (Romans. 5:8)!
Why must we accept others here at HSU? Because it’s appropriate. Discrimination is our problem. Because it’s smart. Celebrating diversity enriches us. Because it’s right. The law requires that we treat others with equality. Because it’s good. Accepting others is the just thing to do. Because it’s compassionate. Jesus did it, and he commands that we do the same.
You might expect cross-cultural missionaries to embrace multiculturalism. But I believe WE should celebrate it here also. And so I must ask us all today: when people look at us here on the “Forty Acres,” what do they see? Are we pulling down the barriers at HSU that separate people? Is our campus an alternative community where everyone is welcomed and appreciated? Are the diverse “Faces of America” who live on our campus happy faces? What do you think?
[1] From South Pacific, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and Music by Richard Rodgers, 1949.
[2] Joseph Barndt, Dismantling Racism: The Continuing Challenge to White America (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), 28.
[3] Will D. Campbell, “The World of the Redneck,” in Moral Issues and Christian Response, 2nd ed., ed. Paul T. Jersild and Dale A. Johnson (New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1971), 158.
[4] Speech at Baylor University, October 1999.
[5] James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 58.
[6] Barndt, 54.
[7] Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 63.
[8] Immanuel Kant, “Good Will, Duty, and the Categorical Imperative,” trans. T. K. Abbott, in Vice & Virtuein Everyday Life: Introductory Readings in Ethics, 3rd ed. Christina Sommers and Fred Sommers (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993), 152.
[9] The Illustrated Encyclopedia of World Religions, ed. Chris Richards (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1997), 70.
[10] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1998), 48.
Published with the author’s permission.