August 16, 2009
Following on from the August 13 post:
This is less an ‘essay’ and more a serious of reflections/reactions to Caldwell’s book.
Some of you may recall my involvement with Visions Inc. whose work is about ‘recognizing, understanding and appreciating difference’. It was fairly common for us to point out that our governing image for American society is no longer that of a ‘melting pot’ in which every immigrant becomes essentially American in some more or less recognizable way across cultural backgrounds. We are now more of a ‘salad bowl’ in which every ‘difference’ adds its own color and flavor to the national identity. I’m fine with that image as far as it goes, but I cannot bring myself to believe or hope that there will be no dominant taste. I still want to know whether the spring onion or the green pepper is in charge and I want to know what to do about ingredients that are rotting and corrupting the whole salad.
It seems to me that what is required is self confident, self-differentiated leadership that stays connected with every ingredient and persuades the ingredients of their need to resist those elements that are corrupting or invasive.
In our work at All Saints’ befriending refugees who are settled in Atlanta we have learned that what they need as much as anything else is American friends. We know how hard those relationships can be to forge across language, cultural and historical lines, but how rewarding they are for those who make the effort. Because we tend to resettle immigrants near each other (often in places that have become ‘undesirable’ to the host population—something Caldwell addresses in his book,) it does not take long fro us to have the happy challenge of having more immigrant families seeking friendship than we have people willing to offer themselves for this work. So one clue for dealing with different cultures in respectful ways, but also ways in which challenge the isolation of those cultures, is the seeking of real connection and friendship for our own well-being as well as theirs.
The key here is that American culture need not be in Caldwell’s words ‘insecure’, ‘malleable’ and ‘relativistic’. Nor need it try and emulate a culture that is ‘anchored’, ‘confident’ and ‘strengthened by common doctrines’ when those doctrines are at odds with the prevailing norms and values of a culture that is open to change and development. We do not have to be embarrassed by our commitment to expanded or equal choice of roles for women. We do not have to be coerced into showing that we are ‘more moral than thou’ in order to be clear about our beliefs and values. And we don’t have to live in fear of a back lash if we criticize cultures with alien values that choose to settle in America.
I don’t have an answer as to how to ensure that those who immigrate transfer their loyalty to this nation above other commitments. Caldwell outlines how Muslim immigrants in Europe and elsewhere frequently keep their primary loyalty to the Islamic World. I am an immigrant who has not yet been prepared to take citizenship that requires an oath renouncing all other allegiance, but I do not question the desire and need of the US to want its citizens to be American in allegiance and not merely in status. It is not possible in freedom to demand someone’s heart, but I don’t like it when fellow citizens of the UK take US citizenship while emotionally crossing their fingers at the renunciation.
I do see parallels here with our inter-Anglican debates and long for clear and confident leadership that honors the breadth of Anglican opinion and takes seriously the shift in anthropology that accepts gay and lesbian people as they are and recognize that what ever our interpretation of scripture, this is a new thing. If and when we accept it as such, the moral question is not one of sexual behavior and more one of whether the church will follow the great commandment and great commission with respect to GLBT people. We heard a lot about how Christians in Africa are in some kind of competition with Islam for the hearts and minds of the people (at leas those who are willing to forgo animist beliefs). My passing acquaintance with the Sudan and Tanzania leads me to agree with this assessment. What I dispute is that we have to compete with Islam on their terms. We are a faith that preaches God’s grace and we need to do so courageously and without apology, embracing those of our brothers and sisters who differ from us in significant ways and not fearing Anti-Western or Anti-American backlash. This would be somewhat parallel to our wanting to stay in relationship with sisters and brothers in Tanzania in spite of their very different norms with regard to the role and status of women in their Church and society, for example. I am among those who see the controversial resolutions of our last General Convention to be examples of the kind of self differentiated generous clarity that I’d like to see and hear in those parts of the communion in which I would hold a minority position.
Finally, for now, I do worry that in spite of this clarity The Episcopal Church (along with some other provinces of the Communion including the Church of England) can be insecure, malleable and relativistic. Here I am with our internal critics who want to make sure that we still believe in the saving power of Jesus as the Son of God. More on that in a post to come.