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The following study was presented at North American Division’s Summit on Race, October 1999.

his historic conference has left every delegate with a dilemma. We are one people with one purpose. We serve one Lord. We rejoice in one faith. We share one mission. Indeed, we are one.

But once we affirm that we are one, another important question emerges: What do we do with the obvious racial, gender, ethnic, and cultural differences among us?
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There are three ways Christians try to answer those questions. One way is called the “reject-the-idea-of-difference” position. A second way is called the “difference-blind” approach. A third way is called the “difference-doesn’t-matter” conviction.

A Reality We Can’t Ignore
Demographers say that the world of the twenty-first century will be more globally connected than at any other time in history. Communications technology, media, global immigration, educational institutions, and travel are bringing diverse racial and ethnic groups into more intimate association than at other times in history. “Intensive diversity” describes the cross-cultural association that takes place every day in our cities, campuses, and churches.
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But this intensive diversity is not taking place in a vacuum. For every diversity interaction, there is a history—sometimes positive, sometimes painful—that often makes cooperation challenging. How can we be part of God’s solution, rather than humanity’s problem?

Historical and biblical documents are replete with tales of tribal, ethnic, and national conflict. No society has been free from the contagion of racism and/or ethnocentrism. Wars, massacres, alienation, racism, oppression—these all darken our historical memory. In a fallen world these are the consequence of humanity’s sinful propensity to elevate ethnic and racial identity into an idolatrous form of self-worship. Whether in Kosovo or Birmingham, in Johannesburg or Kinshasa, in Jerusalem or the Palestinian West Bank, Pakistan or India, painful litanies of oppression, genocide, and ethnic cleansing sadden concerned people of conscience.

Let’s define some important terms:

Race refers to a socially constructed category of human classification determined by pigmentation, facial features, hair texture, and other biophysical characteristics. When we say race is “socially constructed” we mean that in many societies it serves a social, political, and legal purpose to utilize racial categories. In the history of racial classification, the number of races has been as low as three and as high as 22. The concept of race is important only as a means of discussing differences. Ultimately there is only one race—the human race.

Ethnicity refers to a person or group’s personal kinship and social history; how, and into what beliefs, values, and worldviews persons and groups have been socialized. For instance, my race may be Black, but my ethnicity could be American, Nigerian, Kenyan, or Jamaican.

Racism refers to a belief in the inherent superiority of one race over others. This leads to such unjust practices as racial discrimination, intolerance, exclusion, and marginalization.

Ethnocentrism is the attitude that one’s own ethnic group or culture is superior to others. It assumes the superiority of a group, clan, tribe, race; is maintained by resentment of difference; defines itself by clan competition; and validates itself by selective comparisons to others. This means that the one’s own group comes to be viewed in its own self-appraisals as more spiritual, more chosen, more deserving of access to resources and privileges than other groups.

I am frequently asked: What is the diversity movement about? Diversity addresses those differences that have led to the unequal treatment of persons and groups in history (e.g., race, gender, class, etc.). In America during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s laws were established as a deterrent to and correction of discriminatory behavior. Diversity goes beyond (but does not preclude) these legal remedies. Diversity builds on the gains of the civil rights movement by seeking to restructure our understanding of one another.

Diversity seeks to restructure understanding by means of a core concept described as ethnorelativism. Ethnorelativism is the opposite of ethnocentrism. Ethnorelativism assumes the equality of all groups (each group is simply one group among many); is informed and maintained by tolerance, openness, and dialogue; defines itself by cross-cultural cooperation and promotion of human solidarity; and results in a moral humanism that promotes harmony between peoples.

On the surface ethnorelativism has many features that mirror Christian teaching. Its promotion of harmony, its assertion of equality, its willingness to remain in dialogue—these all sound and even “feel” Christian. However, the biblical truth about ethnorelativism and ethnocentrism is that neither contains the power to accomplish its objectives.

Scripture views ethnocentrism as a collective application of individual sinful self-centeredness (see Gen. 11:1-8; Acts 10:1-38; Rom. 3:9-12). On the other hand, ethnorelativism, while appealing, falters because Scripture asserts that humans are incapable of fully extricating themselves from the power of their self-service (see Rom. 1-3; 7:21-25).

Without Christ we cannot transcend our natures. Utopian movements such as the flower children of the sixties found that the power to create their vision of an ideal community was missing. This powerlessness is the reason repeated efforts at peacemaking between peoples are often fragile and frequently broken.

But the human situation is not hopeless. God has a third option. Scripture argues for a radically new means of creating genuine community. God’s grace makes available new possibilities for community and fellowship between different racial and ethnic groups. When the Scripture is taken seriously, the matter of how to manage one’s racial and ethnic identity becomes clear.

The Tradition Continues

The Minneapolis, Minnesota, First Seventh-day Adventist Church was organized in 1882 with 20 members. Thus was born a church that grew and prospered in its mission, which included the establishment of several other congregations in the area.

The membership at Minneapolis First grew to far more than 500 by the mid-1900s, crowding the church that had been built in 1918 on Stevens Avenue in central Minneapolis. This building, which continues to be the home for the Minneapolis First congregation, replaced the original church, which had been located on the corner of Lake and Fourth avenues (the site for the 1888 General Conference session). The Scandinavian heritage was very strong in the Minneapolis First church, reflecting the demography of much of Minnesota.

In 1958 three churches, Minneapolis Northbrook, Minnetonka, and Southview, were planted in the suburbs of Minneapolis. In the latter part of the twentieth century the membership of the Minneapolis First church began to change from being primarily European immigrants and their children to a congregation made up of recent immigrants from many countries around the world, reflecting the changing community around the church.

Since 1996 the pastoral couple for the Minneapolis First church has been Vladimir and Heidi Pujic, first-generation immigrants from Yugoslavia. Each year Pastor Pujic schedules an international Sabbath and invites the Hispanic congregation (that meets in the church on Sabbath afternoons) to join this event in which people from 25 to 30 different countries around the world are represented. These first-generation American immigrants come from Aruba, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Liberia, Montserrat, Morocco, Nigeria, Panama, Poland, Sierra Leone, South Africa, St. Lucia, Sweden, Tanzania, Uganda, Yugoslavia, and Zambia. And there are longtime United States citizens from African and European roots. The Hispanic congregation includes first generation Americans from Central and South America, including the countries of Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Guatemala.

Visit Minneapolis First today and you will join a crowd that fills the sanctuary as it did in the midtwentieth century. The main floor and balcony are full of first-generation Americans—as in the early days of the Minneapolis First church. The same songs ring in the rafters; the same message is preached from the same pulpit (the very one used during the 1888 General Conference session).

Minneapolis First church’s tradition of taking the gospel to its community continues. The community has changed, and so has the church.—Dennis N. Carlson.

Successful community building begins with the choice of individuals to embrace a new identity. This radical commitment to biblical discipleship will both judge and overcome the numerous “centrisms” put forward by many of the leading social thinkers of the day.

The Christ-centered life assumes the fallenness of my group, clan, tribe, or race (Rom. 3:9-12, 23) is maintained by a magnetic attraction to the cross (John 12:32; Eph. 2:15-18); defines itself by cooperation with Christ (Matt. 28:19-20; 2 Cor. 5:20); values and voluntarily seeks self-expenditure on behalf of others (1 John 3:14-18); results in a radically new way of viewing and serving others (Acts 10:28, 34, 35).

A Common Focus
God’s children look at other races through the eyes of Christ (2 Cor. 5:16, 17). Unity is the result. And the power to maintain this unity flows from Christ Himself to His children (Eph. 4:15). The Christ-centered life helps us answer the what-do-we-do-with-the-difference question.

Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, instructs us by word and example on the appropriate use of racial and ethnic identity within and beyond the Christian community. Let’s focus on just one section of his writings that give us a window on Paul’s thinking, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (NIV).

This text is nestled in the stream of Paul’s discussion of freedom and responsibility. Paul is defending his apostleship against attack as well as bridling the freedom of the strong in chapter 8. By the time we get to verse 18 of chapter 9, Paul is in a full-blown discussion of his preaching ministry and why it is effective.

Paul had the difficult task of working between multiple cultures. He takes up his task because he is bound to Christ. Paul is free to serve the Corinthians, because he has not accepted any compensation from them (verse 15). Further, because he is free, he is able to enslave himself to people who are in need of the knowledge of Jesus Christ (verse 19). Primarily, Paul is free because of his encounter with Jesus Christ (verse 1); he is released from the old identity anchors that he once embraced. His freedom is grounded in a new experience: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17, NIV).

Thus Paul can no longer be Judeocentric. This is why he says, “I became as a Jew” (NIV). The word translated “as” or “like” in 1 Corinthians 9:20 comes from the Greek comparative particle hos. It introduces a simile into Paul’s discussion that compares one distinct idea, person, or object to another. By saying that he became “as” a Jew, Paul asserts that he is no longer defined as a Jew. He enjoys the freedom of a new self-understanding. He is finally free from the limiting prejudices, preconceptions, and presuppositions of ethnic Judaism.

When Paul says “to the Jews, I became as a Jew” (NKJV) he rattles the prison of identity idolatry. Paul is free in Christ. Boldly free!

Unlike Paul, Peter vacillated between freedom in Christ and political expediency (Gal. 2:11-15). Peter embodied racial and ethnic captivity. There is no question that the early church family was diversity-challenged. A quick reading of such texts as Luke 10:30-37, John 4:1-29, Acts 10:17-29, 15:5-10, Galatians 2:7-14, and Ephesians 2:11-19 reveals that the social situation between Jew and Gentile plagued the early church as it attempted to fulfill its mission.

As a Jew, Paul persecuted the church. But at Damascus Paul received an identity transplant (see Acts 9:1-6). The transforming encounter with the risen Christ deconstructed his inherited identity and replaced it with another primary identity. New perceptions of society and the world, new priorities, new ambitions, new criteria of perception—all these and more separated Paul from his former identity.

Practical Strategies
Three changes mark the new Paul and should mark us as leaders in God’s new community. First, in the last-day community (1 Cor. 10:11) Paul’s race and ethnicity is relocated to a secondary level of identity. Modern diversity thinkers posit an identity pyramid consisting of both changeable and unchangeable realities. Notice the following identity pyramids:

Old Paul
Acts 8:1-3
Jewish Zealot
Race/Ethnicity Objectified
New Paul
2 Corinthians 5:17
New Creature/Apostle
Race/Ethnicity Relativized

For the Christian, race and ethnicity (and other discreet realities such as gender, class, status, etc.) are no longer the defining realities of our existence. In the eyes of the Christian these social distinctions are relativized, that is, reduced to what they really are—not objective measures of social worth, but temporal distinctions that are utterly unrelated to salvation.

For Paul, any former or present objectification of race and ethnicity that is not surrendered to Christ becomes idolatry. While the many centrisms of our day—whether Asiocentrism, Afrocentrism, Eurocentrism, or Latinocentrism—will clamor for our allegiance, the gospel never allows believers to organize their perspectives around any center other than Jesus Christ. No person can serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). We can have only one center, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 2:2).

But while the “new creation” Paul was not Judeocentric, 1 Corinthians 9:18-22 reveals that he was deeply Judeo-sensitive. We are not called to be ethnocentric but Christ-centered and ethno-sensitive. This requires an intimate knowledge of one’s own racial history and ethnic culture. By critically analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the culture and worldview that have been passed on to us, we will be better able to relativize and utilize our personal history.

Effective cross-cultural ministry also requires that we undertake the specific study of the culture of the people whom we serve. Missionaries do this all time. They consult with persons from the cultures in which they serve, read their history books, and find cultural mentors. A person of any color can serve a person of any other color.

Second, as biophysical existence is a gift (Gen. 2:7) with responsibilities (Gen. 1:27, 28), race and ethnicity are endowments to be managed, not possessions to be worshiped or protected. While conscious of its significance, Paul retreats from the racial and ethnic idolatry that could only divide and alienate. Paul will work for his own ethnic group, but only as an ambassador from God’s kingdom (2 Cor. 5:20) to his racial and ethnic group.

Paul adapted himself to the customs of the Jewish people when he worked among them. He took a Nazirite vow (Acts 18:18). He had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). He took part in purification rituals and paid Nazirite expenses for the sacrificial offering (Acts 21:23, 24).

But he could also be as one “without the law” (1 Cor. 9:20), that is, a Gentile. While with Gentiles he did not enforce Jewish ceremonial ritual upon them (Gal. 2:11-14; Col. 2:11, 16). Paul worked for his “own,” but was not limited to them. His ministry was to all people who were alienated from Jesus Christ.

Clearly two tracks of ministry emerge in the reconstructed Paul. One track is grounded in ethnic particularity. Paul the Jew works sensitively with his Jewish kindred (Rom. 10:1). He knows their history, culture, and social outlooks. But he also exemplifies another radical track of cross-cultural leadership and ministry: He works among Gentiles as one who understands them as well (Acts 17:16-31; Rom. 11:13).

Third, the ministry motivation guiding Paul is his passion for souls. Love for Christ is the law under which Paul functions (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). Paul’s cross-cultural service is motivated by unconditional love. Agape love means that the bonds between brothers and sisters of different races are intensified. On a practical level this means that we should be closer to persons of a different race who are members of the body of Christ than we are to persons of our own race who are outside of Christ.

Putting the Pieces Together
Now let’s resolve the what-to-do-with-difference dilemma in light of 1 Corinthians 9:18-21.

The reject-the-idea-of-difference approach is unacceptable. Paul never rejects difference—Jew, Gentile, weak, strong, etc. He understands differences not as obstacles but as opportunities. Racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural differences present us with opportunities to serve God’s higher plan for the diverse human family. We should serve people who are different from us. Christians are called upon to see differences as opportunities. Paul’s example of self-adjustment does not reject, but rather validates differences.

The second option of being “difference-blind” is also unchristian. The person who says “I don’t see colors; I just see people,” sounds like the person who visits a flower garden in full bloom and declares “I don’t see colors; I just see flowers.” After all, God made the colors. And if God made the colors, He wants them to be appreciated. Persons who take this position deprive themselves of the enjoyment derived from the richness and diversity of the human family. Such homogenization of the human family is alien to affirming diversity.

The third option, which chooses the “differences-do-not-matter” approach, also is contrary to the example of the apostle. Failure to explore the significance of difference leads to cross-cultural incompetence. After all, if the difference does not matter to me, then I will not take the time to improve my communication, leadership, or relational skills. The differences mattered to Paul enough to view each group with its culture, orientation, and worldview as a unique entity worthy of special attention.

Application to the Twenty-first Century
In a fallen world race and ethnicity have been a source of separation and alienation. In the church, for the believer, every aspect of our being, including our racial identity, should be invested into God’s purposes to be used as a vehicle for God’s mission.

This is what the poet Edwin Markham meant when these words were penned:

“He drew a circle to shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had a mind to win;
We drew a circle and took him in!”

Leslie N. Pollard is vice president for Diversity at Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center. A more developed treatment is contained in Dr. Pollard’s newest publication, Embracing Diversity (Review and Herald Publishing Association; L. N. Pollard, editor).

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