Being Intercultural Rather Than Multicultural or Cross-Cultural
For those unaware, I am writing this article as one who is a mestizo—a person of mixed race/ethnicity. Some might use the term mulatto, but this is a derogatory term for people like me. The term implies you’re dirty or impure. Rather, think of people like me as mestizo—a mixing of ethnicity and culture. This article will serve to both provide an understanding on how to engage with mestizos as well as a comfort for people like myself that Jesus—the Saviour of the world who was born in the margins of society—is the God who is for them, people whom society marginalises and oppresses.
Before I continue, a caution for my White readers: Some of what I say might offend you because I defy the conservative status quo of ethnicity. I am by no means liberal. While I often think of myself as conservative, I more importantly follow Christ, not any conservative values that happen to fall in line with Scripture. Because I follow Christ faithfully (to the best of my ability by the grace of God), some things I say will sound very conservative (such as being pro-life) whereas other things will sound very liberal (such as helping our refugee and immigrant neighbour since the Scriptures call us to aid the sojourner in our land). This is one of those articles that, at first glance, appears liberal and will upset conservatives, but both the content and my intent is not to appease either side. Rather, my goal, as always, is to follow Christ faithfully. So, please keep that in mind and I urge you to keep an open mind as you read this article.
According to Rev. Dr. Leopoldo Sánchez’s insights, despite common American thinking, Hispanic identity is not homogeneous but mestizaje—that is, a mixing. Americans—usually White Americans—typically group all people of Spanish speaking origin into the singular category of “Hispanic” (thanks to Nixon), but this crude categorisation does not speak true to the Latino/a experience. For most Latinos/as, to be “Hispanic” is mestizaje—a mixing. As such, our theological thinking and relational behaviour, Sánchez argues, ought to be intercultural rather than multicultural or cross-cultural. Multicultural and cross-cultural activity are limited in their practicality.
The term multicultural simply “make[s] cultures aware of each other’s presence” (Sánchez, 232). (Perhaps, then, we should change Concordia Seminary’s spring symposium to Intercultural Symposium rather than Multiethnic Symposium.) Cognisance is necessary, of course, but it’s merely the starting point, not the telos (end/goal).
The term cross-cultural usually denotes a crossing of borders in order to help one move “beyond one’s cultural comfort zone into another’s world,” but its fault is that it is often “unilateral in that one side typically sees itself as being the main contributor in the exchange” (Sánchez, 233).
Rather than either of these terms, Sánchez proposes the term intercultural. Unlike the other two, intercultural has a hospitable and unifying focus, both of which are identifying marks of the church (for more on this, see Sánchez’s “hospitality model” of the Holy Spirit in his book Sculptor Spirit). Interculturality moves beyond cognisance and border crossing and gets people more relationally involved with one another.
My Hispanic (Mestizo) Experience
Before I continue discussing the use and implications of these terms, a necessary digression: As a “Hispanic” born and raised in America, I’ve been dealing with two issues my entire life that up until now I’ve been unable to put into words. The first is how Virgilio Elizondo compares Galilean identity to Mexican-Americans (though I am African-Puerto Rican-American), that “like Galileans who lived in the borderlands between Jewish and Gentile cultures in Jesus’s day—they are perceived as being neither Mexican enough for the Mexicans nor American enough for the Americans” (Sánchez, 228). In fact, Elizondo says it more directly in one of his books, “It has become increasingly evident over the years that one of the most demoralizing and enslaving factors in the lives of people of mixed race, or mixed ethnicities, is the constant feeling of ‘not belonging fully’ to either one of the parent groups” (Elizondo, 7).
This problem that both Sánchez and Elizondo brought to life resonates deeply with me. This dilemma among Hispanic-Americans characterises my entire life. Up until now, I thought I was the only one undergoing this struggle! For background, my mom is half Black and half Puerto Rican and my dad is Caucasian. Ever since I was young, I’ve never been “Hispanic” enough for Hispanics, Black enough for Blacks, or White/American enough for White Americans. Whether Hispanic, Black, or White, they all have tried to fit me into one category, which is usually Hispanic as that’s all they see when they look at me (or they’re just confused and place me in the “brown” category).
Yet my entire life I’ve been trying arduously to be what Sánchez calls a “mediator” between the two cultures—Hispanic and American: “People of mixed heritage are neither here nor there, and in both places at the same time, and thus serve as mediators between both cultures while defying rigid categorization by either culture” (Sánchez, 228). As he notes, as mediators, “Hispanics” like me enjoy tacos and burgers and engage in other intercultural navigations. So, instead of trying to rigidly place Hispanic-Americans into a single category, we ought to allow them the freedom to freely navigate between both cultural and ethnic identities.
The second issue is one I share with Sánchez’s Panamanian-Chinese friend—that mestizos called him by the ethnic slur chino while he thought of himself as Panamanian. Similarly, many people look at me and think of me strictly as “Hispanic” or Puerto Rican or “Black”—or even derogatory racial slurs like nigger or mulatto—whereas I’ve always thought of myself as simply being American. Lately, and more importantly, I’ve been understanding myself and all that I am as a baptised child of God, in which every human being can understand themselves more fully.
Hispanics are Part of the Church Catholic
I especially appreciate Sánchez’s insights on thinking of Hispanic as “a full local expression of the church catholic” (Sánchez, 232). (The word catholic, strictly speaking, means “universal.”) Carmen Nanko-Fernandez’s exclamation of this catholicity is admiringly bold, “We are not your diversity, we are the church!” And thus we return to the issue of terminologies. I highly regard this catholic recognition because it seems that most churches that are predominantly White desire to have more “ethnic” people in the church (Hispanic, Black, etc.) merely for the sake of being diverse, or “multiethnic.” I even have a book sitting on my shelf called Being the Church in A Multi-Ethnic Community. Why do churches want to become “diverse” or “multiethnic”? This is a question they need to ask themselves. In a society that desires to be “inclusive,” Carmen Nanko-Fernandez’s perception—and one I now share with her—is that such an approach to church growth or outreach tends to treat Hispanics and other ethnic groups not as people who are already the church but as trophies. This is the failure of multicultural/multiethnic thinking. In the effort to make people aware of other ethnicities and cultures, we end up using these people as trophies to prove that we’re “diverse,” or “multiethnic,” or “inclusive.”
And what of the failure of cross-cultural thinking? Think of this is the short-term mission trip. To re-quote Sánchez, cross-cultural thinking helps one move “beyond one’s cultural comfort zone into another’s world” but its failure is that it is often “unilateral in that one side typically sees itself as being the main contributor in the exchange” (Sánchez, 233). Is that not every short-term mission trip, whether domestic or international? Whether it’s crossing the border to your suburban town’s inner city or to another country, the goal of short-term mission trips is to get its workers across the border because they apparently have something to contribute. The exchange that takes place is that they give the people cleaner streets or newer buildings while they receive in turn a new understanding about their personal faith. In such cross-cultural thinking, the “other”—the person you are supposedly serving—is ironically deposed. Like a colonial nationalist, you cross their border, impose yourself into their community, give them new things that will supposedly enhance their lives, while you understand something more about yourself rather than your neighbour.
Unlike these two terms and the thinking involved in each, the move of being intercultural is to move beyond cognisance and border crossing and becoming hospitable, that is, relational. Sánchez suggests that “intercultural engagement uses the gifts and strengths of each partner or player in developing a common project or vision, avoiding the danger of unilateral border crossings. Think of a partnership, perhaps like a marriage, where each member, while retaining his or her uniqueness, nurtures the other, and where both partners develop their relationship over ongoing, sustained, creative, and faithful engagement” (Sánchez, 233). How we do this in our churches and respective communities is the beauty of living life together as Christ’s church (cf. Bonhoeffer’s Life Together).
Jesus of Galilee: A Friend and The God of Marginalised Hispanics (And All Marginalised)
The premise of Virgilio Elizondo’s book, A God of Incredible Surprises, is to explore how the human (rather than the divine) Jesus can “become the Christ to persons who feel doomed to exclusion and marginalization because of their mixed-race or mixed-ethnic origins” (p. 4), that is, mestizos (people just like me). Lest someone accuses Elizondo of Nestorianism or some other heresy concerning Christ’s dual natures, he does not entirely ignore Jesus’ divinity. As he says quite well, “To know him simply as divine is no problem, for the divine will always be a mystery that is too far beyond us to fully comprehend; but to know him as a human being is a terrific adventure. One could never follow a purely divine Jesus, since we are not divine, but we could follow the human Jesus who came into our lives precisely to show us the way. Yet is is precisely in his humanity that his divinity is made manifest… and in following his way our humanity becomes divinized” (p. 4).
In other words, the book’s aim is to help begin the journey of helping people—especially mestizos—see how the humanity of Jesus is a friend for the racially and ethnically marginalised and oppressed. I have two main insights.
We Have A Friend in Jesus because of His Humanity
Elizondo writes, “Moreover, in seeking to write about Jesus of Galilee, each culture has in effect produced a self-image of their own ideal self. In seeking to know Jesus of Galilee they have come to know themselves, not as others say they are, but as they truly are” (p. 5). This immediately brings to mind for me a point I’ve recently been making in cordial conversations with fellow Christians.
There are many complaints about the historical western church making Jesus look European, accusing the church and its artists as racists because they chose to ignore Jesus’ clear Middle Eastern roots and ethnicity. He would have a much darker skin colour, eyes, and even hair than the typical European Jesus we see depicted in art. I used to think this way too until I became exposed to depictions of Jesus in other cultures—I have seen cultures paint Jesus to look Hispanic (whatever that means), African, and even Asian, both ancient and modern. If we’re going to raise pitch forks and torches against a European depicted Jesus, we would have to give the same treatment toward Hispanic, African, and Asian depictions. But, of course, that would be racist, since these cultures aren’t White (sarcasm).
My point is the beauty of such artful depictions, whether Jesus is made to look European, Mexican, Ethiopian, Filipino, or Chinese. The point of these art depictions, I believe, is not to give an accurate depiction of what Jesus looked like but to portray the transcendence of Jesus’ humanity—that every human being of every culture sees themselves in the human Jesus. It’s not that Jesus’ ethnicity doesn’t matter, as Elizondo himself wonders of Jesus’ accent and use of language. But ultimately, it all comes down to Jesus’ humanity. Jesus becomes human to come to every human, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Every human, then, finds their self-image in the human God named Jesus. As Elizondo later says, “It is true that Jesus reveals a very beautiful and loving God to us; but I think it is even more important and more revolutionary that Jesus reveals the truth, the good, and the beauty about us to ourselves and to others and in so doing reveals the true countenance and heart of God in whose image we have been created” (p. 8). As the God-man, Jesus not only reveals who God is in His divinity; He also reveals what it means to be truly human. Therefore, when a culture depicts Jesus to look like them in their art, they are merely seeing themselves fully in Jesus’ humanity. In each of these cultural art depictions, any human person can see our friend Jesus. In art, nothing gets lost in translation.
Related to this insight is what Elizondo says in the immediate context of the above quotes, that Jesus “is not a teaching of the Church, but one of our own in whom our own lives take on meaning” (p. 2). This is something that’s easy to forget during seminary training. During our studies, we learn many doctrines concerning Jesus—His two natures, His distinct personhood in the Holy Trinity, His incarnation, Christus victor, Christus vicar, etc. All of these are critically important and have their proper place. But because of these important emphases, I wonder if it becomes all too easy for us seminarians and pastors—and probably professors as well—to reduce Jesus to one or several doctrines. There is the danger of Gospel reductionism and there is also the danger of Jesus reductionism. In the sweat and stress of our daily, arduous studies, it is easy to forget who Jesus is for me. Sometimes, I think, while studying things like the personhood of Jesus, we ironically forget that Jesus is a person. It is one thing to understand doctrinally what it means for Jesus to be human, but it is another thing entirely to grasp personally what it means for Jesus to be human.
Jesus, Saviour for the Marginalised
What I appreciate most from Elizondo’s book is how he brings the marginalised Jesus to the marginalised mestizo. Commenting on John 1:46 (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”), he writes, “Galilee was a vast frontier region that had gone through various invasions and was presently a colony of Rome and under the influence of Greek culture. It was the crossroads to everywhere but the center of nowhere. It was not just the crossroads of travelers and caravans—it was the crossroads of civilizations. It was considered to be a land filled with the darkness of ignorance (Matthew 4:16) and the contamination brought about by the various peoples who lived there. What good could come from such a mess? …This is the place where his flesh and spirit took shape and would be his basic earthly identity and that of many of his earliest followers” (pp. 48-49). In short, Jesus was born and lived in a region of marginalisation. The Saviour came from the margins of society.
From this alone we can see how Jesus is the Saviour for the marginalised. Whether Jew or Gentile, Galileans were marginalised from the rest of society, having lived on the frontier or margins of Palestine. Jews were too far from the Temple and the Greeks were too far from their athenaeum and gymnasiums. Similarly, “mestizos are always looked upon as ‘unacceptable’ by both parent groups. They are the most marginal of all peoples” (p. 49). Mestizos like myself are too brown for Whites/Americans and too accustomed to “gringo” culture for Hispanics. As a result, like the Galileans, both groups from which we come end up rejecting us and we become marginalised.
Yet there is Good News for mestizos and all people who become ostracised. “God chose not to come into the world through any of the great centers of power, knowledge, and influence. This is the foolishness and wisdom of God [1 Corinthians 1:25, 27-29]. Out of a region that had been marginal and distant from any of the various power games for control and domination—whether economic, social, intellectual, or religious—God chose to have the savior of humanity emerge. He would not engage in the various power games for control and domination. He would not waste time with tenure games in the universities nor seek hierarchical climbing in religious institutions. He would not be guarding his assets on Wall Street or pushing for a new position in the corporation. Way out in the margins of all power structures, he would be free to initiate something radically new and liberating for everyone” (pp. 50-51).
That radically new thing is, at the same time, characteristic of God’s saving action since antiquity. After all, Elizondo notes, “God chooses the Hebrew people to be his own… They were the nobodies, the feared strangers and immigrants, the ‘other’ unwanted by the landowners of the dominant societies. The very name ‘Hebrew’ seems to come from an ancient word, ῾apiru, meaning the peoples without a name or without an identity” (pp. 52-53). In fact, God tells the Hebrews why He chose them to be His people, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that Yahweh set His love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because Yahweh loves you and is keeping the oath that He swore to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). God chose the Hebrews because they were the few and marginalised of the earth. Is it any surprise, then, that God became incarnate among the few and marginalised of the earth?
Jesus clearly came from the marginalised. In His birth, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is also for the marginalised. Like everyone else, mestizos and all marginalised peoples of the earth find their humanity in the humanity of Jesus, made possible by His divinity.
Elizondo, Virgilio. A God of Incredible Surprises: Jesus of Galilee. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003.
Sánchez, Leopoldo A. “Hispanic Is Not What You Think: Reimagining Hispanic Identity, Implications for an Increasingly Global Church.” Concordia Journal 42, no 3 (Summer 2016): 223-235.