A fragment of conversation was overheard recently in a meeting of many cultures.
‘They have such beautiful faces’.
‘No, but you have beautiful eyes.’
Who do we see when we look at those who are different? Not only those with different national origins but also those with different politics, biblical interpretations or priorities.
We call ourselves a multicultural church, and so we are. But we must ask ourselves: How much have we really changed in attitudes to each other over the past twenty years? Do we see others as beloved by God, precious and deserving of respect? Do they look truly beautiful?
In the era of the ‘White Australia’ policy, one of the forebears of this church who had long association with people from Asia wrote in 1914: ‘To slam and bolt the door because the skin colour and the accent of speech are different from our own is a new thing in our history. How it looks in the eyes of those on the other side of the door is a matter on which we may hear something later…’
All of us still have a lot to learn about living in a multicultural church. We still struggle with difference. We may feel threatened by the other. We may feel that we can’t trust the other or that another culture is inferior to our own. We may want to blame those who are different for things that disappoint or anger us. We may wish everybody could change so that they became ‘just like us’.
We are not all the same, nor can we be. Each of us brings our own distinctive ‘nation, tribe, and language’. Our ‘nation’ places us in the framework of a particular political and social history. Our ‘tribe’ defines us, with identity, relationships, loyalties and obligations. Our ‘language’ grows out of a distinctive culture, with our own ways of expressing ourselves, and always the potential for not being understood by others. We are not a monochrome church, and how dull it would be if we were. None of us can change our identity, but we can discover some of the beauty of those who are different and see them with the eyes of God. Then we will be able to overcome our fear and distrust. We will lose any sense of superiority. We will no longer want to blame or shame on the grounds of difference.
A teenage boy was taken by relatives to a rugby match one Saturday – Australia v. Fiji. The Fijians were big men, strangers from a distant land, speaking a foreign language and a bit intimidating. The next day the boy went to church with his relatives. The entire Fijian Rugby team was there as a choir, singing praise to God. He realized that these impressive and powerful men were also men of faith. Could he imagine their homeland? No. Could he understand their language? Not a word. Did he share anything of their history and culture? No. Yet he realized that these sportsmen were part of his extended family of faith and fifty years later has never forgotten it.
One of my favourite passages of Scripture is the poetic vision in the book of Revelation where the writer tries to describe the living God enthroned at the heart of a rainbow. He attempts to say what cannot be said with human language, painting a word picture of colour and light, sounds and perfumes, mysterious creatures and angels, music and worship. In awe before God, creatures sing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”
In that astonishing and glorious place, suddenly, there we are. All of us! ‘I looked,’ says the writer, ‘and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb… And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God…’
Margaret Reeson, (2005), Insights Reflection July 2005, Insights Magazine: Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod: Sydney.