Week of Monday, July 16, 2001
For our 20th anniversary my wife and I spent a week in London, enjoying the basic itinerary that Fodor's or The Lonely Planet recommends for rookie tourists like us—Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, The Tower of London, the British Museum and Library, two shows, and side trips to Cambridge and Stonehenge. I also confess that we spent a few hours in that mecca of consumer indulgence, Harrods. But as we walked around the neighborhood of our bed-n-breakfast, took the tube every day, and enjoyed London's pubs and restaurants, I would have to say that I especially enjoyed the breadth and depth of the city's multicultural realities.
I remembered reading in Ray Bakke's book The Urban Christian (1987) that there are over 170 languages spoken by the children of London's public schools. Today, barely 15 years later, Bakke is badly behind the times. A recent survey by the British Council showed that today London's 850,000 school children speak 300 different languages. I believe it, too. One night we took the tube to see Les Miserables, and as usual, on the underground we sat beside people of almost every shade of black, white and brown imaginable. After the show we went to Patisserie Cappuccetto, an Italian-owned bakery, where we struck up a conversation with the three girls working behind the counter. They were from Poland, Russia and Ecuador.
Several of our major American cities boast similar demographics (Los Angeles, New York and Chicago), but much of the United States is ethnically homogeneous, united especially by a single language that everyone must speak if they expect to get along and get ahead in life. Iowa, for example, has an aging population that is 96% white, and Governor Tom Vilsack is vigorously recruiting ethnically diverse people by creating “immigrant enterprise zones” and other incentives. So despite the claims that America is a “melting pot”, in general it is harder for us to experience the full multi-ethnic cornucopia of our world—6700 languages in 228 countries, according to Ethnologue—than it is for people who live in places like London.
Matters of language, race, and ethnicity should loom large in the lives of us who follow Jesus, both as individuals and as a church community.
Whenever I visit another country I am challenged by a statement by my friend Bob Young who has traveled in about 100 countries. Sitting together in a taxi in Moscow one day, Bob suggested that international travel affords an individual the opportunity to discover what part of your self is truly Christian and what part is merely American. Is the core of my personal identity essentially formed by American cultural values (pragmatism, optimism, individualism, etc.) or by the Gospel of the kingdom?1 Is the literal and figurative center of my world more about the geography of a certain place, such as “the American way”, or more about a spirituality, a specific way of living and loving? It is not possible or even desirable to separate my American identity from my Christian identity, but at the end of the day I hope and pray that the latter shapes the former, and not the other way around.
Our experiences of London's ethnic diversity also reminded me of a remark by the German church historian of the 19th century, Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), that Christians form a new community that is a sort of “third race.” Because of their primary allegiance to Jesus as Lord, the early Christians did not fit in neatly or entirely with their respective Jewish or Gentile cultures. Instead, they formed a new community centered around Jesus and the presence of His Spirit. In this new community God is “breaking down the dividing wall of hostility” that so often characterizes multi-ethnic encounters. If we expand Paul's remarks beyond Jewish-Gentile categories to include all the world's ethno-linguistic variety, then he tells us that God's “purpose was to create in himself one new man out of them all, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile them all to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15–16). In this new community one's spiritual identity transcends and transforms factors of ethnicity, socioeconomic position, and gender: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
I have had only one period in my life when these two truths were a concrete reality on a day to day basis. When we lived in Moscow (1991–1995) we attended the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, a small church of about 200 people from 30 countries. About 70% of our people came from 14 different African countries. For two years I chaired our church board, and sometimes I thought we were successful at truly living the community that Paul describes. But Bob Abernethy, news journalist for NBC News, made an insightful remark to me one day. He thought we did a pretty good job on Sundays, but during the other six and a half days of the week there was little social interaction among us. Still, I am extremely grateful for the experience and I will never be the same as a Christian because of it.
The Biblical vision for humanity embraces nothing less than “all the nations” (Romans 16:26, Matthew 28:19). The final, heavenly community that worships Jesus is formed “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). London was great, but in the Christian scheme of things it is only the beginning.
- An interesting book along these lines is Bill Dyrness, How Does America Hear the Gospel? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).
The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.