Diversity, Shalom, and Remarkable Christianity (Ruben Rivera)

Today I’m happy to welcome my Bethel colleague Ruben Rivera to the blog. Educated at Vanguard University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Boston University, Ruben came to Bethel in 1997 as a history professor, and now serves as our chief diversity officer. He regularly speaks to Christian and community groups about shalom, diversity, and reconciliation. What follows is excerpted from a longer work-in-progress, in which Ruben explains the importance of diversity for followers of Jesus Christ.

Ruben Rivera“Diversity” is one of those terms about which Americans are deeply divided, and Christians seem to have no greater unity around it than non-Christians. Why there is so much diversity is a complex question that I cannot get into here. But the term is relatively easy to define. In simple terms, diversity is the social-historical fact of all the ways that humans differ and are similar, including language, culture, ethnicity, age, physical and mental ability, sexuality, social-economic location, work and life experience, education, religion, political beliefs, geographical location, historical context or era, and much more.

The harder question to address is What is inclusion? At a basic level inclusion is the welcoming, valuing, belonging and engaging of diverse persons for mutual goodwill, and benefit to a company, school, organization, church, or society, or as I’ve heard it put, diversity is the human mix and inclusion is making the mix work. While this may be the understanding and goal that trainers seek to instill in their clients and home organizations, it is not free from controversy, much less easy to do. For one thing, it is possible to define diversity in relatively neutral descriptive terms, but inclusion can hardly be discussed without entering into the prescriptive — making value statements and judgments about what kind and how much diversity is deemed acceptable, affirmed, and allowed to belong; and how we thrive together when clearly, diversity means that we will not agree about everything.

As a Christian of a pietistic and ecumenical disposition who resonates with the dictum, “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity,” one of the biggest challenges I have found in engaging Christ-centered diversity work is simply to keep rescuing it from the battlefields of so-called political correctness (a term I hear frequently misused), and identity politics of the right and the left. Another challenge is the fear that diversity (really, inclusion) will lead us to compromise the Gospel as we slip down the dangerous slope of cultural relativism. (Cultural relativism is another term that is often misunderstood and wrongly equated with moral relativism. The fact of cultural relativism all around us and the prized ability to adapt effectively and appropriately in different cultural contexts in no way means that anything goes.)

Despite these challenges, as a long time faculty member and the Chief Diversity Officer at a Christian liberal arts university, I can honestly say that when it comes to diversity I am not asking any Christian to do anything that is not in their values to do. However, it is all too easy for Christians to become culturally and ideologically captive in glaringly unbiblical ways – loving our own and excluding others, supporting our candidate even when they do something that we condemn when the candidate of the other party does it, being good to those who are good to us, who are the same color as us, who have proven themselves worthy to be considered our neighbor. This kind of culturally captive, ingroup-favoring Christianity is entirely unremarkable. Let me be blunt. It is not Christian at all, because anyone, any non-Christian, can do the above. Yet, it is all too common among the churches of the United States and beyond. Instead, God calls us to what I call remarkable Christianity.

The Scope of God’s Redemptive Work

The Bible reveals that diversity is God’s idea, and from the first book of the Bible (e.g., Gen 12:3; 22:18) to the last, the scope of God’s redemption promises to encompass the entire global, multicultural diversity. One glimpse of the final heavenly state of universal shalom includes redeemed and transformed humanity from every language, culture and nation on earth, all united in the worship of Christ who will finally be everything to everyone (Rev 7:9-10; 1 Cor 15:28).

Any Christian who at all means what they say when they pray the prayer that Jesus himself taught us, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9- 13) — if one gives any obedience to God’s will, any loyalty to God’s Kingdom, any hope for its final establishment — should realize that the Kingdom of God is now and will ever be incredibly, marvelously diverse.

Despite the overwhelming weight of scriptural consensus, many believers and churches treat diversity like a non-confession confession that they once smoked pot: “Diversity? Sure, I did diversity once. I didn’t inhale, though.”

Yet it was God who created the world with the capacity for incredible human diversity, and everyone is created in God’s image (Gen 1:27; 5:1; Rom 8:29). Everyone is cherished and loved by God, who does not want any one to perish but all to come to repentance and salvation (John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 2 Pet 3:9; 1 John 2:2). Also, Scripture teaches that God intends for all the diverse peoples in his Kingdom to live in shalom.

More than just the temporary relief or absence of conflict, deprivation, hardship, need, or want, the Hebrew word shalom (and its Greek counterpart, eirene) is really more about the presence of such states as peace, safety, tranquility, completeness, and wholeness. The state of shalom that one finds in the Bible (e.g., Isa 11:6-9; Rom 8:19-22; Rev 21:1-4; 22:1-5) reveals a transcendent all-dimensional wellbeing under the kingship of God, and it is enjoyed by all, not just by some, or at the expense of other living and non-living things. Thus shalom may be summarized as the wellbeing of all people and things under the just and loving rule of Christ the King (cf. Isa 9:6-7; Eph 1:20-23).

Now, humanity is fallen, sin divides us, and Satan flouts the authority of God’s Kingdom and tries to destroy God’s shalom in creation. Therefore, we often lack harmony and wellbeing. But despite this, everyone is a creation of God and as such is unique and precious to God.

The ultimate expression of God’s love is the sending of his son Jesus to die for our sins so that people from every language, ethnicity and culture might be reconciled to God and to each other, thus beginning the restoration of God’s shalom and full establishment of the Kingdom of God (Eph 2; Rev 7:9-10; 21:1-7). Because of our sinful and broken state, God’s shalom is only possible because of the salvation from sin that Christ provides, and the ongoing process of Christ-like transformation and service known as discipleship.

A Christian, then, is one who through Christ has been reconciled to God and becomes a reconciler for God. This has always been and remains a core value for the church, and is a core value at Bethel University (2 Cor 5:17-21). This value of reconciliation-shalom is in harmony with the biblical teaching concerning the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbor as our self (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:36-40; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:25-37; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8).

Rightly then, evangelical and mission-minded Christians spend a great deal of time, resources, and effort getting people reconciled to God. For over two decades I have called this vertical reconciliation. Too often, however, we lack in getting ourselves and others reconciled to each other: what I call horizontal reconciliation. But the Gospel calls Christ-followers to both vertical and horizontal reconciliation and shalom. Therefore, every Christ-centered community must do all that it can to bring understanding and reconciliation where misunderstanding, division, and brokenness exist between ourselves and others.

Remarkable Christianity

Our claim to love God is evidenced by loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Unfortunately, it is too easy to be like the Jewish expert in the religious law in Luke 10, who in “seeking to justify himself,” asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

The expert starts by asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question is disingenuous. For any schooled Jew in Jesus’s day would have been able to give answer, and indeed he answers his own question. Most importantly, a loophole had been created that effectively annulled the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor. We know, for example, that Jews had intense dislike for and did not associate with Samaritans (John 4:9). And it was allowed that one could love friends but hate enemies (Matt 5:43-44).

Jesus was fully aware of this unremarkable form of religion. Therefore, Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan responds by saying, the question is not who is your neighbor, but who are you a neighbor to? To ask Who is my neighbor? puts the burden on those who are different from you (ethnically, culturally, religiously, etc.) to be worthy of your love and friendship.

But if the holy and righteous God of the universe placed that same burden on imperfect sinners, which of us would be worthy of God’s love? Who would deserve salvation? Jesus said, “If you love those who love you….and…do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners can do that” (Luke 6:32-36). Any religion that creates what I call Samaritan loopholes is unremarkable.

The claim to love God, and those people that are relatively easy to love because they are not too different from us, that is unremarkable Christianity. To love our friends and hate our enemies, that is unremarkable Christianity. If we, like the Jewish religious expert, love our Jerusalem and exclude our Samaritans, that is unremarkable Christianity.

Unremarkable Christianity leaves Christians far too unchanged; their churches remain more or less enclaves where all the wonderful virtues of Christianity are nurtured, but do not apply outside in the same way. Yet, it is precisely “outside,” amid the diversity and otherness, that a consistency between Gospel message and messengers is ultimately tested.

The Gospel is not just about salvation, but transformation: new wine in new wine skins; the making of all things new; Christ-centered unity where divisions and hostilities once existed (Mark 2:22; Matt 19:17; Rev 21:1-5; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Eph 2:14-22; Gal 3:28). We are called to be God’s agents of reconciliation and shalom in a world torn by misunderstanding, mischaracterization, division, zero-sum-game competition, racial and ethnic strife, horrible violence, and pain.

But if messengers of God’s Kingdom message remain insufficiently changed, then Christ himself is captured and tribalized to the party or group, contrary to his own wishes and prayer (John 17). This kind of Christianity has no compelling story or power to change the world.

I understand that what I am calling remarkable Christianity can easily be seen as just normal, plain, or mere Christianity. If so, I think we can at least agree that so-called normal Christianity has not been the norm historically, nor would Jesus be so adamant about the unique life he calls us to if it were.

Jerusalem vs. Samaria, us vs. them, conservatives vs. liberals, the ideals of liberty and equality vs. the realities of favoritism and prejudice, democracy vs. zero-sum policies, these are “normal” in our world and all too normal in many of our churches. Remarkable Christianity includes and loves those who were formerly the Samaritan others in our lives, racially, ethnically, culturally, religiously, politically and otherwise. Remarkable Christians accept “the least of these” (Matt 25:31-46) — those people and groups that have been historically devalued in society, and whom we ourselves have devalued — as our own family. Remarkable Christians understand that doing wrong to anyone is the same as doing wrong to Jesus, and doing good to anyone is the same as doing good to Jesus.

There are those who argue that passages such Jesus’s teaching about doing good to the “least of these” as unto Jesus himself, or John’s incredulity about claiming to love God whom we have never seen, but not our “brother and sister” that we see every day (1 John 4:20), are to be interpreted as focused on fellow Christian believers and not just anybody. What is that but a Christian version of the Samaritan loophole? Even if this exclusive interpretation is true for these specific passages (and if Scripture is allowed to enlighten Scripture, I am far from convinced that it is), the above passages in no way negate Christ’s call to remarkable Christian love and goodness, remarkable precisely because they go beyond our own family, faith, or group.

One way to test yourself is to ask where you are at in the current toxic environment of the demonization of undocumented immigrants, Muslims, or other devalued groups. Who is the equivalent of a Samaritan to you? Not the hero in Jesus’s parable that we Christians preach about and admire as “us.” But the Samaritan you could never imagine being your neighbor, let alone the hero in this or any other story, any more than the Jewish religious expert could have imagined it when Jesus first told the parable. We need to stop thinking or by default living according to who deserves to be our neighbor and treated as such, and ask instead, “Am I a good neighbor to those I would normally ignore or shun? Do people different from me see me as a good neighbor?”

Also, as members of Christ’s church we should never forget that we were all once aliens and orphans: outcasts, sinful, rebellious undesirables, and far away from God. And though none of us deserved it, by grace we have been brought into the family of God (Eph 1:5; 2:11-22). This should lead to something remarkable. Because we can relate to what it is to be an alien and an outcast, because we are eternally grateful for the grace and adoption we did not deserve but have been freely given, we gladly open our hearts and our lives to those we never would have considered could and should be family. We extend compassion and familial belonging to aliens, to Samaritan others, until there is no more otherness, until, as far as is possible on our part, there is only family.

Christians cannot be content to believe that our good in the world has outweighed the bad, that we have converted so many souls, that there will always be detractors of our faith, that we cannot be expected to win over everyone to our ways or get along with everyone, that it’s a two-way street and others have to be willing to change too, and that people should not judge Jesus and the Gospel by the faults we Christians have in common with all humans. Such arguments are a tacit admission that our Christian beliefs have taken us only so far, that there are things we are not willing to change about ourselves and our churches not because it is unbiblical but because it is and it is simply too hard, that there is only so much self-sacrifice we are willing to make for the sake of Christ and the diverse peoples for whom he died, that we are good but we can’t be expected to be remarkable.

Vertical reconciliation, horizontal reconciliation, and remarkable Christianity

God’s people should care about diversity because how we understand and engage diversity is one of those crucial areas that make the difference between remarkable and unremarkable Christianity, between Christians who can be very good indeed, but mostly or only to their group, or perhaps to other people who are just this side of not too different.

Remarkable Christians ask themselves a simple but revolutionary question: if God has placed such inestimable value on you, even if you are different from me, how then should I treat you, and how should I address any institutions, systems or organizations that devalue those whom God values so much?

Remarkable Christians understand that unity-in-diversity is an area that seems never to be fully brought under the lordship of Jesus Christ, our churches growing in nearly all ways but this, our people insufficiently discipled and transformed.

Only through the fullness of salvation-transformation can the ministry and presence of the church in the world overcome racialized, politicized, and other culturally captive forms of Christ and the Gospel, and be nurtured to bloom in ways that we have not imagined, rather than for Christianity to remain confined to prophetic irregularities. Think, for example, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have personally heard some Christians say that Black Lives Matter is a movement of thugs who disgrace the legacy of Dr. King. While I do not condone those relatively few who have engaged in violence, you cannot so cleanly separate BLM from the history of civil rights. If one is horrified by BLM now, how can they be so sure that if they were even alive a half-century ago, they would have loved MLK then, and helped him to carry freedom’s banner to meet the dogs and fire hoses, pipes and beatings in jail? It is easier to love MLK now. He’s dead. Many people, including many Christians, certainly did not love him when he was alive.

Here then is another sign of unremarkable Christianity: we love the prophets, but only from the safety of historical distance.

Remarkable Christians keep their ears open to the voices of contemporary counter-cultural prophets that seek, as we often say at Bethel, to engage the world’s most challenging problems for God’s glory and our neighbors’ good — even if ours is the time, the party, the system, the country that is being prophetically called out.

Remarkable Christians work tirelessly and live for a unified diversity of redeemed humanity that adds to the majesty and glory of Jesus Christ by seemingly infinite orders of magnitude. Put another way, the fruits of God’s global, multicultural mission and God’s glory are magnified precisely because the redeemed are not all the same, and therefore the service, worship and enjoyment of God can be expressed in virtually unlimited ways.

With this vision of the diverse Kingdom of God in mind, remarkable Christians work toward and anticipate with unbridled joy that final state of shalom, where there will no longer be any curse, and where there shall be that blessed community of people from every language, ethnicity, and nation under God’s just and loving rule that will have no end.