Embracing Difference across Culturas and Ecclesial Divides

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2006 »Volume 43 2006 Number 3 »Embracing Difference Across Culturas And Ecclesial Divides

By Janette Gray, R.S.M.

Janette Gray, R.S.M. lectures in Systematic Theology at the Jesuit College of Theology in the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne. She studied at Macquarie University, Melbourne College of Divinity, and Cambridge University, England. Her research areas include the theological forerunners to Vatican II, religious education, and contemporary religious life. She has been a visiting lecturer at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila. Her writings are in the areas of sexuality and celibacy, as well as religious and cultural differences.


We all can recall an experience of feeling "on the outer," not included, somehow shut off from a group or another person. Yet one of the hopes of the modern era was that everyone would share in a "universal humanity" where barriers like nationality, class, religion, and race would dissolve. This was the dream behind the United Nations. Modern history has shown how this dream became a dangerous nightmare because the only way such a "universal humanity" could prevail was by excluding those who did not fit or who refused to fit it. The result of this dream was the nightmare of the totalitarian dictatorships of Fascism, Nazism, and Soviet and Maoist communism that eliminated Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, physically and intellectually disabled persons, Christians, and anyone who believed differently. Alongside these ideologies, in traditional and modern societies until very recently women were excluded from this "universal humanity." They were invisible, because they were denied being fully human. So this "universal humanity" excluded more than it apparently included. Among them all women and all people of different races than some Europeans were excluded from this "universal humanity." The North American theologian Sallie McFague has observed how this "universalism" works to keep power at the top, i.e., in the control of the ruling dictator or party or gender: "one body underscores sameness, not difference, and, of course, the sameness in question benefits the head" (McFague 1993:37).

I am writing this from the perspective of a female European descendent in an island nation dangling from the edge of Southeast Asia made up of many different migrations from the varied cultures of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Oceania, and South America, and many indigenous cultures. Even as a member of a dominant culture, I too know the pain of feeling excluded or absorbed (however personal and not so oppressed) and even more the great shame of failing to prevent the exclusion of others. But this experience does not sufficiently qualify me to understand the suffering, danger, and oppression so many humans experience from exclusion or from the negative effects of a denying type of inclusion. So while we want to make sure no one is excluded from what we value and want to share, we need to be wary of including others only on "our" terms. And, when we are the ones being included we need also to be wary of being so absorbed that our difference is "written off" by those in charge of the inclusion.

Yet it is also our everyday experience that we are challenged when we meet "others" who are not the same as "me." This did not suddenly begin with globalization. We have the daily experience in community and work situations of interpersonal encounters with "others" who think, feel, or work differently from "me." These can be exhilarating life-broadening experiences but, more often, they are occasions for frustration and antagonism. Differences abound. There are gender differences, denied before recent times or only secretly shared away from the "other sex." There are many different faith traditions that Christians once labeled together as "pagan" but now we cannot avoid in our neighborhoods or even next door. There are also the differences we experience in relations with others in the Catholic Church, where position or stances on doctrine and practices often divide us from those whose faith we thought we shared. Above all, we experience ourselves either alienated or in conflict with the social, political, national, racial, and religious varieties that make up the contemporary world and our local societies in the 21st century. Like the old saying, we can view all this difference as either threat or opportunity. From a Christian perspective can we go even further? Can we see all this difference as created intentionally by God?

How we approach differences we encounter depends on many factors: personal experience, sociological influences, and history. An advance of the post-colonialism of the late 20th century has been the acknowledgement (often by force) of people’s claims for recognition of their right to self-identification. These have produced many different identities than those imposed by the dominant power. These identities are often competing against others for land, resources, and media space. Yet the conflicts these aggravate cannot be blamed exclusively on the "identity politics" they may emerge from. They cannot be allowed to deflect us from concern for what is different. As the Scottish theologian Ian McFarland notes:



In a society that continues to be scarred both by open bigotry and by myriad more subtle forms of discrimination based on the differences between people, highlighting difference as constitutive of identity may seem a questionable move (McFarland 2001:2).


Yet to presume such bigotry is lessened by ignoring difference is to disregard recent outbreaks of dissatisfaction with the universalizing politics that created them. There are so many examples in recent world affairs that we might shrink from naming them all, but that would tend to resist their impact. For example, inability to deal with difference was at the basis of the Balkan Wars break-up of the former Yugoslavia; the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi; communal violence in Indian Gujarat, Kashmir, Mindanao, Aceh, and Sumatra; the ethnic riots in Los Angeles and, more recently, in France. So it matters how we approach this age-old but lately more urgent problem of identity, which is about what it means to be human.

That this is "age-old" is illustrated by the recent discoveries in Flores (Indonesia) of a small statured human being distinct from the homo sapiens species extensive throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Anthropologists evaluating this discovery are in dispute whether these humans co-existed with the ancestors of the island’s current inhabitants as late as 13,000 years ago or whether they preceded them and were made extinct by them.1 Again this has raised the question about how the neanderthal species of humans disappeared and whether the cro-magnon species we descended from contributed to its extinction either directly or indirectly (Wright 2004:18-26).

Struggle with Difference

In the extensive writing about identity differences there are particular sociological and philosophical approaches that question the fear of "otherness" and also are cautious about tendencies to reduce the "other" to sameness with the dominant "us."

The Bulgarian-born French philosopher Julia Kristeva has tackled the experience of "otherness" first-hand, being a foreigner living in France. She explored how the "other" or "foreigner" takes on layers of meaning that the "other" seldom deserves:



The image of hatred and the other, a foreigner is neither the romantic victim of our clannish indolence nor the intruder responsible for all the ill of the polis. Neither the apocalypse on the move, nor the instant adversary to be eliminated for the sake of appeasing the group. Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder (Kristeva 1991:1).


Kristeva identifies here that what we fear about the different "other" is usually a projection of what is already within us, part of our own personality, experience, or aspirations with which we have not come to terms. She concludes that:



"The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to bonds and communities" (Kristeva, 1-2).


To designate the "other" as different from "us" is to deny them the very basis on which we claim our own identity through our connections, our bonds to community.

That what is "other" to us is also "within us" is the argument of René Girard’s mimetic theory about desire and violence. Girard identifies that we derive what we desire from others and their desires and that this leads to violence when competition for the desired object is limited by its scarce availability. When this rivalry becomes more extreme and spreads to others, what once distinguished those involved becomes a collective or social imitation to the point there is no limit on the violence it engenders. This is only relieved when a scapegoat is found to transfer all the hostility to a "victim" from which a community derives its identity and its sacred character (Girard 1977).

The positive nature of the desire for community is challenged by the North American political sociologist Iris Marion Young. She warns that inclusion of itself may not be the benign alternative to exclusion that many presume. She describes the values attributed to community:



The ideal of community privileges unity over difference, immediacy over mediation, sympathy over recognition of the limits of one’s understanding of others from their point of view (Young 1990:300-23).


Immediately we should be alerted by the negative value given to difference in this dichotomized litany, but our desire for unity tends to fog our appreciation of anything different that might jeopardize this mistaking uniformity for unity. Young detects a sinister edge to the "warm-fuzzies" associated with community:



I suggest that the desire for mutual relations and reciprocity underlying the ideal of community is similar to the desire for identification that underlies racial and ethnic chauvinism (Young, 311).


So what drives us to seek even the good of "mutual relations and reciprocity" also leads to the chauvinism that ends up justifying "ethnic-cleansing." There are many examples of this in less extreme situations where membership in a community or organization requires complete compliance with its prevailing ideology or mandatory expulsion from it. Young frighteningly concludes that while the ideal of community may be benign, it too, is often a problem in practice and when we are unsuspecting of this outcome we risk discounting the very people we wish to include:



Racism, ethnic chauvinism, and class devaluation, I suggest, grow partly from a desire for community … from the desire to understand others as they understand themselves and from the desire to be understood as I understand myself. … such mutual understanding can be approximated only within a homogeneous group that defines itself by common attributes (ibid.).


While this would seem to discard forever the possibility of a truly inclusive community, Young suggests a hope for some retrieval in her challenge:



How will the relations among these communities be organized so as to foster justice and prevent domination? (Young, 313)


Here is a spur to us as Christians: how to hold onto the ideals of community and the promise of just relations in God’s kingdom in ways that do not destroy or compromise the differences that are at the basis of any true unity.

These observations cast a gloomy pall over what we may innocently have hoped our efforts for making community might automatically bring. It is this juxtaposition of our human hopes with the ever-present shadows of our equally human sinfulness and inclination to violence that calls for a more theological approach to this problem of difference. Again there are many discussions from a theological viewpoint that offer insight into our human condition. In the interests of recognizing difference I would like to employ the reflection of three theologians from different traditions: the Greek Orthodox Bishop John Zizioulas, the Chief Rabbi of Britain Jonathon Sacks, and the Croation-Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf.

In a reflection on the Trinity of God, Bishop Zizioulas observed that our desire for communion coupled with recognizing the difference of others is a fundamental conflict about what it means to be human. He sees protection from the "other" as central to all social and political organizations. The problem is difference.



Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it.2


Zizioulas makes an important distinction about how we view this failure to overcome fear and mistrust of the "other": "We cannot solve this problem through ethics" (Zizioulas, 2). There is something so intrinsic to us as creatures that legislating or evangelizing more just relations with the different "other" is not going to overcome this division. Despite all cultural attempts to overcome this antagonism: "Otherness is not moral or psychological but ontological" (Zizioulas, 6). Zizioulas would go so far to insist that this is part of our condition as contingent beings and therefore our fear extends to the ultimate "Other," God: "The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God" (Zizioulas, 2). Nowhere in the created world is difference not some threat to peace and cohesion. Even those who idealize "nature" have to come to terms with the destruction that is intrinsic to maintenance of the food chains and life-cycles for life on earth. The Trinity of God is the only example of where "Communion does not threaten otherness; it generates it" (Zizioulas, 3). That the answer lies only in God should not surprise us, but again it might leave us with a sense of dissatisfaction with the necessity of our own efforts at understanding the difference of others. In the face of such divine uniqueness, this might too easily result in resignation to inevitable conflict and violence.

From a different perspective, Rabbi Jonathon Sacks tackles this danger head-on with his challenging questions:



Can we live together? Can we make space for one another? Can we overcome long histories of estrangement and bitterness? (Sacks 2003:17)


The Jewish experience of being marginalized, victimized, and almost exterminated in Christian and other societies because of their difference from the dominant culture informs his theology. Sacks wrote after the event of 11 September 2001 and the debate it provoked about there being an inevitable "clash of civilizations" between Islam and Western society. From this he described the urgent responsibility that religious people bear as we deal with increasingly threatening bouts of violence, that claim to be incited by religious differences:



We can no longer, as religious leaders, assume that nothing has changed in the human situation. Something has changed: our power for good and evil, the sheer reach and consequences of our interventions. We have come face to face with the stranger, and it makes all the difference whether we find this threatening or enlarging (Sacks, 207).


It is this appreciation of the "other’s" difference enlarging our horizons, our range of relationships, our understanding of the truth that Sacks offers as a way through the dilemma of current conflicts.



There are multiple universes of wisdom, each capturing something of the radiance of being and refracting it into the lives of its followers, none refuting or excluding the others, each as it were the native language of its followers, but combining in a hymn of glory to the creator (Sacks, 204).


This possibility is in joyous contrast to that view of difference that proposes only a common cause or uniformity to alleviate the cost of being open to difference: "If our commonalities are all that ultimately matter, then our differences are distractions to be overcome" (Sacks, 47). Sacks’ Judaism celebrates the divine pleasure in difference.

The Croation-Protestant (notice the difference: not Catholic) theologian Miroslav Volf was challenged by the horror of ethnic cleansing and the destruction of communities during the wars perpetrated by Serbia against Bosnia and Croatia that accompanied the breakup of former Yugoslavia. When asked if he could really embrace a Serb he realized that he had to change his simplistic theology of hospitality and inclusion in order to be able to do so. This meant finding a more honest way of dealing with what our identity is and at the same time dealing with the "otherness" of those who may even seek to destroy us. Because, as the English Jesuit Michael Kirwan observes:



It is, in fact, the fear of sameness—of loss of identity—that leads to violence, rather than our actual differences (2004).


Volf, surprisingly for a minority Protestant, uses the term "catholic" for the outlook that finds opportunity rather than threat in difference:



A catholic personality is a personality enriched by otherness, a personality which is what it is only because multiple others have been reflected in it in a particular way (1996:51).


Here we are reminded that who we are is not constructed in isolation from others. We are formed by the ways others have launched us into life (our parents and social upbringing) and by all those who have entered our lives (to a greater or lesser extent, positively or negatively). Volf takes up this last distinction by insisting that a Christian response to "others" is not only to welcome the difference of the "other" but to discern what about them we "take on board," what we accept as advancing the Good News of Christ.



A truly catholic personality must be an evangelical personality—a personality brought to repentance and shaped by the gospel and engaged in the transformation of the world (Volf, 52).


So we face the hard reality of trying not to exclude others while at the same time acknowledging that we honestly cannot include everyone, without in some way either denying who "I am" or who the "other" is. Volf calls this, rather negatively, "the dubious triumph of inclusion" (Volf, 58).



A constant pursuit of inclusion places one before the impossible choice between a chaos without boundaries and oppression with them (Volf, 63-64).


But there are times when we need to distinguish what is includeable (what the TV comedy Absolutely Fabulous calls "who’s in? who’s out?"). If we do not, we might either cease to be who we are or absorb the "other" by denying their difference:



In the absence of all boundaries, we are unable to name what is excluded or why it ought not to be excluded (Volf, 64).


So the solution to arbitrary or intentional exclusion is not simply inclusion, which might actually destroy the particularity of the person we are trying not to offend by exclusion. We seem trapped by an inability to hold difference and inclusion or unity together without falling into a uniformity that destroys everything—the unity as well as the difference.

God and Difference

The Christian response to difference depends on whether we can understand that all this difference was created intentionally by God and therefore is to be enjoyed as gift/grace. The problem of difference taxed the Gospel communities as much as it does us now. Despite their witness to how Jesus announced a kingdom of God that embraced all those rejected by society, their religion and economics, these early communities were confronted by the problems of difference in their midst and have left us evidence of this in their Gospels. We can see this in a story like that of Jesus being challenged by the utterly different "other," the Syro-Phoenician woman, in Mark 7:24-30. There are many Gospel texts where difference is presented as a problem (the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37; the Samaritan woman, at the well John 4:1-42) or is even resisted [(the parable of the wedding guests Matthew 22: 1-14 (especially 6-14)]. Yet the Gospel challenge lived out by Jesus in the ultimate unity of difference, God and human, demands that we cannot evade dealing with the "other." There is no limit to the range of "who is my neighbor?" At the same time there is no warrant for making the different "other" the same as us.

This is what the three major Christian doctrines resist. As Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. observes: "Much of Christian doctrine is precisely the exploration of sameness and difference" (2004:133-52). How God has created the universe and the diversity of life in our world asserts that this difference, not sameness, is the overriding intention of the Creator. Annie Dillard describes this celebration of difference perhaps a little less reverently:



Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent (1974:67).


The Incarnation demonstrates how the difference of being both God and human does not cancel out each other in Jesus Christ. Through this mystery we are constantly confronted with our tendency to view Jesus either overly as a human or as a so-far-beyond-us God. The Incarnation means we cannot dismiss Jesus’ love, courage, and obedience as a divine takeover of his humanity that is not possible for us fellow humans. We cannot assume that our humanity is something inherently evil and alien to God. The Incarnation shows us unreservedly that being human is good enough for God. Elizabeth Johnson captures the implications of Jesus’ likeness yet difference in the Incarnation:



In place of a competitive model of the God-human relationship, only a co-operative model will do justice to the incarnation. What characterizes a truly mature relationship between human beings and the mystery of God? Surely not the diminishment of human beings whom God created out of love, but their flourishing (1990:64).


The Trinity of God is the belief that while God is one, that oneness includes the difference of the communion of three "persons," without this meaning three competing Gods. God does not collapse difference into sameness. At the center of what we understand who God is, there is difference that does not destroy unity and unity that does not eliminate difference. This is hard for us to understand as there appears to be nothing like this on earth. Where is peace and togetherness not threatened by rivalries and competition for scarce resources? Where is difference and uniqueness not rejected as disrupting of the uniformity that is much easier to organize? The Trinity of God is the promise that in God unity and difference are not enemies, that our hopes for peace and community are not "pie-in-the-sky" utopian dreams. As Patricia Fox concludes: "That is the call to harness difference explicitly as ally rather than to treat it as a threat" (2001:239). The Trinity of God calls us to God’s will that we love difference and work toward the unity that makes up the new relationships of God’s Kingdom.

As Christians sharing community with so many different "others," we do get some sense of how this could be in our attempts (however inconsistent and faulty) to be one, praying and working together, "a true community of mutual relations."


All this points to a particular Christian capacity and responsibility to welcome difference in our communities and the wider communities that we encounter. How do we welcome in "others" without denying their difference? We need another way than an absorbing inclusion. We need a strategy that truly respects the "other’s" difference. As Radcliffe, commented on religious communities, this cannot stop at the minimal co-existence of tolerance:



Our task is to embody another form of tolerance, which is the embrace of that which is truly different. It calls us to bear difference not by pretending that the other is the same as me, but by constructing a shared life through dialogue and negotiation (Radcliffe, 149).


The clue is in the "embrace" word that we use almost as a cliché. Volf draws his inspiration from Paul’s admonition: "Welcome one another therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you." (Romans 15:7). Volf presents the image of the "embrace" as a strategy that details the necessary "moments in the movement from exclusion to embrace." He describes this image of "embrace" as opening out like the four "acts" of a play:



• Act one: opening the arms; creating space in myself for the other to come in.

• Act two: waiting; "the power of signaled desire, of created space, and opened boundary of self. If embrace takes place, it will always be because the other has desired the self just as the self has desired the other."

• Act three: closing the arms; it takes two pairs of arms to embrace; "reciprocity."

• Act four: opening the arms again; the otherness "may not be neutralized by merging both into an undifferentiated ‘we’" (Volf, 140-45).


Notice how the hugging part that we usually limit the term "embrace" to is too reductive for the strategy required here. "Embrace" is a process to be led up to and also released as shown in this strategy.

This image of the embrace is very appealing but that can disguise how thoroughly challenging it is to practice. The test is to think of a situation where you find yourself in conflict with an "other" or confronted by the other’s difference. If you can imagine yourself moving through these "acts" with him/her, do you notice yourself stalling at any stage? Do you too quickly push through one stage to get to the next? Where do you get stuck or want to stay? Reflection on where you find yourself and how you really feel may give some indication of how truly difficult such embracing difference is. As the liberation theologian Segundo Galilea reminds us, to be open to one another is a struggle that we are called to practice over and over again:



We are not another’s brothers or sisters automatically, by virtue of some pre-established rationale of solidarity like nationality, physical community, or the like. Sisterhood and brotherhood must be continually created and preserved—by the arduous uses of mercy (1984:96).


Embracing (the Need for) Embrace

Embracing difference is not easy or free of dangers. Volf warns that settling for a too easy solution means we are imposing on others our version of peace not the one promised as the Kingdom of God.



We can learn that we must engage in the struggle against oppression, but renounce all attempts at the final reconciliation; otherwise we will end up perpetuating oppression (Volf, 109).


While we know that God is the only restorer of peace, as Catholics, we cannot sit back and leave it all up to God. Too many people suffering in our world demand more of us. In my country, Australia, there is a great need to reconcile ourselves with the indigenous inhabitants, whose "Act one: opening the arms" has been denied so long by the settler populations, our governments, and our Christian communities. Embracing difference calls us to lead our politicians and each other to recognize the poor, the dispossessed, asylum seekers, and refugees as embrace-able. In the Old Testament, the strangers, widows, and orphans are placed under God's special protection. Though Jesus’ challenge in Matthew 25, we can with Julia Kristeva recognize that through the stranger we find the true God:



The image of the foreigner comes in the place and stead of the death of God and, with those who are believers, the foreigner is there to bring (God) back to life (Kristeva, 1).


Our sacramental experiences of reconciliation already give us glimpses of the promised kingdom in which God’s peace is real— through the "other" God comes back to give us life.

At this time Christians all over the world are being called to reach beyond our identities as national or regional communities to embrace different "others" in the reconciliation that will lead us further into the future than we can go separately. Radcliffe, seems to be addressing this when he writes:



This is an invitation for our communities to be places in which we really learn to live with those who are different from us, who have different theological opinions, different life styles, belong to different generations and have different political views. It is always harder to cope with difference precisely when we are most similar, and above all with our own brothers and sisters (2004:149).


Can we embrace the embrace? Can Christians find new ways, more energy, to reach out to those who are exploited and suffer because of their exclusion from over-prosperous first world existence? Can we learn from these reconciliations how possible it is to be open to difference as being part of God’s peace? Volf reminds us that humans are bound to each other by more than sameness:



We are who we are not because we are separate from the others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges (Volf, 66).


In facing all these challenges we are never alone. The ultimate "Other" descends on us as in Peter’s dream in Acts 10 and knocks on the door like the messengers from the "foreigner" Cornelius, a general in the occupying enemy’s army. Like Peter we are faced with threat or opportunity. James Allison concludes from this story of embracing difference:



The Holy Spirit is creating a new and impossible story in the midst of religious and cultural fixity by enabling both the previously impure and previously pure to work out a new story, together (Alison 2003:p.x.).


1. University of Wollongong News, "Skeleton reveals lost world of ‘little people’" 2 Nov. 2004.

[http://media.uow.edu.au/news/2004/hobbit/] There is some further debate about whether these "different" humans were still extant at the time of the Dutch colonization in the 17th century.

2. John Zizioulas, "Communion and Otherness," page 1. [http://www.incommunion.org/Met-john.htm ]








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