- A student travels to Japan and comes back talking only about the similarities between the people there without acknowledging any of the significant differences that were present.
- A male internship supervisor fails to see the common humanity in their female student because they are so fixated on their gender differences that it has completely polarized their relationship and become a barrier to their work together.
- A pastor of a mostly LGBTQIA+ church leans so heavily into the perceived shared sexual identity of parishioners that they completely fail to see other important differences that are present, including race and class.
What do all of these have in common? In each of these three cases, these leaders were unable to see both the cultural similarities AND the differences that are so important to notice if we are to fully live into the body of Christ.
When we place too much emphasis on similarity, we usually end up in conformity. Perhaps you have been a part of a monocultural community where this was the case. Can you imagine being at a 3M lab in Maplewood, MN sitting at a desk with 5 white, male, upper middle class scientists all educated at MIT, trying to solve a problem together? What about pastors with similar cultural identities trying to see the fullness of God who have all been trained by the exact same theologians? The breakthrough often comes from someone who brings a divergent voice into the dominant discourse. When we only focus on our similarity, we lose this generative quality of diversity that can be such an asset. While it might be the same spirit that activates our gifts, we know that our gifts vary in many ways and add to the beauty of God’s kin-dome. Jesus’ disciples came from a variety of backgrounds. He chose them specifically for their diverse gifts not because it is the right “woke” progressive thing to do, but because he knows that the more diverse the proclaimers, the more robust the proclamation. How are you being mindful of diversity in your proclamation?
When we place too much emphasis on difference, we usually end up in fragmentation. Have you ever been a part of a polarized community that could not find any common ground as they were trying to work together? Instead of leveraging the gifts of difference to create something beautiful, these differences became a barrier to success. If we become fixated only on our differences, we fail to see the common human dignity that each of us share. Our neighbors become a political party and only a political party. Our friend becomes a member of a socioeconomic class and only a member of a socioeconomic class. This inability to see important cultural differences and adapt to them was one of the things that was splitting up the early Jesus communities and resulting in deep divisive conflict and trauma. It is into this context of polarization that Paul reminds the Romans that they are a part of the same body and reminds the Galatians that they share unity in Christ, regardless of cultural background. This unifying dimension of God’s love must always be remembered, along with the truth that we share a variety of cultural particularities and differences that should be both honored and seen. How are you working to unify the body of Christ in your proclamation?
So, how do we get better at noticing both similarity AND difference in our midst? Utilizing the language from the Intercultural Development Continuum, we must continue to seek experiences that help us ask ourselves the following questions:
- Where are the differences?
- Where are the similarities?
- What am I doing about those similarities and differences?
- Am I judging them? (Polarization)
- Minimizing them? (Minimization)
- Seeing them and accepting/valuing them? (Acceptance)
- Am I adapting to them to make others feel welcomed and included and behaving in ways that are both appropriate and authentic? (Adaptation)
These questions must be repeated and repeated if we want to continue to develop in this work.
What kind of experiences will help us get better at this work? It is not just action that changes our behavior, but it is action along with metacognitive reflection (thinking about our thinking) that “moves the needle”. If we engage in this deep reflection, then many of our experiences (be they big or small) can become “grist for the mill” for our intercultural development, including:
While traveling to another corner of the world can open our horizons, if we don’t interrogate our thought patterns about differences and similarity, we will continue to reinforce the same ideas, regardless of where we spend our time. When we travel we must keep reflecting about the difference and the similarity that we are seeing.
As we read the authors that we read, where are we seeing cultural difference and similarity? We can branch out and read authors with different perspectives as well as “similar” perspectives and still try to see the contours of difference that are present.
Where did I see cultural difference today? Where did I see similarities today? Where did I see my own dominant cultural identities showing up? Where did I feel discomfort around cultural differences and what did I do about it? Journals can help us record our thoughts about these questions as many others as we continue to dive deeper into this work.
If you are talking to a group of friends that you see as very similar to each other, are you still able to see the difference that is present? If you are interacting with a cultural group that is less familiar to you, are you seeing the difference that is present within the members of that cultural group? It is very important to not just place your body in new spaces but also have new thoughts about the same old spaces you have been in. We can be on the frontlines of the march and still be problematic if we are not thinking deeply about how we are showing up with our fellow humans.
These are just a few of the activities that you can engage in but there are many more (including tv/movies, site visits, intercultural coaches, etc.). The important thing is that you continue to grow and learn, knowing that it is a journey. So, what if we thought about the three different stories I told you in the beginning where these leaders had started to develop more of this intercultural competence we are talking about. What might that look like?:
- A student travels to Japan and marvels at how similar some of the Japanese culture was to their culture, but also how vastly different it was in so many other ways. The student reflects on the contours of difference that they witnessed within the Japanese culture and how there were so many microcultural dynamics that were also at play. They continued to ask these questions about similarity and difference in their daily life and began to learn how to behave appropriately and authentically. They don’t “nail it” all the time, but noticing the differences of the culture have helped them in their intercultural competence and humility.
- An internship supervisor is aware of gender dynamics and how those are affecting his supervision, but he has also found ways to build rapport and common ground as he supports his intern. He does not overly focus on gender, but brings it up when it is relevant and is able to name the difference in ways that invites the intern to bring her full self to the internship.
- The pastor of a mostly LGBTQIA+ congregation finds affinity and solidarity with so many people who share their similar marginalized identities. While this shared experience brings the congregation together, the pastor is also quick to point out that there are still many different identities that are present and that need to be tended to. The congregation has moved past only being LGBTIQIA+ affirming but is also leaning into what it means to be anti-racist and living into God’s beloved community as a diverse socioeconomic community.
Seeing the fullness of God through people who are culturally different from us is a lifelong journey. We will not always do it perfectly, but God’s grace is propelling us forward. To paraphrase my colleague Mary Hess: “There are two ways to do develop intercultural competence: imperfectly or not at all”