Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Accommodation, Hostility or Counter-Cultural

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Malaysia often prides itself as being multi-cultural, a “melting pot” (or some would insist a “boiling cauldron”) of diverse ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious communities. Although everyone acknowledges that culture matters, often, most people have little inkling of what ‘culture’ really means. So what is culture? It’s really hard to give a single word or sentence answer because as most anthropologists would state - culture is invisible, and this is what makes it potentially ‘dangerous,’ because we seldom realise its hold on us. It’s the lenses by which we view the world. And if you are wearing your lenses, you would most likely not notice it until you take it off. Culture is the world in which we are born and the world that is born in us, which means we are talking about everything. So, culture cannot be reduced to any one thing, but instead, it is an entire way of life. It's our perspective on the world. It doesn’t simply give a context for our values, it shapes our values.

But it’s not that we are just born into a culture and we have no choice in the matter. Ultimately culture is self-created. Culture is something we invent, create and fashion. Either the culture of others shapes us or we shape it. That is why, though we live in the midst of a larger ‘mainstream’ culture, we can choose to live by different cultural standards or values. The vexing questions that are relevant to us: How should we Christians respond to the broader mainstream culture? In a culture increasingly hostile to religion, should Christians retreat or engage?

Let’s consider our different options.

The first way is accommodation. This is probably the largest threat and temptation for Christians today. In an effort to appeal to outsiders, in seeking to be “relevant”, in wanting to “fit in” and not be ostracised, some Christians simply copy culture. They become a Xerox of what they perceive as hip, in the hope that people will perceive them as “cool” and give them a chance. This ranges from the music we sing in the liturgy to moral accommodations of the latest fad in lifestyle. Unfortunately, this pursuit of staying relevant removes the Church from its necessary anchor to both Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Eventually, accommodating ultimately means compromising certain values. Something has to give (and it’s usually the Church’s traditional teachings)! This is a recipe for disaster. You see, Christians are not meant to fit. In fact, we should naturally feel out of place in any larger society. We were not made for this world. We were made to pass through it. Our future, of course, is going to depend on what we do now. This world is not irrelevant. It is the place where God wants us to work, out of our selfishness into generosity and self-sacrifice. If we do that, we have the promise of the eternal citizenship in heaven, which is what life is all about now.

The other end of the spectrum is hostility. This could work out in two different but related responses. The first is separatism –responding to the mainstream culture with condemnation and retreat. Removing ourselves far away from the corruption of culture with the hope that we will not be tainted. But Christians who remove themselves from the world in hopes of self-preservation fail to realise that true cultural separation is impossible. More importantly, separation ignores the duty we’ve been given, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The second would be to adopt an antagonistic position. Some Christians see little in the current culture worth redeeming and have decided to fight against almost everything culture promotes. Offended by the current cultural disposition, they want to flip over the tables of society, instead of negotiating the difficult terrain of working it out from within. They are great at pointing out the problems of society, but rarely offer good or practical solutions.

Finally, we are presented with the third option. Being countercultural. Christians are not called to be separatists, antagonists, or striving to be “relevant.” Yes, we were never meant to “fit in” but we are also called to shine as lights in the darkness and that cannot be possible if it is hidden beneath a basket or used to burn the world. Being lights, the world would often feel the discomfort of being around us, as lights tend to reveal the cobwebs and dusty corners that are in need of cleaning. Christians should see themselves as salt, preserving agents actively working for restoration in the middle of a decaying culture while availing of Christ’s redeeming power to work through them. We are called to be prophetic witnesses swimming against the current, denouncing deception and false prophets. We understand that by faithfully living out our Christian faith, we have to and must fight against the cultural norms and often flow counter to the cultural tide. This is where we belong – in the world but not of the world - right where God has placed us – fitting into God’s plans rather than that of man.

The readings today provide us with great examples of prophetic counter-culturalism. First, we have the example of the Prophet Amos, who hailed from the southern Kingdom of Judah, called by God to denounce the moral rot of the Kingdom of Israel in the North that had fallen into sin because of accommodating and assimilating the values of its pagan neighbours. Likewise, we see in the gospel, the Twelve being sent out on mission and called to live a prophetic life that would ultimately lead to their estrangement from society. Being Christ’s followers they would have to follow Him into the margins of society. Their lifestyle is going to be prophetically counter-cultural – a witness to Christ’s radical dependence on God. For to be truly counter-cultural, one truly needs to be Christ-like. We cannot convey anything related to the truth of Christ apart from reflecting Christ Himself. Jesus Christ flipped the world upside down; He was counter-cultural then and He still remains so today. He gave us a depth of understanding, a challenge to become fully human, and a way to exist by loving others with complete abandon. He told us if someone hits you, turn the other cheek. He said to love those who hate us. He told us to love the outcast, to give away all you have, to love beyond the way our culture “loves” others. He asks us to take up our cross and to be crucified in His name.

A commitment to being countercultural rather than being removed or “relevant” isn’t always easy. Living differently can be hard but it is possible with the grace of God. As the apostle Peter encourages, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:14-15) St Peter offers three simple principles in living counter-cultural lives in a world where we are “strangers”: courage, clarity, and civility. In other words, it’s not enough for us to have the courage to stand up for what we believe. We also must work hard, study, and understand what it is we are trying to communicate. What’s more, we should do it with gentleness and grace.

We are foreigners and exiles because we have been born anew into a new homeland. We are prophets who are tasked to provide a vision that goes beyond the horizon of this world. But being members of another kingdom makes us outsiders here on earth. We have become strangers because we have become strange. Our values, lifestyle, and priorities will always be radically different from the surrounding culture. Our faith makes us strangers in our own land. We do not fit in. We are not meant to. We are on the margins, just like the poor and the weak. But that will be our redemption because Christ awaits us in the margins too!

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