Beyond Romantic Multiculturalism

Essays

 The affirmation of multiculturalism has almost been a marker of progressive orthodoxy amongst those on the theological ‘left’ for generations. It has characterised Church reports (e.g. ‘Faithful and Equal’, ‘Seeds of Hope’, ‘Passing Winter’ and ‘Faithful Cities’) theological education, community engagement, sermons and key texts on the urban political theology landscape, not least in the work of Kenneth Leech. Such affirmation is to be celebrated as a foundation upon which inclusive and liberative patterns of discipleship can be built in the super-diverse city where difference is the norm and no longer the exception, as Andrew Davey reminds us. However, there is a ‘but’ and it’s a big one….Such affirmation can often seem disengaged and uncritical, a broad ethical principle rather than a hard-edged theological commitment that arises from honest and ongoing engagement in complex and contested multicultural and multi-faith communities. In the face of divisive and damaging dismissals of multiculturalism such as the 2011 Munich speech in which British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that multiculturalism has ‘failed’ we need to move beyond romanticism and passed the blurred language of hybridity.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that difference is not inherently liberative. To live alongside people whose faith or ethnicity is different from our own does not necessarily shape the way we think, believe or act. The ‘multi’ in multiculturalism can imply life lived in separate ‘camps’ or along parallel lines rather than in mutually affirming communities. In his Rethinking Multiculturalism’ Bhiku Parekh suggests that communication and dialogue are centrally important if we are to forge genuinely inclusive communities. Perhaps, as Tariq Modood argues, we need to think more in terms of ‘interculturalism’ and less of ‘multiculturalism’, towards what the African-American public intellectual Cornel West calls a ‘cultural politics of difference’ which  he suggests can be, “a strengthening and nurturing endeavour that can forge more solid alliances and coalitions…[between]…people of colour and white progressives.” This multicultural politics of difference demands the kind of inter-faith coalitions exemplified by the emergence of inter-cultural and interreligious broad-based community organizing in Britain over the last twenty years. Such a movement can help to revitalize tired urban theologies that do not understand contemporary diversity. Paul Gilroy, however, cautions against undue optimism. “Multicultural society seems to have been abandoned at birth. Judged unviable and left to fend for itself, its death by neglect is being loudly proclaimed on all sides.” Nevertheless Gilroy describes multiculturalism as “an ethical principle” which can force “nationalisms and bio-social explanations of race and ethnicity into more defensive postures.” Gilroy believes that: “with hybrid culture on our side and postcolonial history at our disposal, antiracism should now move out of its defensive and apologetic postures.”

A cultural politics of difference contradicts government speak about homogenising community cohesion on the one hand and the cultural studies oriented indistinct soup of hybridity on the other. In the context of Christian activism in a diverse city such submergence of difference can appear to pose diversity as a problem to be resolved rather than a rich reflection of the will of a God who creates and rejoices in difference. For decades people from different ethnic backgrounds have loved each other and had children – not ‘mixed’ race but people of dual heritage. A Gospel that revolves around the diverse unity of humanity implicit in Robert Schreiter’s ideas about a ‘new catholicity’ implies dialogical and not hybrid identities. And so the question for people of faith in the 21st century city is perhaps this – ‘How can our difference be liberative?’ As members of the one body, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12, our diversity is our strength but only when it is focused on the conviction that we are all made in the image of God – as we are – In the Gospels Jesus enters into the ‘in between’ zone of the ‘third space’ as he is challenged as a result of his xenophobia and then opens himself to learn about love and faith from the Canaanite woman whose faith was so different from his own. Such a Gospel of hospitality and mutuality challenges us to move beyond the binary language of ‘host’ and ‘guest’, ‘stranger’ and ‘neighbour’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ on the one hand and attempts to smooth our diversity away on the other. An intercultural politics of liberative difference that sees our diversity as the in-breaking of the always dynamic and surprising Kingdom of God and offer us the tools to begin to build the ‘good society’ of which Martin Luther King dreamed so long ago…

 

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