Biblical pluralism might help eliminate social discord

Toward a biblical solution to America’s racism problem

Does biblical faith have anything to contribute toward solving America's problems of racial disharmony and social strife? I’m using "biblical" as an umbrella under which Christians of all traditions, as well as adherents of Judaism, can find a place in the shade, as it were.

Ironically, based on years of studying minority-group issues, I believe people of the Bible have a solution; in some parts of the world some of them have found and applied it, but most of us in this country are too stuck in the majoritarian tradition of our forebears to try it. It's social reform based on a pluralism consistent with Old and New Testament teaching. I encourage your reflections and feedback on it.

Twice in recent years I've heard two well schooled and well meaning preachers denounce pluralism as a danger to Christianity. Syndicated columnist and former publicist for Jerry Falwell Cal Thomas recently wrote that pluralism will lead to "a valueless society."

A similar denunciation of pluralism appears in A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die, by Catholic theologian John Powell, S.J., whose writing, on the whole, I much admire. Powell equates pluralism with "the relativity of truth."

I have even seen pluralism cited as one of Hinduism's more appealing features, on a PBS series about world religions. The program defined pluralism much the same way the sources mentioned above define it.

As they use the term, pluralism is many roads, or many lanes within a road, all leading to the same destination. Hindus are pluralistic, by this definition, because they believe Christianity, Islam, and other world religions along with Hinduism can be roads to truth, enlightenment, or god-consciousness.

Such pluralism believes, as Cal Thomas put it, that "there is no truth, no clear objective or moral order worth pursuing." Hinduism, according to the PBS narrator, believes there are many truths so, as Thomas would say, there is ultimately no truth (basic logic: two propositions that contradict each other cannot both be true).

'Bogus' definitions of pluralism

They are all using a bogus definition of pluralism. Their usage is only close to only one of the definitions in my dictionary (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate): "a theory that reality is composed of a plurality of entities." But even this is not wholly incompatible with orthodox Christian theology; the Trinity can be called a plurality of entities, as can the two natures of Christ, the ontological-teleological tension, and so on.

The dictionary's definition of pluralism as a social system, however, is the one I'm mainly interested in, and I believe is both socially good and morally right. It is this: pluralism is "a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization."

This could be a definition of Roman culture at the time of Christ and the apostles. My church history professor in seminary, lecturing about the meaning of "the fullness of time" (a phrase from the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 1, verse 2, more commonly translated "these last days") called the Roman culture of that time the optimal seedbed for planting and nurturing the Gospel.

The traditional interpretation of "the fullness of time" is that Christ's incarnation was divinely prepared for the moment when conditions were just right for the fulfillment of prophecies and the Savior's appearance on the stage of world history.Though pluralism didn't always work well in the Roman Empire, in theory it was working quite well at that particular time (the reign of Augustus at the time of Christ's birth, of Tiberius during Christ's ministry, and of Claudius during the Apostle Paul's ministry).

The emperors expected every group to look after its own interests and not interfere with others while sending tribute to Rome, and allowed the Jews a fair modicum of autonomy in Jerusalem and Palestine, as it did other sects in other regions of the empire.

Roman "democracy" also allowed the early Christians to make their case before the public and, when persecuted by their opponents, to request legal redress. This was fertile soil for the seeds of a new faith and the first international missionary movement.

Pluralism, not theocracy

If Christian social theory is theocratic—that is, if our duty is to work toward a Christian culture analogous to an Old Testament Israel that existed in theory more than in fact, in which Christians enforce the law of Moses interpreted through the gospel's "law of grace"—then the spirit of the Gospel, persuasion of individuals' hearts through grace rather than coercion of their bodies through armed strength, is violated.

Theocracy, a religious totalitarianism, is by definition monolithic, excluding all other value systems, and therefore incompatible with both the historical setting of the New Testament and Christ's teaching regarding love for neighbors, being peacemakers, and belief being a matter of heart persuasion rather than physical force (Mt. 7:12; 13:24-30; 15:21-28; 25:31-46).

True pluralism is the existence side by side of value systems that have sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory conceptions of truth. It is agreeing to disagree and yet be, for the most part, civilly agreeable.

It is not, as the bogus definitions cited at the top of this esay would have it, agreeing not to disagree, or agreeing to nod yes to everything every side of every issue proposes.

True pluralism is a polar opposite of totalitarianism. Bogus pluralism is totalitarianism in yet another guise.

Salad bowl analogy

True pluralism, to use the metaphor my sons brought home from one of their junior high teachers several years back, is a tossed salad in which each ingredient retains its genuine taste while contributing its own gifts to the single concoction. Bogus pluralism is a Mulligan stew that overcooks everything together to create a bland uniformity of taste.

Christianity, being an inherently evangelical belief system (Luke 24:47, Acts chapters 10 and 11), thrives in pluralistic contexts where individuals are free to set forth their conceptions of truth, as Paul did in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).

This compels Christians to seek for others what so benefits themselves, even though it may occasionally mean the triumph of other doctrines over Christian ones in the marketplace of ideas. And this is why, though they may have done it intuitively rather than philosophically, Christians engineered and undergirded the most viable democratic experiment in world history, our own, warts and all.

Unfortunately, the bogus pluralism I've been shooting down is very much "up" today. That explains how, on campuses across the country, both "multiculturalism" and insistence on "political correctness" (which by definition would be impossible in a truly multicultural context) can be favorite buzz words of the same people.

This is the "pluralism" that nods yes to everything everyone says, except "no," and says there's no room in a "pluralistic" society for anyone saying absolutely no.

Fundamentalists like Cal Thomas might prefer to throw out the whole notion of pluralism than have to plumb and defend such complexities. But if we do that, we'll miss the chance to show our neighbors that the Gospel has a viable alternative to racial and ethnic hatred and strife. And, I think Christians who do so are forsaking both the spirit of the New Testament and the love of neighbors required in the Old (Lev. 19:18, 33-34).

It seems manifest to me but obviously is not to many others that, by definition, pluralism is an independent coexistence of various philosophies and value systems. If everything is relative, or if every behavior or value can be accommodated, what we have is not pluralism but a monolithic totalitarianism.

The word "independent" in the preceding paragraph is vital. Opposing systems, even ones that may want to put each other out of business, can both find a place to exist within such a pluralistic society, without having to accept any of each other's values or philosophic positions except, perhaps among Americans, each other's allegiance to the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Under real pluralism as defined in the most widely used college dictionary, people with differences agree to disagree. Under relativism, agreement is such a high value that people agree never to disagree, which becomes totalitarian.

Pluralism and the US Constitution

A reader wrote after the first part of this essay was published to say America already has an excellent basis for pluralization: the Constitution.

If applied from that perspective, the Constitution is an excellent base for pluralism. The First Amendment's freedom of conscience clauses (both of religion and expression) assume that we will be a people—and peoples—with differences, and tries to make it possible for such differences to coexist.

However, the cultural establishments of the press and tax-based schools have generally pushed toward greater uniformity rather than championing greater freedom for diversity. Their relentless pursuit of "American culture" assumes that there is one "American way" of thinking, generally speaking.

There is, and even under my ideal vision for pluralism always will be, some necessity in this. A friend who read the first portion of this asked if by promoting pluralism we might be fostering separatism, which could lead to in-fighting and civil unrest along the lines that some of the former Soviet republics and Eastern bloc nations—especially Yugoslavia—have endured.

My most ready answer is, "No, that won't happen, because we're all Americans." That assumes that we all do value a certain way of life that will let us pursue our ethnic, racial, creedal, or interest-group identity and pride, and almost seems to contradict the very core of pluralism.

But it isn't a contradiction, largely because of the First Amendment and the biblical principles on which the First Amendment is based. Whether they did it consciously or not, most people who live here came here because of the First Amendment. They wanted to go where they could have great freedom to be themselves and flourish in their own identity, and yet be among others not identical to themselves.

Blacks have history of exclusion

By that understanding, perhaps the reason there is more racial-ethnic conflict in this land between African-Americans and non-Blacks than among any other subpopulations is because of the fact that only Blacks among all the subpopulations who immigrated did not come here with that goal in sight.

Even worse, being brought here in violation of the very spirit of the First Amendment, they to this day, to a larger extent than any other subpopulation, are not at all sure the First Amendment is much more than an "American culture" hypocrisy.

Even worse, the failure of the justice system to work for victims of injustice like Rodney King, as it did in the first trial of his attackers, reintroduces high degrees of skepticism about what Americans say their country is all about and how everyone can benefit under its motto of "liberty and justice for all."

Such African-Americans, above all people, know that America does not always practice what it preaches.

A natural question now is, how will my proposals help in this situation? Wouldn't it be better to keep African-American children in "American" schools where we can show them by example as well as teaching that the First Amendment can work for them, too?

Wouldn't it be dangerous to encourage, as I propose, the creation of, say, Malcolm X elementary and secondary schools that teach everything from a uniquely African-American perspective? Might not racism even be part of such schools' curricula?

Possibly, but I'm convinced otherwise. I'm convinced the whole problem of Black-on-non-Black racism could be solved by merely raising African-American "self-esteem" (in the pop psychology sense) to a permanent and secure higher level than it has yet been in this country.

Giving African-Americans their own schools where their own perspective on studies can flourish will do more to accomplish that than anything else. And of course, the African-American subpopulation is not monolithic. There would be more Black Protestant schools, and Catholic schools, than Malcolm X schools.

Fear of unknown quantitites

There would be some Malcolm X schools committed to Islam and others committed to African-American pride with no particularly Muslim perspective.

The important thing is, they would be much more successful than general, something-for-everyone-but-not-much-of-anything-for-anyone public schools at capturing the loyalty and imaginations of Black children, opening the world of education to them as never before.

This kind of pluralism will succeed only when we have something like a voucher system—a "GI Bill" for all levels of education and all citizens, not just GI's, some have called it—a system that lets parents, rather than states, control their children's schools.

How would this mitigate white-on-Black and other minority racism? Again, though this seems more complicated, the key is raising self-esteem. Just observing the typical panel of white racists on any talk show suggests that a unifying factor is insecurity about the panelists' place in American society.

The solution would not be immediate and might never be total, but giving such people more say about their lives could only mitigate their feelings of paranoia and insecurity that fuel their racism.

Ironically, in this fight for pluralism, Democratic "liberals" are against it and to a greater extent conservative Republicans like Jack Kemp and William Bennett are for it. Philosophical conservatives are largely convinced that the public schools as presently constituted are never going to be wrested from the pro-condoms-for-kids and if-you-make-a-mistake-abort-it liberals, so they've concluded that they need the financial independence to start more alternative schools, or better utilize already existing alternative schools.

This irks liberals, who after all know nothing if they don't know what's best for us and how to teach it to us whether we want to learn it or not.

It also puts liberals in the position of being the new plantation owners determined to keep telling Americans of African descent what's best for them, and providing it, much as the slaveholders did, by persuasion or by force, whatever works.

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1997 Jon Kennedy