Thursday, August 6, 2020

A theology of diversity

A review and reflections on Theodore Hiebert, The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God's Diverse World (Abingdon Press, 2019).

In the wake of the 30th anniversary of the ADA, as well as recent movements for racial justice, we have heard a lot about acceptance, accommodation, and diversity. Engagement of these ideas is more than toleration, and a crucial presumption of disability as well as racial equity. It’s also more than being an ally; it requires inclusion at an equal level for all. It also requires accommodation of difference without discriminating against some ability or trait that reflects a culture, whether ethnic, linguistic, or of a subgroup. And it requires understanding how these factors form identity for individuals and groups.

Often, such acceptance and understanding fails due to being unaware. How often has someone mentioned an access problem and the reply is “I never thought about that”? Although this is not the only cause, many times, generating awareness is a major step toward resolution. Thus, a critical factor is the response to difference when one becomes aware of it: is there acceptance, or is there an effort to impose one’s own norms on another? Does one honor differences, giving others dignity, or deny them, thereby seeking to eradicate, or worse, act as if they do not even exist? 

These are the questions which Hiebert raises in a study of Genesis and Acts. He begins by sharing his own growth in awareness of difference, and then considering how storylines in both books parallel actions of recognizing difference, seeking to understand the difference, and fostering respect for those who are different. The book is, as the title states, an exploration of the growth of identity through cultural factors in Genesis, and then how this growth is repeated in Acts. This, in turn, leads to reflections on how this understanding affects other factors--in our case, principally disabilities.
Cover of book: black with white title and author, and a small color wheel

Beginning with the Babel story, Hiebert follows through with Noah and his descendants, focusing on Abraham’s line. As a story of origins, Genesis is important for this quest, because exclusivist readings and questionable translations have led to misleading interpretations. Although his result is a radically different understanding, it is also a conservative one, for it “seeks to go back and recover the original views and values of biblical text” and to listen to what the writers of Genesis said, and then extend those understandings to today’s world (xxix-xxx).

Hiebert contends that Babel should be read as a story about reconstructing the world after the Flood. The Flood is an interruption of the story of humanity and a new beginning, but the first efforts of humans in this effort are not much different than the first. In response, God creates difference—but not as a punishment. This is often obscured by faulty translations and lexicography: the root problem faced by God is to confound empire building by royal figures who would impose their culture on others. God’s action is to “mix,” as one would ingredients for a cake, rather than “confuse” (20).  

Genesis then proceeds to tell the origin of the world’s family tree in a series of narratives about interaction of different cultures, by which the writer seeks to instruct us in how maintain an identity while also engaging others. Thus Abraham’s family teaches us how to respond to differences. The same plot repeats: conflict arises, rivalry drives a reaction, followed by a response of harm, then a path to survival. Yet while Cain and Abel told us about a failure to engage, we now see responses that bring about separate, diverse cultures. To the attentive reader, these stories also offer a critique of the rigidity of patriarchal structures and tell us of the conflict and consequences of this system, coupled with how an imaginative response of generosity leads to a realistic path forward.

Hiebert then turns to the Pentecost story, where he finds a parallel to Genesis: the first Christians, rooted in Judaism, move from a single culture, language, and place to reaches out for diversity as they go “to the ends of the earth.” But not only do those followers take this message, they adapt it to the receiving cultures. The linguistic diversity of Pentecost illustrates this adaptation as it validates the distinctive identity of other cultures. Then in Acts 10, after some prodding, Peter realizes a call to reach out to other cultures. This outreach offers a charter for the church, a charter which Hiebert calls on us to follow through by celebrating and living with difference. 

An outreach to cultures in general would certainly an outreach to people with disabilities. We can recall that “mixture” is a call for genuine inclusion. In disability and other ministries, this can be summed up in the phrase “ministry with.” This would gather people as partners and equals who would teach everyone with their own gifts. People with disabilities are not simply an unreached group to be objectified (as in the phrase “ministry to”). This approach is true for all: honor the culture, use that honor to respect and learn about God’s gift of diversity, and join as included partners.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, and promised to return it in three weeks. The promise was fulfilled.