Words are powerful. It is essential for schools pursuing biblical diversity and cultural intelligence to carefully define terms to clarify their vision. Undefined words risk hijacking the vision lest they be, for better or for worse, conflated with common parlance that is laced with vague inaccuracies. Without advocating for a specific vocabulary subset for every school, it is important to assess words biblically and use them accurately to articulate a vision that situates your school in alignment with God’s Kingdom purposes.
History demonstrates that the impact of words is unmistakable, they viscerally conjure an array of emotions that accentuate or obscure their meaning. The joy, passion, or fear invoked by words are largely based upon colloquial usage that vacillates in various social circles based upon who defines terms or how words are demonized by their association with a person or movement.
This is the first in a series that assesses common language associated with diversity initiatives. The exploration includes a definition, biblical assessment, and common parlance to guard against inaccurate assumptions, so a biblical vision is not obscured by misunderstanding. The words explored in Part I assess language used to describe people groups, namely ethnicity, race, and culture. Thoughtful Christian leaders use words like these three words interchangeably in discussions of unity within the body of Christ. These words—and others—have distinct meaning that determines their usefulness to the Christian.
Beginning with ethnicity. Ethne is a biblical word that is often translated “nations” or “peoples” most notably in Matthew 28:19—commonly called “the Great Commission.” This biblical word is a biological reality that references the origin of our birth and connects people to their ancestors and descendants. Ethnic distinctions within humanity are a good thing and an indispensable feature in God’s Kingdom at His throne (Rev. 7:9). Socially, the word “ethnicity” is neither in nor out of vogue in contemporary parlance. The result is that, after it is biblically defined, this is an easy word to leverage for a campus initiative.
Culture (or cultural groups) is one of the most popular words employed to describe the peoples that comprise the body of Christ. While the concept of culture is associated with ethnicity, it is not the same thing. While, ethnicity is a biological reality, culture is a non-biological phenomena that is associated with common ideas, patterns, or behaviors shared by a group. Cultural norms help elucidate humor, guide food preferences, and determines things like what constitutes being “on time” and clothing styles. Ethnicity and culture alike will appear in the kingdom; however, an important distinction is that although every ethnicity will be present only God-honoring aspects of culture will appear in eternity, because no single culture is the standard bearer for Christian faithfulness.
Like ethnicity, culture is a helpful word to describe your efforts towards unity. Language like cross-cultural, cultural engagement, and cultural intelligence are all constructive ways to demonstrate the goodness of all cultures under Christ’s Lordship. The word “multicultural,” however, has fallen under scrutiny in some circles because it is understood to be covert language referring to alienating the dominant culture to the margins of churches, organizations, or in society. While “multicultural” (read: multiple cultures) is an apt description of God bringing down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14), it is important to understand the growing connotation it conjures to guard your school’s vision against such misunderstandings.
Race is a socially constructed reality that attributes negative or positive meaning to biological characteristics and cultural manifestations that are used to categorize people. This categorization creates “in” and “out” groups. This type of classification is unbiblical and will not appear in God’s kingdom. It follows that racism is a sinful attitude that perpetuates this categorization.
Racism appears individually, communally, and structurally. Individual racism (or bias) is something that is done by one individual to another. As a result, racism is increasingly covert and hides within mental categorization and communication. Scripture warns of the negative and positive influence of individuals in community (Prov. 13:20), and racial bias is negatively compounded in homogeneous communities. Systemic (or structural) racial bias is the means by which systems, organizations, and enterprises grant advantages and influence to some and disadvantage others. In most Christian environments, systemic bias is not intentional and most often perpetuated by well-meaning people who are unaware of this challenge. The most common cause for systemic cultural bias is an unawareness of underrepresented student and family needs as practices and policies are established. This is how schools systemically assist some to flourish, while structurally neglecting others. This dynamic is intangible and often felt as students navigate campus life, so those who are disadvantaged by the status quo feel this dynamic but are often unable to articulate it because nothing acute took place.
Each aspect (individual, communal, and structural) of racial bias must be redressed by the restorative power of the gospel to engender progress in ethnic relations. Despite the most popular understanding of race in society, biblically, race does not refer to socially constructed categories, but references the common humanity shared by every image bearer. Now that it is established that “race” is artificial (or manmade), some use this as a means to not deal with the concept of race, but this manmade reality has caused an incalculable number of real problems that Christians must engage with the gospel. Thus, the redemptive power of the gospel dismantles individual, communal, and structural racism in a world that bears the marks of sin. Essential to this work is the task of deploying the Christian faith as a balm in this enduring wound.