God’s Solution for Cultural Differences
On the last Sunday of February 2021, the Apostolic Faith Church in Washington D.C. held their annual Culture Day service where they recognized and celebrated over a dozen cultures represented in their congregation. The following article was taken from the message shared that morning.
Our Culture Day celebration here in Washington D.C. was inspired by our desire to be more inclusive of people in our congregation who are from different cultures. For those of us who have lived in a monolithic community where only one culture is primarily visible, it can be challenging to adopt new ways, especially as we get older. We become accustomed to our own foods, clothing, greetings, and even expectations of each other. Sometimes our habits are so ingrained that doing anything else feels uncomfortable, or perhaps even wrong.
While having cultural preferences is not negative in itself, it can become a problem if one group’s ways come into conflict with another’s. Of course, this issue is not unique to our church but is something that confronts people all over the world. I grew up in Washington D.C. back when we still had racial segregation and at that time, if you lived in a predominantly black neighborhood, you mostly saw only black people, and the opposite was true in white neighborhoods. The result was that we did not see people outside of our own race enough to get to know them. When racial integration started, we were taught rules for how to behave toward one another, but not how to love one another. It was difficult in many ways and people did not always get along. Society only had history to guide them, so if someone wondered, “Why doesn’t that person like me?” they would just turn back a page in history to find what happened to make one group not like the other.
To this day, many still believe that history holds the answers. Often we hear somebody say, “If we only knew our history, we could live better.” I wish it were as simple as that, but we have no evidence to support that philosophy. Today we have access to an unprecedented amount of historical information, yet people still cannot get along. One source will tell a story one way, but if you keep researching, somebody else will tell it another way. Then someone else will bring up even older events and claim that changes everything! We can keep going around and around looking for more information.
This is not to denounce the importance of knowing history, but we must understand that reading about history will not bring us peace. Depending on what version of history we read, it may generate feelings of pride, disappointment, animosity, or perhaps even hatred. However, it will not make us love our brothers and sisters, or our enemies.
We can also eliminate the idea that the color of our skin is a deciding factor for peace. I’ve had conversations with people who emigrated here from places like Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, as well as those who were born in the United States, and I have found that even when we have the same skin color, there is not always agreement among us when we discuss the major issues of our day. Many people focus on that, but even among those of the same ethnicity, there is not always peace.
What, then, is the source of our conflicts, and what is the solution? The truth is that God created mankind, and He set the standard by which we ought to live and treat each other. Only He can judge any of us. We will not find answers for how we are supposed to live in a history book, but we can find it in God’s Word.
Children of our Father in Heaven
Jesus was born into the Jewish culture. Like any other people group, the Jews had traditions and values that guided the way they were expected to behave. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the Jewish people from their own Law and challenged their cultural practices. He told them:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven (Matthew 5:38-45).
When Jesus said, “Ye have heard . . .” in this passage, He was referencing popular beliefs of the time. Those in His audience had been raised to “love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.” “An eye for an eye” was the expectation in their culture. In a sense, this seems fair, but it is also true that a culture that lives by “an eye for an eye” is going to end up with a lot of one-eyed people! At the end of the day, once everyone has lost an eye, they cannot be put back. What has been achieved?
Jesus challenged the Jewish traditional views by presenting something better—the ways of “your Father which is in Heaven.” I am grateful for my biological father who taught me important lessons about hard work and how to respect my elders, but those types of lessons were not what Jesus was talking about. If we want to know our true heritage and learn the way we are really supposed to live, we have to go back further than our family, tribe, or ethnicity. The nation we come from and the cultural beliefs we hold are all secondary. We have to go all the way back to the Garden of Eden, when God made mankind in His image and in His likeness. Our Father in Heaven set the standard that we should love each other, and this is what Jesus came to teach.
Everything Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount was remarkable. It may sound somewhat normal to us today because the world has been exposed to His teachings for two thousand years now, but imagine the first time He preached, “If somebody sues you wrongfully to take an article of clothing, give him the rest of your clothes.” And then forgive, show mercy to enemies, be a peacemaker, love your neighbor as yourself—this all must have been astonishing at the time. These teachings are still desperately needed in a world that continues to struggle over basic differences such as the language we speak, the color of our skin, or the food we eat. There is no chance we will have peace unless people begin to learn the ways of our Father in Heaven.
Our true history
As much as people hope to find answers in history, what we actually find when we look back is more of the same problems. We know that because we can read about the very beginning of humanity in the Bible. Chapter 4 of Genesis says:
And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps>. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps>. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps> had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps> said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps> said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:1-9).
For those who promote the idea that “If we only knew our history, we could get along,” this account proves otherwise. Cain and Abel were two people who truly knew their history. They were in the first generations of mankind. There were no other races or cultures yet. Cain and Abel ate the same foods, dressed the same way, and spoke the same language. They were raised with the same beliefs and taught about the same God. They even talked with God directly—not through a prophet, through rituals, or even through Scripture, but through direct communication with the Creator! And yet, Cain killed his brother.
Why did it come to murder for Cain? For the same reason that people murder today: because of a condition of the heart. Cain’s problem did not start with his external circumstances but in his own heart. He was jealous that God gave deference to Abel’s gift and not his own. When people think evil of another in their hearts, it will be manifested in their actions, even among brothers from the same household.
This is true for all people around the world, of all backgrounds. Many today try to solve problems with laws and politics, but we are never going to write a law that will make others treat us the way we think we ought to be treated. People cannot even treat themselves the way they ought to be treated! Without the love of God, we cannot treat anybody right.
That is why the words of Jesus were so riveting. He was explaining that His listeners had forgotten what their Heavenly Father had taught them, and were instead learning the traditions of the culture of their earthly fathers. Mankind was so hopelessly lost that the Son of God had to come down from Heaven and walk among us to show us how to love one another. Jesus’ love took Him all the way to the Cross. The Bible says He despised the shame thereof, but He laid down His life for the joy that was set before Him—the joy of us one day repenting and believing, and finally understanding that God is love and that we ought to love one another.
Our Father’s ways
After we have been saved, we still have differing cultures and practices. We cherish the traditions that have been passed down to us, but our traditions are not our faith. Cultural practices cannot replace the Word of God. They cannot replace the love of God! If we have traditions but we lose God’s mercy, forgiveness, or grace, we’ve lost everything. We must have love.
Cultures change over time based on experiences. For example, a culture that has been generous to others might become more sparing if their generosity is exploited. In contrast to this, the ways of our Father in Heaven are unchanging. No matter what we experience in life, we cannot stop following what the Bible teaches, so if someone does us wrong, we must continue to show them love and forgive. When I was saved, I was forgiven and I also forgave those who had wronged me. I was set free! And now, no one can make me angry again over something I settled with the Lord. I may get upset when someone does me wrong, but because I have God’s love in my heart, I can forgive.
It helps to remember that often, the people who hurt us have been mistreated themselves, and they may not know how to do any better than what they are doing. While the world uses weapons of greater and greater destruction against each other, we use the weapon God gave us: love. It is the only weapon that will work. That’s why Jesus gave no other formula but to “turn the other cheek.” If we follow His teachings and show others His love, we are creating an opportunity for God the Father to come and transform that conflict.
It also helps to remember that we need God’s mercy too. At the time of the Exodus when God brought judgment on Egypt for their sin, He made a way of escape that was available to anyone who wanted to be saved. Egyptian and Jew alike could be delivered—the only condition was to paint the blood of a lamb over their doorposts. God was not for the Jews because they were slaves, and He was not against the Egyptians because they were slave owners. He was against the condition that they all were in—their sinful state—and deliverance was for them all.
Today, all are born with the same condition of sin, and Jesus’ shed Blood is our way of escape from that bondage. If we have enmity in our hearts against another, the only solution is for that enmity to die, and Christ carried all our sins to the Cross to make that possible. He became sin so that sin could be put to death, because He loves us. Thank God for the Blood of Jesus that sets us free!
Embracing our Father’s ways
My family does not know much about our ancestry in Africa, and personally, I am not particularly interested in finding out, because our cultures and our histories cannot answer the most important questions in life. No matter how far back we look or how many relics we dig up, we cannot find peace there. How do I know that? Because Cain slew Abel. And if Cain slew Abel, then there’s no chance we are going to find something in our history that will make us better people. It does not make a difference what color we are or where we are from. If we start looking back, we will find there is jealousy in our history. There is hatred in our history. And there is death in our history. But hallelujah, Jesus came to deliver us! He came that we might have life, and that it might be more abundant.
Jesus taught about the ways of our Father which is in Heaven, and that is what we want to learn. I am not a child of a tribe or a nation; I am first and foremost a son of God. He allowed me to be born into a particular family and culture, but when I consider what is important, I am going think all the way back to my Father which is in Heaven. He created us in His likeness and in His image, and we want our lives to emulate His ways most of all.