Cultural Righteousness

I flipped on the TV tonight and Remember the Titans was ending.  Although it has some definitely cheesy football footage, I’ve always appreciated the race-centered storyline.  Especially now that we’re adopting a baby boy from Africa.

During the scene where Sunshine, Petey, and Blue walk into a restaurant-bar in 1971 Virginia and are turned away by the discriminating owner, Cindi looked over at me from the computer and asked, “Do you ever wonder what you would’ve been like if you lived back then?”

That’s not a small question.

The easy answer is: I love diversity, I find great joy in other cultures and races, my mom’s side of the family is Japanese through and through (I’m half), I hope to be a missionary (i.e., cross a culture with the gospel), and I’m adopting an African son and am willing to put up with decades of strange looks and embarrassing questions and conversations about race both in and out of the home.  So, to answer the question, I would’ve been colorblind if I lived back in 1971.  That’s the non-thinking, superficial answer.

The hard answer is: I can’t say that there’s anything inherent in me that would’ve caused me to look at a black man any differently than the many people who were bigots and racists in 1971 Virginia.  The fact is, racism was a part of the culture.  I probably would’ve been raised like all the other white kids around town.  Racism would’ve been normal.  I would certainly hope that my Christian values and my biblical perspective as a new creature in Christ would’ve caused me to be discerning and different when it came to issues of diversity and segregation.  But I can’t guarantee that.  Instead of being colorblind, there’s a good chance I would’ve been cultureblind.  I wouldn’t have been able to see the blatant travesties of my own day and age.  I would have simply accepted them like everyone else.

This reminds me that there is such a thing as cultural righteousness.  And cultural righteousness isn’t necessarily the same as intentional godliness.  I would define cultural righteousness as a good ethic that is present at a particular time in a particular place among a particular people, but that isn’t necessarily gospel-driven or Christ-centered or Spirit-produced.  It’s just part of the culture.  For instance, many African cultures are very hospitable.  Latin culture is very passionate.  American culture strives for justice and fairness and equity.  These things can all be wonderful values and expressions.  And I think that some of them are blessings from the Lord and reflections of the tainted image of God within man.  But that doesn’t mean that I’m more holy or biblical just because I unthinkingly share those assumed values.  In fact, the American unbeliever down the street probably thinks the same way as me.

Just because I share the positive values of my culture doesn’t mean that I would’ve held to those positive values if I had been raised differently or that I will maintain those values when they’re challenged in times to come.  My culture tells me that racial discrimination is wrong.  The Virginia culture of 35 years ago would’ve told me that racial discrimination was right.  So the fact that I personally despise racial discrimation and ethnic hierarchies and social caste systems is not necessarily due to my own insight and convictions.  In another time and another place, I might have held to opposite views simply due to the invisible influence of the culture.

Now, I do believe that my God-given commitment to diversity and my love for other races are distinctively Christian perspectives that God creates and cultivates in His children.  And I would hope that the way I think about discrimination and diversity and racial issues is different than the world’s.

But my point is this: If the good that I do is simply a reflection of inborn cultural values and is not Spirit-led and Bible-soaked and self-denying, it is not ultimate righteousness.

Sometimes righteousness is not counter-cultural.  There are some elements of moral rightness and goodness that are emphasized and highlighted by particular cultures.  I thank God for when this is the case.  But I must never mistake that kind of localized and categorized righteousness for the widespread, pervasive godliness that God calls for.

Have you ever wondered what you would’ve been like if you were born into the home of an officer in Hitler’s army and were inundated with the Nazi worldview from the time you could crawl?

May we not be deceived into thinking that our effortless cultural righteousness is something more than us responding humanly to the blessing of being molded by a good element of a pagan culture.  May we be humbled by the thought of what we might be like if we had been born into cultures with atrocious and devastating worldviews.  May we fear the invisible effects that our own dangerous American culture is having on us, begging God daily to expose its sinful values to us and to help us overcome them.  And may we pursue radical holiness even when it is laborious and painful and counter-cultural.


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