Julie Clawson is a writer, mother, and former pastor who currently lives in Austin, TX. She is the author of the forthcoming Everyday Justice (IVP). She blogs at julieclawson.com and moderates the Emerging Women and Emerging Parents blogs.
Plurality and Justice
I like pluralism. I like learning from and engaging with all sorts of different ideas and cultures. I have a hard time with people who hide their head in the sand and pretend the outside world doesn’t exist. You know, the people who won’t let their kids take martial arts classes because they are afraid of the “Asian” influences. Or the people who think doing yoga = worshipping Satan. Or those who think it is too cosmopolitan and liberal (and therefore suspect) to eat Sushi or Indian food. We live in a diverse and pluralistic world, and I firmly believe that engaging with other ideas and cultures (even in the simplistic ways mentioned above) can help us grow and develop as people. I don’t like the practice of rejecting (or trying to alter) other ideas or cultures simply because they are other.
But I am similarly uncomfortable with the notion that pluralism must involve complete acceptance of other ideas and cultures simply because they are other as well. It seems though that often discussions of pluralism dichotomize the issue into two extremes – either a neo-colonialism that asserts our culture’s rightness over and above all others or a hyper-tolerance that accepts all without question. It is a faulty argument that assumes that unless one accepts the absolute rightness of one culture, one then has no logical basis for critiquing any part of another culture. Unfortunately then pluralism, which should be about open and thoughtful engagement, for many, becomes nothing more than uncritical tolerance. I am all for unity and charity and engaging and learning from the other, but I must remind myself that tolerance is not the same as justice. Or, more accurately, that accepting others is not always the same as loving them.
Loving others is a central part of what it means to be a Christian. We are to respect the image of God in others and to treat them as a fellow child of God. Loving them also means seeking justice for them when that image of God is being marred in their life. So I have a hard time viewing various forms of oppression simply as cultural mores that I must tolerate. If I truly love others I will free them from oppression.
To recognize oppression and seek its end isn’t the intolerant neo-colonial imposition of my culture onto another that many accuse it of being. Culture is always evolving and should therefore never be absolutized. While the specific expressions of love might vary from culture to culture, love itself is bigger than culture. True justice, in the form of love for the other, can be shaped by the particular values of a culture, but at the same time goes beyond cultural trappings as it seeks to preserve and respect the image of God in others. So when a culture is mutilating or raping women, that is more than a cultural practice but is a systematic way to dehumanize women. Or when young children are trafficked into brothels to meet the sexual demands of the local men, that is not simply cultural sexual ethics to be tolerated but the destruction of the image of God in those children. Injustice is not something to be tolerated or engaged with, but something to be overcome.
I believe those seeking to create a truly pluralistic world will avoid the extremes of neo-colonialism and hyper-tolerance. We won’t stick our heads in the sand or try to impose our culture values onto others, but we will also not fail to love others (especially the oppressed) in a desire to merely tolerate who they are. True pluralism engages, and learns, and wrestles with justice – and in doing so extends God’s love to all.