George Tinker is an assistant professor of cross-cultural ministries at Iliff School of Theology. He describes his heritage as mixed blood, birthed by an Osage father and Lutheran mother. I recently read an interview with Mr. Tinker by Bob Hulteen entitled “With Drum and Cup”. In the interview Mr. Tinker describes the problem he finds with how racial integration has typically been approached within the United States since the ’60s:
…for years white America was busy building this house, and then had people from different cultural groups living in the yards or the shanties around the house. The liberal contribution since the civil rights activity of the ’60s has been to say, “We have to open our house and invite these people to come in and stay.” But the problem … is, “It’s still their house. We’re still guests.” We need to think about building a new house where everybody gets equal say in its design and has equal ownership. Then we need to tear that old house down.
In a related article, “Communites of Reconciliation”, Rodolpho Carrasco describes a community of black, white, and Latino pastors who came together seeking to answer questions about racial reconciliation such as: What is there beyond blame and guilt? What is there beyond building one-on-one relationships with people of another race? What is there beyond history lessons, visiting other cultures, and pulpit exchanges? Mr. Carrasco goes on to describe three increasingly deep sets of relationships he has formed that are helping him to be involved in racial reconciliation in ways he is finding increasingly meaningful.
These readings, among others, seem particularly timely in light of the recent economic crisis brought about in part because of an excessively consumeristic society. As the gap between rich and poor continues to widen and as the safety net for those who are struggling are cut one thread at a time, it seems clear that we need to find a better way to bring about economic justice. That a disproportionate number of those who are struggling are from a racial minority, it seems clear that we need to find a better way to bring about racial justice. I am becoming impressed that these problems are not ones at an individual level, but are instead at a community and society level. As such, they cannot be addressed by individuals, but at a minimum must become part of a broader community agenda.
Still, at the heart these are relational problems and must be addressed by building relationships. Such relationship building cannot begin in large groups, but must start within small groups of people coming together in dialog. Participants must be willing to suspend their own beliefs, to participate in dialog that emphasizes listening over speaking, and that is tied in with action to affect change using an iterative process akin to the scientific method. As described by Patricia Shields:
The classic example of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant is illustrative. Each describes the elephant from his own limited perspective (small tail, big ears, etc.). The story’s moral is that we are all trapped inside our limited selves, and can not know the truth. If, however, we allow the three blind men to talk to each other, to compare perspectives, to argue, to test new hypotheses, to behave like a community of scientific investigators. It is possible to imagine that the blind men will eventually overcome their limited perspectives and come to a truer sense of the elephant.
Every individual and culture has its blind spots and can but see a portion of the whole. While we might have a tendancy to romanticize certain other cultures and seek out their answers for living to appropriate as our own, the real way forward is to come together in communities that prize diversity, listening, and shared exploration for new approaches to shared problems. Through individual and group reflection, we need to learn from these explorations and continually refine and adapt these approaches to assure mutual benefits for all involved.
Learning and growth only happen when first the old is torn down. While sometimes this is done voluntarily by those seeking growth, at other times it is forced upon us. Today’s econonic crisis is forcibly tearing down much of what we currently hold dear. With it comes the opportunity for building up something new that can address the shortcomings of the old. But capitilizing on that opportunity is unlikely unless we intentionally respond to the crisis in a way that seeks to learn and grow. And I would argue that if we are to maximize the growth potential, it also must begin through a diversity of input and a unity of purpose that comes through first building relationships in multicultural community.
“With Drum and Cup: An Interview with George Tinker” by Bob Hulteen, Sojourners Magazine, January 1991.
“Communities of Reconciliation” by Rudolpho Carrasco, in the Sojourners resource “Crossing the Racial Divide”.
“The Community of Inquiry: Insights for Public Administration from Jane Addams, John Dewey and Charles S. Peirce” by Patricia M. Shields, eCommons Texas State University, 1999 (http://ecommons.txstate.edu/polsfacp/3).