Last evening my wife and I attended a Sons of Norway gathering as guests of some friends of ours. We shared a catered meal, listened as members conducted club business, and watched with them a documentary on the recent history of the Sami, an indigenous people of northern Scandinavia and far northwest Russia, known for their reindeer-herding, fishing, and colorful dress, among other things. (Photo courtesy: Trym Ivar Bergsmo/Finnmark Tourist Board; click on the photo to see a larger image.)
It was a troubling film. The story of the Sami is so much like the story of other indigenous peoples — in Australia, in Africa, in South America, and on this continent. They are pushed aside, displaced from traditional lands, absorbed or oppressed by the dominant culture. Traditional means of economic production often become unavailable to them, because of the encroachment of competing interests or the degradation of natural resources. They are forcibly “re-educated” in the language and customs of the dominant culture, and their own language and culture are threatened with extinction.
The Sami have done well, adjusting to a new way of life, surviving both within and alongside the European cultures of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, while preserving their own distinctive ways and forging a stronger social and political unity. But along the way, they have been caricatured, belittled, marginalized, and mocked. Just like the aborigines of Australia or the Xhosa of South Africa or the Sioux of North America, they have been treated as a lower form of humanity and their culture demeaned and expunged.
What is it about us? What is it about all of us that is so intolerant of diversity? What is it that makes us want to homogenize culture, to marginalize or eradicate or utterly transform what we find peculiar? We still do it. We disrespect immigrant peoples by proposing “English as official language” laws, supposedly to aid their assimilation into American culture, but oppressors and cultural elitists have always supposed they know what is best for everybody else. We export our preferred economic model and our preferred political model, sometimes by moral persuasion, sometimes by leveraging our power and influence, and sometimes by plain use of force. But we are not uniquely at fault in this. It seems no culture can resist the impulse to see itself as superior to any other culture with which it comes in contact, and to seek, if possible, to dominate and “convert” their “unfortunate” neighbors.
It is more than troubling. It causes me doubt and shame … because Christians, at least Christians in name, have too often been among the “culture-killers.” But I cannot believe, I do not believe, that such behavior is a product of Christian faith itself. This is not the way of Christ or the way of Christ’s faithful followers. Authentic faith does not encourage homogeneity, but diversity: The Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all. And again: There is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ, which is not to denigrate the differences between people, but to say that differences in gender or race or social status offer no reason to make distinctions. We are one in Christ; in Christ we have equal value, equal importance … we are equally loved. And what shall we say to the God who is the creator of all living things, of every human person: You may think this is good, but we know better!”?
May God forgive us our cultural biases and our haste in equating “foreign” with “inferior.” And may our witness to Jesus be about spreading the good news of the gospel of peace, not about spreading our particular brand of culture.