Diversity beliefs, media, and biblical truth
By Latrelle D. Jackson, PhD
Modern times have challenged the contemporary Christian to weigh core values against changing perceptions of what is morally-acceptable behavior. Definitions of normal have shifted in the last few decades. It was not that long ago that media executives chose to portray married couples, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, Lucy and Desi, and Ozzie and Harriett, in separate twin beds out of discretion for the viewer. As we transitioned from the Leave it to Beaver and Happy Days era to viewing All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and the Huxtables on The Cosby Show, family issues and diversity topics were addressed with wit and humor. Family values were explored in bite-sized segments, yet reflected core beliefs of the time. Currently, media trends favor reality shows where the Kardashians, Real Housewives, and Bachelor contestants openly express uncensored thoughts and physical connections in unprecedented ways. The shows Teen Mom, Preachers Daughters, Glee, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo feature sectors of society not presented in times past. In addition to this trend of reality entertainment, the current top rated series include Scandal, Revenge, Devious Maids, and Mistresses. The response for many Christians would be to change the channel from shows that emulate differing moral values and exercise choice. However, let us pause for a moment and examine what is happening here. A shift has occurred in the concept of entertainment normalcy, based in part on diversity-acceptance changes in society. What impact does this have for those who identify as Christian in setting family norms, higher education standards, church acceptance practices, and establishing communities?
Diversity Tolerance vs. Appreciation vs. Acceptance
The evolution of race relations has had a multi-faceted process in American history. Similarly, the field of psychology was not exempt from curious interpretations of human valuing and equitable treatment. Several factors contributed to change happening. The Civil Rights movement, state and federal law changes, and risk-taking individuals who envisioned a better world through integrations vs. segregation propelled the country from a place of tolerance to one that targeted appreciation. By the year 2008, many believed that true racial equity had been achieved once the first bi-racial American president was elected. Then, the cause of sexual orientation acceptance transitioned to center stage. Advocates for same sex marriage and those who opposed the proposition mobilized support for state level voting. Slowly, the media influenced social norms by increasing shows featuring sexual orientation content — Will and Grace, Modern Family, The New Normal, and soap operas. Common value for the institution of marriage was questioned and debated as the evening news featured married military icons having affairs, political figures texting intimate pictures of themselves, and religious leaders exposed for same-sex practices. When looking at these accounts with a broad lens, some themes come into focus …
- the ability to partner with whom you are attracted to without public censure has improved,
- relativism has found greater value in society, and
- fundamental definitions of core concepts (i.e., racial identity, family, and spouse) are being challenged for contemporary relevance.
The message to accept practices of those with differences has been getting stronger. Diversity appreciation has been heralded as positive from the position of inclusion. There is the argument that having a kaleidoscope of people representing different racial backgrounds, religious/spiritual beliefs, ages, sexual identifications, and physical/mental abilities makes American society diverse, interesting, and rich. True connection among those having differences allows fertile ground for personal growth, human valuing, and compassion for the other's walk through life. However, is there a biblical foundation for addressing modern challenges to appreciating differences?
Church communities have a daunting task to spread the Word from an inclusive perspective to those who may represent multi-cultural, multi-national, or multilingual backgrounds. For many churches, there is movement toward a trans-cultural, ethnic-inclusive style of worship. God's love for all people and His ultimate desire to call individuals from every nation, tribe, and tongue for His eternal praise is noted from Genesis to Revelation (Rev 5:9; 7:9). He conveyed diversity value by noting His love for ‘all the nations' (Greek, panta ta ethne, or all the ethnic groups ) in Acts 17: 26,27. Further, Jesus lived a life that illustrated appreciation for all by his actions and stating that he came to save the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, Jews, and gentiles (Isaiah 61; Luke 4:21–27). Thus, it is not so much a question of whether one should reach out to others who may be different, but rather how does one reconcile difference with acceptance?
The earliest beginnings of the church reflected engagement among those who were different. The apostles represented diverse backgrounds (i.e., tax collectors, fisherman, etc.) and yet worked together as a team to complete a mission. Interestingly, recent statistics suggest that we are becoming more polarized and segregated (i.e., hypersegregation) in spite of being a multicultural society in America. A recent Reuters poll indicated that many Americans have no friends of another race. More specifically, 40% of white Americans and about 25% of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race. The poll showed when looking at a broader circle of acquaintances to include co-workers, friends, and relatives, 30% of Americans are not mixing with others of a different race (Dunsmuir, 2013). In response to the Reuters poll, Tanner Colby suggested that social bonds across the color line are critical to becoming a truly integrated society. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed similar sentiments by stating, “I may do well in a segregated society, but I can never know what my total capacity is until I live in an integrated society.” However, the racial divide is only one area. Although attitudes are changing with 10 U.S. states legalizing gay marriage by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, it may be still uncommon for heterosexuals and homosexuals to socially engage in the inner circles of friends and family. However, consider the mindset shift to not anchor on how many black, gay, or differently-abled friends do I have, but rather am I the type of person a black, gay, or differently-abled person would want to be friends with? If we are to be beacons of light with positive purpose, we must examine ourselves for the totality of what we reflect.
Diversity awareness and appreciation is no longer a linear process that centers on racial and cultural valuing for the modern-day Christian. Aside from religious/spiritual factors (i.e., diversity in beliefs, styles of worship, religious choices, and modes of service), media influences (i.e., shifts in attitudes, rating-driven programming), and changing social strata/mores in American society (i.e., demographic trends, relativistic thinking, and social media impact), there is still the call to love all people. John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The term whosoever makes it clear that no one is excluded or left behind. However, knowing what to do is sometimes easier than knowing how to do it. Following are some suggestions for how to advance one's personal diversity appreciation mission:
- Explore your current diversity-based personal, spiritual, and workplace values for this phase of your life.
We tend to update our wardrobe, home, or hairstyle, but rarely review our beliefs for update consideration in light of life experience influencing growth (i.e., wisdom). A periodic check to evaluate what beliefs you have, the source, and how did they form for you is helpful to remain anchored from a critical thinking perspective. In addition, this process will assist you in appreciating positive developments while being sensitive to infractions, injustices, and inappropriate communication. Microinsults and microaggressions can be subtle or directed at someone else. Yet, they can have substantial effects on the targeted individual and the work environment (Burrow et al., 2010; Dovidio et. al., 1996). It is important to be clear about what you are prepared to do should these events occur, prior to them happening. Higher education settings can be wonderful areas diversity growth; however, Christian higher education settings have an extra layer of social monitoring that can impact free expression and controversial dialogues. Navigating one's identity concerns and social perception are important considerations that are often not addressed (Steele et al., 2002).
- Extend yourself.
Humans tend to operate within established routines pretty well. Change, although uncomfortable at times, can be good for the mind-body-soul. Consider asking a colleague who represents some dimension of diversity to discuss a meaningful area of difference to expand your perspective. Discuss contemporary social or legal issues with students, faculty, church members, or community partners to discern different viewpoints. It is helpful to have forums for discussion. Oftentimes, college students don't have structured venues for processing thoughts about diversity issues — leaving issues unsettled or unexplored (Blume et al., 2012; Chonody et al., 2009; Rosik et al., 2007). Openness to experiences and actually engaging in diverse encounters has been shown to reduce prejudicial views concerning minority groups (Cramer et. al, 2013). Pick up a book that addresses a diversity topic you've never considered before. We must know the world we are trying to impact.
- Consider creative ways to infuse diversity components in regular work activities.
Traditionally, diversity competency was thought to be achieved via multicultural academic courses, workshops/seminars, and continuing education training. However, it can also be achieved or advanced by incorporating diversity discussions in higher education research team meetings, faculty/staff meetings, university planning forums, annual review planning, student orientation meetings, student-faculty relations meetings, syllabi planning, or outreach presentations. Inviting key people who could add a certain depth to committees/task forces or incorporating social media information to make academic lessons more relevant for student comprehension and retention also can be beneficial.
This applied approach promotes true growth and fosters appreciation. Further, students can see diversity matters addressed on a regular basis and it becomes a normal process — giving them the resources to model it in their circles as well.
We live in an era of great promise, unprecedented resources for connection and education, and global access. However, we must be wise stewards of these incredible options as we stay grounded in biblical truths. Moral dilemmas, legal inconsistencies, and social patterns of acceptance may change from decade to decade. In spite of these shifts, we have been entrusted to equip the next generation through our roles as educators, psychologists, parents, family members, or community partners. In the words of Ernest Istook, “America's strength is not our diversity; our strength is our ability to unite people of different backgrounds around common principles. A common language is necessary to reach that goal.” That common language can be based on the message of God's love for all His children. For as we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors — making a difference in our corner of the world, let us not forget to reach for the diverse hands of our next generation.
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Colby, T. (August 19, 2013). Why don't whites have black friends? Special to CNN. (http://www.cnn.com)
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Dunsmuir, L. (August 8, 2013). Many Americans have not friends of another race: poll. (http://www.reuters.com)
Rosik, C. H., Griffith, L.K. & Cruz, Z. (2007). Homophobia and conservative religion: Toward a more nuanced understanding. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 77, 10 –19.
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