It’s very popular to speak negatively about multiculturalism in Europe these days, the idea that multiple cultures can thrive and co-exist within the same state. It’s a bit strange since most European countries are democracy, and the idea that anyone can say, believe and live the way they want is quite essential to democracy, but Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron and Denmark’s Pia Kjaersgaard have all condemned multiculturalism as something that should be prohibited (Kjaersgaard have even condemned the idea of a multiethnic society).
Since the culture these politicians are defending is labeled Christian (even though it’s rather Constantinian), and the culture that they portray as the main antagonist is islamic culture, many Christians have condemned multiculturalism in a similar fashion and argued that Muslims should be deported so that European Christianity is preserved.
The condemnation of multicultural states is also known as nationalism, the idea that each state should have one language and one culture. But is this idea Biblical? Are Christians supposed to prohibit or promote multiculturalism?
In the Old Testament, God gave laws to the Israelites that were not just moral but also cultural. the Pentateuch tells the Israelites how they should eat, dress and behave, what holidays they should have and how they should worship the Lord. These cultural laws are still being practised by Jews to this day. And while immigrants were very welcome to Israel and were treated as natives (Lev 19:33-34), they were expected to follow most of the laws. There were some exceptions, kosher food was not required for example (Deut 14:21), but in general immigrants were expected to follow the cultural laws of Israel. Not much multiculturalism there.
However, this changes drastically in the New Testament. While some early Christians thought that joining God’s people through the Messiah would mean to follow a set of Jewish cultural laws, like eating kosher and circumcising oneself, the apostles argued that this was not the case – the Law doesn’t save us, only God’s grace through Jesus Christ, and while the moral laws still are good to try to follow in the power of the Spirit, the cultural laws are unnecessary. Paul wrote explicitly about this:
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Gal 5:2-6)
Paul’s argument was not nationalist, as if the Gentiles should not circumcise because they should adapt to the dominant culture of their state, but it was soteriologic: you reject the saving grace of God if you try to be saved through cultural means. As long as one realized that, cultural customs were irrelevant. This is why Paul had no problem with circumcised Jews in the diaspora:
Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (1 Cor 7:18-20)
In the early church there was a multitude of cultures, often several in the same local church, and that wasn’t a problem. The apostles didn’t have a nationalist agenda arguing that all Christians in Rome must adapt to Roman culture, or that all Christians in Jerusalem must speak the same language. In fact, they fired those who were against Greek in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1-3).
The early Christians were missionaries, and as missionaries they were dependent on migration. Acts 17:26 is sometimes mistaken to be a condemnation of migration or multiculturalism, because Paul mentions “boundaries”: “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” But this is not a utopian statement, about how the world should be, but a statement on how the world really is: God is in control of all peoples and has appointed all countries, including multicultural ones like the Roman empire. Paul’s point is that all peoples can seek God and find him not that migration is bad: he even was a migrant when speaking this, as a Turkish Jew evangelizing in Athens!
Early Christianity is different from Constantinianism in that it didn¨t seek to take over territories and states but rather to save souls. That is, the apostles’ mission wasn’t to take over the government, make Christianity state religion and then force people to be Christian or deport them to somewhere else. Such a strategy is horribly bad to use if your goal is to evangelize, since deportations doesn’t make anyone a follower of Jesus, it just makes them pissed and quite often, it threatens their lives.
Perhaps the most famous description of God’s multicultural vision is found in Revelation:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Rev 7:9-10)
Amen. Let us preach the Gospel to all cultures, and let us welcome and love immigrants rather than deporting them to persecution and war based on their culture.