Different from us: A Pastoral Reflection on Cultural Conflict

Different from us: A Pastoral Reflection on Cultural Conflict

How do we, as ministers of the gospel, respond to the questions voiced in our society?

Skip Bell, DMin, is professor of Christian leadership and director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

My wife, Joni, and I arrived in Oslo around 9:00 a.m., Friday, July 22, 2011. After sev­eral days exploring the Norwegian fjords, we looked forward to explor­ing City Hall, the Nobel Center, Vigeland Sculpture Park, as well as a few shops. In the mid-afternoon, we were weaving our way on foot back to the harbor area when a deafening blast rocked the city only a few blocks from us. Around us, people jumped or clutched at something, and one person hit the ground and buried his head in his hands.

Confused, none of us imme­diately associated the blast with the horrific attack that had just occurred. Charred debris in the air and an acrid odor affirmed that something was horribly wrong. Since the explosion was imme­diately behind us, only when we completed our walk to the ship a short distance farther did we learn the truth about what had happened.

Anders Behring Breivik con­fesses to not only constructing and detonating the powerful bomb, unleashing its destruction and kill­ing eight outside the offices of government, but also carrying out a horrendous shooting spree nearby on Utøya Island at a youth camp tied to the Labour Party. The lives of 69 innocents—future educators, workers, doctors, business people, and public servants—were taken, underscoring a senseless tragedy.

How do we, as ministers of the gospel, respond to the ques­tions voiced in our society about these senseless acts? How do we resolve our own questions? Is there any meaning to help us endeavor to follow Christ in a broken and conflicted world?

My proximity to the tragic events of that day in Oslo compels me to search for answers. Sharing the space with those attacked induces identification with the conflict. My observations are not an attempt to form an exhaustive treatise on the nature of cultural conflict; rather they lead to a more humble pas­toral reflection.1 I simply wish to seek meaning from a Christian and pastoral perspective.

Five pastoral observations

A few observations about the human condition became evi­dent. They are not, of themselves, encouraging. The first is that we are, regardless of our claims otherwise, uncomfortable, if not intolerant, of people different from ourselves. We live in a shrinking world that has drawn different worldviews, beliefs, cultures, and traditions into shared spaces. Information and communication technology, ease of travel, and economic opportunity have transformed our world into the global village we so frequently announce.

Our discomfort does not gen­erally manifest itself in acts of terrorism. We usually respond to multiculturalism in gentler and more subtle ways. We see our response within public discourse on the major issues of the day. Veiled forms of Islamophobia are voiced in our worry about the wearing of burkas in public or construction of mosques in our neighborhoods. We speak politely of others who are different, while at the same time emoting sar­casm about “political correctness.” Cultural conservatism conveniently masks our greater regard for those who are like us, while ultraconserva­tive popularism extends its influence into the politics of America and Europe. Regardless of our faith tradition or our national or ethnic identity, we find it challenging to live in the same space with people who are different from us.

Christians are not immune to such uneasiness. It is not simply devotion to biblical teaching that generates discomfort with certain aspects of our culture. When we are among those who worship differently, who see an issue dif­ferently, whose lifestyle is different from our own or who simply dress differently, we feel ill at ease, maybe even defensive.

My second reflection is that fear trumps reason. People who are different from us can threaten our identity, our sense of life and stability. Our response to those dif­ferent from us rarely develops into the viciousness of attacks such as those on July 22, 2011; but we do take measures to protect ourselves, even from more subtle threats.

Fear influences our worldview. For instance, the broad discussion of issues around the matter of immi­gration in America takes on tones other than economic. We speak of “protecting the American way of life” or the need to assimilate to an American culture we experience in a particular neighborhood. We fear losing what we are familiar with, what we see as safe and secure.

We may readily identify such responses in public policy. But does fear manifest itself in the church? Do we create policies to protect the culture of our faith tradition? Do we feel threatened by others whose differing worldview leads them to worship or live out their beliefs dif­ferently? Are those differences that upset us always biblically centered?

My third observation equates with the tendency of humans toward violence. Agreed, eruptions such as Oslo or similar other outbreaks are still the exception. But the list of nar­ratives of human violence is far too long, and that list includes persons of all faiths, including Christian. Islamic fundamentalists do not have a monopoly on violence. Where cul­ture is confronted with differences, violence follows in some form.

Persecution prevails as one expression of violence. Persons of faith often see themselves as persecuted, at least under certain circumstances. They do not see themselves ever engaged in perse­cution of others. This phenomenon occurs more often than we note and remains more nuanced. Persons who think they would never be involved in persecution mount bill­boards attacking the papacy along highways. They launch Internet rumors to destroy the reputation of persons different from themselves. As with those who commit acts of violence to protect the church against heresy, these nuanced acts of common Christians, like our­selves, are reasoned to protect the faith. We act against those different from us.

My fourth observation is human response when security becomes threatened. Norway’s prime min­ister previously walked the streets among people engaged in com­merce. Norway has been numbered among the most transparent gov­ernments and economies and has been remarkably crime and poverty free.

Will Norway continue in that way of life once its security is threat­ened? If history is any indication, the answer is No. Our sensitivity to differences, and our rigidity in rela­tionship to other cultures, becomes heightened when our own security is threatened.

My final observation involves forgiveness. Forgiveness is unusual. There are rare exceptions. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in South Africa as that society dealt with the atrocities of apartheid is remarkable. Formed out of the vision of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and many others, this restorative body of commis­sioners in South Africa held court proceedings in which they heard witnesses, recorded crimes of violence during the years of apart­heid, and, in some cases, granted amnesty to perpetrators. They did not excuse the crimes; public record was formed and amnesty granted. The Commission freed the country from a great deal of violence by providing a spirit of forgiveness as an alternative to retribution.

More frequently, however, retribution stains our behavior. When we are attacked because of our differences, the human response creates walls to protect ourselves and, even, to counterat­tack. Accordingly, many Christians consider any adherent of Islam an enemy. If attacked, we identify whatever group or idea that attacks us as a threat.

Theological interpretation

Though these observations have been, for the most part, negative ones, in Jesus we may interpret these events with hope. Jesus lived amidst cultural conflicts but val­ued people different from Himself. Raised in Egypt and Nazareth, He dwelt with people different from Himself. He commended the faith of a Roman. He witnessed to a Samaritan, and a woman at that. He welcomed children. He touched lepers. He welcomed foreigners into the house of prayer.

When teaching His disciples to pray, He did not teach them to pray alone for the house of Israel, but to seek a blessing on the entire earth: “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Confronted by attitudes of nationalism in His own faith tradition, He affirmed, “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold” (John 10:16). Jesus goes much further than tolerance; He calls us to value and embrace differences.

Jesus returned good for evil, calling us to replace retribution with reconciliation. “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:39, NASB). “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, NKJV). When attacked, He told Peter to put up his sword. He offered no resistance or defense. His security was so sure in His heavenly Father that He had no fear.

No one forgave as did Jesus. Peter asked if we should forgive seven times, and Jesus responded “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). People overcome with their sin and guilt were deeply changed by His forgiveness. Even those who crucified Him were recipients of His forgiveness. He freely forgave.

Leading our church when cultures clash

However we understand these things theologically, what is crucial for us is the practical application of following Jesus while living with those who differ from us. The first step for church leaders includes reflecting on our own heart, on the attitudes that are seen in our words and behaviors. It means that we acquaint ourselves with the beliefs of others and listen to them. seeking to understand their worldview. It means that we refrain from general­izing the attributes of another world religion or culture. It means that we voice the same respect and rights for a Muslim or Hindu or agnostic. It means that we see ourselves as citizens of God’s kingdom first and our own country second.

Beyond our own attitudes dem­onstrated in word and behavior, how can we offer pastoral guidance to our church? What steps can be taken to lead our churches to value differences?

This challenges religious leaders post 9/11. What if people reached out in respect and love rather than seeking retribution? Of course, forgiveness does not excuse crimes against humanity for the actual people who perpetrated them. But forgiveness suggests an open heart.

Here are a few practical steps. As I noted, the first and most power­ful step is the transformation of our own attitudes. Another initiative consists of inviting people differ­ent from us to share their beliefs and worldview in presentation and dialogue with our congregations. While generally not fulfilling the experience of worship, such con­versation is powerful in building human understanding. Further, we can intentionally participate in the cultural life of those who differ.

There are many occasions when those of differing religious expression or cultural heritage will welcome us into their presence. Workshops on world religions can be held by mission specialists for our congregations. Book discus­sion groups can focus on literature sharing the narratives of diverse cultures. Our churches can identify projects in developing neighbor­hoods or countries and give to them. More powerfully, we can engage in service in those neighbor­hoods or countries alongside their own people.


Society has not matured beyond the divide of human conflict. A key reflection from Oslo is the futility of human solutions. We followers of Jesus struggle, as do others, with the human stain, experienc­ing conflict with people different from ourselves. It often takes on subtle shades and may even be rationalized as protecting what is good. But if we think carefully, if we consider our true hearts, we may come to recognize and confess our discomfort with those different from ourselves.

Perhaps then we will cry for the grace of Christ, cleansing us from sin. Perhaps then His love will be reflected in our living, and this dream realized: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NKJV).


1 Pastoral reflection as a professional competency is the aptitude for reading a situation theologically. I hope to illustrate by this case a biblically focused interpretation that flows from the pastors being formed from time with God and His Word. Thus the research base is not literature or data, but the experience itself, interpreted from a biblically focused starting point. For more on the competency of theological reflection see Attentive to God: Thinking Theologically in Ministry, by Charles M. Wood and Ellen Blue (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008).


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Skip Bell, DMin, is professor of Christian leadership and director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

January 2012

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