Culture and Religion: What Would Jesus Do?

How did Jesus relate to the culture of His time and place, and what influence might it have had on Christian doctrine? Does God Himself have a culture?

The practice of religion is based on the accident of birth, on where one is born, what language one speaks, how one is educated, and which holy writings are revered. We cannot talk of God without the baggage of our culture. And yet Christianity has become so identified with Western culture that it is almost impossible to see how it can be adopted in non-Western cultures without significant cultural disruption.

Likewise with Islam, a religion so tied to Middle Eastern culture and to the Arabic language. Becoming Moslem requires a Westerner to adopt a counter-culture with different ways of dress, of eating, and of language of worship.

Tribes, clans, and families have ways of eating and dressing and relating to one another based on shared history, environment, and adaptations to the world around them. It is hard to imagine a vegetarian Eskimo. Only those who live in a first-world culture have the luxury of choices over food, dress, education, living conditions, and travel and transportation.

All this begs the question: What doctrines are Man-made, and what are prescribed by God? Questions of modesty, sensuality, and marital fidelity, of the roles of family members, of what is proper and what is profane,… all are highly dependent on where one is born, on one’s socialization. Burping is polite in some cultures, signifying appreciation after a good meal; but it is impolite in others.

Doctrines of God seem to be broader, more loosely defined, and universally applicable. They include: Respect for a higher power, sharing with others, respecting human and property rights, honesty, and so on. These are timeless and adopted by many cultures, and it would seem they are not bound by culture.

Evidence of how Jesus related to His culture is in the Scriptures, but how one interprets His relationship with His culture depends upon one’s own cultural background. Jewish scholars emphasize His Jewishness. Many recognize Him as the most influential Jew in all of history. They point to His Judaism, which is evident in many stories told in the Gospels. Non-Jewish scholars tend to see Him as counter-cultural and even, in the extreme, as a destroyer of Jewish culture by challenging the authorities and the rules of Judaism. Just beneath the surface of such an extreme argument is the ugly theological underpinning for the Holocaust: Since Jesus was out to destroy Jewish culture, then the Holocaust was just doing God’s work, this argument goes.

At its root is the question: Was Jesus a Jew or a Christian? We know from the Gospels that He was raised as a Jew. He was given His name on the eighth day, the day of circumcision, in keeping with Jewish tradition. In Luke 2, we see Him at the age of 12 discoursing with teachers in a motif that could be a bar mitzvah. Throughout, His clothing and His way of life were Jewish. As Jesus walked through a marketplace, a woman with a menstrual disorder touched the tassel* of his garment, a traditional Jewish religious ornament:

The Lord also spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, so as to do them and not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you played the harlot, so that you may remember to do all My commandments and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God.” (Numbers 15:37-41)

So Jesus lived as a Jew and worshiped—reading Moses and so on—on the Sabbath. When He died He was buried according to Jewish custom—His body was washed, perfumed, and wrapped in linen. But we also see that at times in His life He healed on the Sabbath, breaking the law concerning the Sabbath. He did not insist that His disciples followed the custom of ritual hand-washing. He interacted with lepers (considered unclean) but He then reverted to custom by sending them back to the rabbi after healing them. He interacted with people possessed by demons. He ate with prostitutes and socialized with tax collectors. He did all of this in contravention of Jewish tradition or law.

He decided for Himself what was God’s doctrine:

The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes *asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’
Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.” (Mark 7:1-13)

There was a time when, because of the isolation in which we then lived, our American culture could be perceived as being the culture of the entire world. The world was simply that which could be seen by our own eyes, and no more. But today we live in a connected world. When a group of schoolboys became trapped in a cave in Thailand, the whole world watched, live, on TV and the Internet. In this class sit God’s children from the Middle East, India, South Africa, North America, Europe, Asia, and Japan. In God’s world, do cultures clash? Or do they coalesce?

In Acts 15, we see the clash of cultures when Gentiles begin migrating into the early Christian church. James summarized his view on how it ought to be handled, as follows:

Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, … (Acts 15:19)

Is that a rule of thumb that we could live by—not to trouble one another?

For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. (Romans 14:15-20)

But I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:15-16)

What can we learn from the life of Jesus about the relationship between culture and doctrine?

Donald: The question “Was Jesus a Jew or a Christian?” equates culture with faith, but they are two different things. And therein lies the problem. We link the two so tightly together that we mistake cultural issues as faith issues and have a hard time keeping the two separate. Andrews University receives accolades for its diversity, yet it is also harmonious. Harmony does not necessarily mean that people adapt to one another. I might just mean that they tolerate one another.

The issue is profound and has profound consequences. The culture of Detroit is quite different from the culture of Chicago, which is not that far away. Yet people in one city behave differently and look different from people in the other. There is great diversity in our class. We are fascinated by difference but if we are required to adapt to it ourselves, it is a different matter.

Jay: It seems impossible to live outside of one’s culture. Yet when it conflicted with spiritual matters, Jesus seemed ready enough to step outside His culture. That suggests to me that culture is not inherently bad; that it is natural and that we have no reason not to go along with it for the most part. But not completely—not when it conflicts with our inner light, our conscience. Jesus resisted His culture to such an extent that it cost Him His life.

David: Roughly 200 years ago, an invasion force of Maori people attacked the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific. The Maori culture was and remains warlike (they precede games of rugby with the haka, a display of violent aggression). The Moriori culture was pacifist. The Maori massacred the Moriori.

Was a person born into the Maori culture evil by accident of birth? Jesus had no choice of culture or religion when He was born in the ancient Near East. The Roman pantheon and the gods of the other Semitic tribes would not have been available to Jesus or any other Jew. If I recall correctly, even Josephus retained his Jewishness despite becoming a Roman citizen. Today, we in the West (at least) may be born into one culture but face a multitude of cultural and religious choices as we go through life.

Jay: If we take the concepts of nature and nurture, and ascribe to nature such things as conscience/the inner light and ascribe to nurture the things needed for everyday existence in society, we can see that the impacts of nurture (as with the Maoris and Morioris) can be dramatic. It is somewhat disheartening to think that nurture can be so destructive.

Donald: Counter-culture is defined on Google as “a way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm.” People born into Adventism in North America have generally embraced their appellation as “a peculiar people” who stand out by the way they have commingled their faith with their culture.

David: So far we have discussed relatively trivial cultural taboos: What to eat, what to wear, when to worship, and so on. But 200 years ago it would have been practically taboo for a Maori to refuse to participate in a massacre. Jesus might not give a fig about pork or alcohol or a suit and tie, but surely He would not approve of killing one’s neighbors.

A Moslem friend thought Jesus would also not approve of being so pacifist as to stand idly by while one’s family is slaughtered. He thought that turning the other cheek was not unconditional. But as I read the Scripture, it is unconditional. Some cultural demands are spiritually far more consequential than others. So what are the spiritual implications of being born a Maori?

Jay: We tend to view our Adventist “peculiarity” with pride. If we did not, it would just look ridiculous. The Bible does seem to call for us to be markedly different. The Sermon on the Mount describes the kingdom of heaven as a place where everything is opposite to what we consider normal, where we are expected to choose the end of the line, to turn the other cheek, and so on. These are counter-cultural and peculiar behaviors. Is it inevitable that kingdom of heaven behavior will be viewed as counter-cultural and peculiar in relation to worldly culture and behavior, or does the accident of birth predispose or bias one toward (or away from) peculiarity?

David: If there were no conflict between kingdom culture and worldly culture, we would all be sitting here naked.

Don: But if we were tropical jungle tribes people, we might all be sitting here naked anyway.

Donald: Once you decide to be peculiar, then you tend to assume peculiarities on purpose to… What? Just to be different?

Dewan: The Indian custom of suttee (the self-sacrifice of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands) was banned under the British Raj.

Donald: So some peculiarities are more significant than others. Some are just silly, viewed from the outside, but may be taken very seriously on the inside.

Jay: The crux of the issue is where is the boundary between the sublime and the ridiculous, between kingdom culture and a human culture that varies over time and place? We are afraid of stepping over the boundary and into an eternal void. In our desperation to know where the boundary lies, we fix it, we define it for ourselves, on the basis of our culture and our interpretations of holy writings. Is that wise? I think not, because we are fixing the boundary at a specific time and in a specific place.

David: A church that abandoned its doctrines overnight would disintegrate, and its individual members would be devastated. So the key is to know what is important for living a physical life in the here and now, in our time and place, and what is important for living a spiritual life in a kingdom without time or place—in the world of the inner light, in the eternity set within our hearts? The two need not be inimical, and the mundane doctrines of religions that also convey divine doctrines of peace and love need not be contradictory. They often are, but I think we can discern progress over the course of history.

Members of the Jesus Movement that assembled after His death were conflicted about letting Gentiles join, because they confused their mundane Jewish doctrines regarding food and dress and circumcision with the divine doctrines of Jesus. They did so in part because they literally did not know any different—they did not know that other doctrines existed that might differ with theirs at the mundane level but not at the spiritual level.

Children today are born into a world where Christians and Jews and Moslems and Buddhists and Wiccans and atheists live more or less next door to one another. We see into one another’s lives and cultures and religions in depth and detail through the modern media. We know all about the Thai kids in the cave, and we know a great deal about the Sunni-Shia conflicts around the world, the Islam–Buddhist conflict in Myanmar, and the Protestant–Catholic divide in northern Ireland. That knowledge and awareness cannot help but have have a mediating impact on people’s psyches and worldview, bringing us all closer together culturally and spiritually. (On the whole, that is; the exceptions can be shockingly violent, but they only serve to prove the rule.)

Members of the Jesus Movement knew a bit about the Gentiles but generally held themselves aloof and apart. But they knew nothing at all about Islam, which simply did not exist at that time, or about Buddhism or Daoism—which did exist but in places the ancient Jews probably never heard of. Today, we see them all, and we see the things we share in common, and we see and can at least ponder and discuss the things that differentiate us.

Donald: I am conservative in the original sense of the word as being true to my principles, but the open-mindedness I have developed in part through travel and exposure to other cultures is unfortunately often mistaken for liberalism!

Robin: Going back to the matter of pride in our “peculiarity,” Paul said of pride:

For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7)

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered,… (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)

When pride comes, then comes dishonor,
But with the humble is wisdom. (Proverbs 11:2)

Jesus never expressed pride; always humbly deferring to the Father.

* Wikipedia entry on “Jesus healing the bleeding woman” says: Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts specify the “fringe” of his cloak, using a Greek word which also appears in Mark 6. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on fringes in Scripture, the Pharisees (one of the sects of Second Temple Judaism) who were the progenitors of modern Rabbinic Judaism, were in the habit of wearing extra-long fringes or tassels (Matthew 23:5), a reference to the formative çîçîth (tzitzit). Because of the Pharisees’ authority, people regarded the fringe with a mystical quality.

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