Uncommon Ground

by Delora Neuschwander

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This article first appeared in the May/June 2016 edition of Daughters of Promise.


I walked into my Hebrew class not knowing what to expect and not imagining the diversity that I would find there. It was still one of my first weeks in Jerusalem and I didn’t have a clue about what life was like in a city filled with so many extremes! Glancing around the room, I was surprised at the mix of people, cultures, religions and skin colors. Over the course of the next few weeks people came and went, but the way our lives brushed up against each other in a stuffy classroom in Jerusalem left an impact on me that will last forever. I learned so much more than language in that classroom.

There was me, a little Mennonite girl from Indiana; a Korean; the catholic priest; two Muslim ladies; a young Spanish; an orthodox Jew; an Italian; and a Polish lady…to name a few! We all brought with us our own cultures, ideas, beliefs, and skills. We each had a story. Some stories I never learned, some I only caught glimpses of, and some continue to mingle with my own. But none are the same as mine. And it was beautiful. 

Diversity can be beautiful, but it can also be deadly and divisive. In my Hebrew class in Israel, we all came together in our different ways, but life outside the classroom was very different. Different religions, lifestyles, and even ways of dressing bring divisions that, in a land like Israel, can prove deadly. There are three very distinct groups in Israel: the Christians, the Jews, and the Arabs and there are neverending squabbles between the groups. The Old City is even divided up according to these classifications. There is the Christian Quarter, the Arab Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. East and West Jerusalem are clearly divided between Arab and Jew. You can feel the change of cultures and lifestyles within a matter of blocks. The tension between people who refuse to make an attempt to understand each other is almost palpable.

Throughout the history of mankind, it is clear that people have difficulty relating to those from other cultures, backgrounds and world-views. Culture and community are important and we cannot get away from them. They cause us to look at the world in specific ways and affect everything from the way we interpret Scripture, to what we eat for lunch on a Sunday afternoon. We must stay true to a literal interpretation of the Word of God, but we must be very careful to differentiate between Biblical principle and cultural practice. We are often so self-focused and ethnocentric that we think our way is the only way of doing things, and it can be a shock when we realize not everyone shares the same traditions, opinions, or habits.

While community is important, one of the dangers that I see in our Anabaptist circles is an ignorance and lack of appreciation for other cultures and ideas. This can bring a lot of pride into our churches, and while I love my Anabaptist heritage and firmly believe in what we stand for, I believe we need to be willing to look outside of our culture and realize that we are superior to no one simply because we have a certain lifestyle. It is vital that we stay true to the principles of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus, but many of the ways we as Anabaptists apply these principles relate back to our culture. We need to be careful not to judge others if they chose to apply the same principle in a different, but still Biblical way. Traditional four-part hymn singing is a beautiful component of many conservative Mennonite church services, but that doesn’t mean this worship is more pleasing to God than a group of believers in Mexico singing in a different style. Perhaps the women in your church wear a traditional black veil, while another church may wear a colored head-scarf; here, the principle of the covered head is being applied, only in a different way. We are called to be faithful to what the Word of God says, but we also need to be humble and realize that we don’t have all the answers. Maybe we can learn something from the Methodist preacher down the street, and we can definitely work together with other God-honoring believers to build the Kingdom!

To bring this concept even closer to everyday reality, what about little differences we are faced with when living in relationship with people? Thinking especially of relationships in our jobs, churches, and homes, how many problems arise because we have different ways of doing things and looking at situations? It can be as simple as how we fold the laundry or the way we mop the floor! How many churches have split, marriages have fallen apart, and friendships been damaged because we refuse be flexible or to look at things from another person’s point of view? It is so easy to automatically assume the worst about people and their motives without realizing that perhaps you simply don’t understand their way of thinking.

I also think of the idea of diversity and relating to others in relation to individuality and self worth. We don’t all have to look, dress, and enjoy the same things, and we don’t need to feel pressured to act a certain way or measure up to a certain standard in order to have value or worth. As women and Daughters of the King, our value is found in who we are in Jesus and not in our personality, interests, or life experiences. We should try to learn from other people and their interests, but we need to be real with each other. You don’t have to enjoy DIY projects, coffee shops, or thrift-store shopping to be valued. In a society where it is becoming trendy to be seen as a quirky and artsy, it’s okay to admit that maybe we are just normal and enjoy ‘normal’ things. It’s okay to admit that maybe foreign travel isn’t your thing, photography doesn’t really interest you, and you’re just as content to get your coffee at the McDonalds drive-through instead of Starbucks or the eclectic café in the city. As long as we are staying open to God’s leading in our lives and are flexible and considerate it’s okay to be who God has created us to be. Let’s not try to fit ourselves into a mold we think others want to see. We should not blindly label people who have other interests and refuse to build relationships because we think we “have nothing in common.”

So what are some practical ways we can fight against misunderstandings and narrow visions? 

• First of all, it is vital that we RECOGNIZE OUR POSITION IN CHRIST. God is no respecter of persons and we are not of higher value or more use to the kingdom because we have a particular gifting. We are all given different spiritual gifts, personalities, interests, and skill sets, and one isn’t more important than another.

• BECOME ACTIVE LISTENERS. It can be so easy to do all the talking in a conversation, and we tend to think our ideas are the best and everyone will be thrilled to hear them. Maybe your ideas are good and you should speak up, but we also need to give other people a chance to voice their opinions. 

• ASK QUESTIONS. This is vital to understanding other cultures, mindsets and viewpoints. If something is unclear, ask! Do it in humility and non-threateningly, but chances are good you will find out something you didn’t know before and end up much wiser. And generally people feel more valued when you take the time to probe deeper into the things that are important to them.

• STUDY AND BE CURIOUS. We can tend to become very complacent in our routines and lifestyles, but we should constantly be seeking to know more, understand more, and discover new truths. This doesn’t need to be scary, but invigorating and stretching. Be willing to accept that maybe God has something infinitely more than what you currently see and enjoy. 

• BE HUMBLE AND FLEXIBLE. These two concepts go hand in hand. Humility admits that we don’t know everything; that maybe someone else has a better way of doing things, and we can learn from the experience and wisdom of others. 

• Most of all, BE LED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT. We need to be so in tune with God that we are able to discern truth from error and see the places where things are Scripture or simply a matter of interpretation and preference. We need grace to be respectful and respond to others with love and humility, and this won’t come through our own strength. 

By exposing ourselves to different cultures and lifestyles, we can be stretched, challenged, and changed. My time in Israel brought a lot of unique experiences and exposures to different lifestyles and cultural norms and these things take on a different meaning when you start to build relationships with the people themselves. Real community and peace will only be achieved through a shared relationship with Jesus Christ, and it is only through Him that we can ever truly be united. Unfortunately, many if the people in my class did not have that relationship, and, while I could learn from them about their cultures and lifestyles and build meaningful relationships, the ability to connect in the most important way was missing. Seeing this intense need for the Gospel and being made aware of differences and problems on a global scale should spur our hearts to share the love of Jesus in ways that are culturally appropriate. The Gospel is applicable in every culture!

God created diversity, and He delights in it! But like all good things, the devil desires to corrupt this and use it against us by bringing division and resentment. By the power of the Spirit, let’s do our part to work towards redeeming our differences in God-honoring and Christ-like ways. 


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