Towards a Biblical View of Cultural Appropriation

Over the past few years, the idea of cultural appropriation has gained unprecedented attention on social media and the blogosphere.  I’ve read a lot about perceived crimes of white people taking elements form other cultures in a manner that some consider offensive.  These days it’s not too uncommon to read articles like this one at The Atlantic.  I could go into a number of reasons the “victimhood culture” described there is diametrically opposed to Christianity, but that would be off topic.  The article, however, gave me a sufficiently alarming view of what people consider “cultural appropriation” (in this case use of a foreign language), that I thought the issue may need to be addressed.  More common are articles like this at The Washington Post a while back that I saw a couple times on my Facebook feed, a salient quote being:

This cultural appropriation stings because the same dishes hyped as “authentic” on trendy menus were scorned when cooked in the homes of the immigrants who brought them here. Fashionable food from foreign cultures may satisfy a temporary hunger, but if you’re trying it for shallow reasons, you’ll be culturally unfulfilled in the long run.

There are of course others.  I want to look briefly at the idea of cultural appropriation and how the Bible bears on it.  I intend to do so in a way that may seem unconventional.  Instead of focusing on those who appropriate other cultures, I want to look at why cultural appropriation hurts in the first place.  This risks my being accused of victim blaming, which along with racism (using an extremely broad definition far from the original meaning of the word) and non-feminism, seems to be one of the unforgivable sins in our post-modern world.  But I will take this risk because the outcome has spiritual value.

First let us define our terms.  Cultural appropriation is the practice of taking on portions of other cultures.  Were we to merely use Webster, this definition would suffice, but the vast majority of the term’s usage is now restricted to appropriation by people belonging to a so called “majority culture” taking elements from a so called “minority culture.”  In typical usage, cultural appropriation is an act perpetrated by white Americans on non-white Americans.

Next let us define the issue.  There are two predominant viewpoints on cultural appropriation: the first that it is merely learning from other cultures, and the second that it is hurtful and offensive to minorities. I think the more correct view lies between the two.  I intend to support this biblically as we proceed.

The first issue I wish to discuss is why cultural appropriation hurts.  It is undeniable it does, else people would not be offended by it, and there would be no discussion.  But what makes it hurt?  A fairly standard reply would be, “Enjoying the positives of a culture without undergoing its struggles.”  But I think that misses the root issue.  The pain caused in someone by cultural appropriation is caused by what they perceive to be an assault on their personal identity.  For example, the Washington Post Siracha sauce article from earlier hinges on personal identity being tied to cultural identity, and that cultural identity being tied to the food being appropriated by foodies.

But this is where the Bible can come to bear on the issue.  As Christians, we ultimately identify as Christians, not as Cantonese or American or African American.  In salvation there is no distinction between Greek or Jew, barbarian, scythian, slave, or free (Colossians 3:11).  We are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:21), created for particular good works foreordained for us by God (Ephesians 2:10).  Our personal cultural identities are secondary, and we can lay them down as necessary for unity in the body, loving others, or better serving God, much as Jesus called us to hate even father and mother (Luke 14:26).  I do not mean to assert that cultural identity cannot be a part of a Christian’s identity, but I do want to stress the importance of laying down our preferences for others and becoming all things for all men.

Now most importantly, we know that Christians are called to love others, even love their neighbors as themselves, and we know that love believes the best, love is not easily provoked (1 Corinthians 13:5-7).  Thus a Christian who feels he is the victim of cultural appropriation is bound to believe the best and not unnecessarily react against a perceived slight.  Especially if he feels he is being attacked by believers, he is called to moderation, excusing their actions as unintentionally offensive until further evidence comes in, and dealing with the matter (if he needs to deal with it at all) with grace and love.

But for Christians in the “majority” culture, there is still biblical advice.  We are to become all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23):

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.

Surely the principles of laying down our preferences for the sake of others extends to cultural sensitivity.

To move towards my closing point, however, it should be noted that cultural appropriation is a very minor issue.  Occasionally there is some outlandishly offensive and ignorant act that goes viral on social media, but generally cultural appropriation, while still something we should be aware of in our attempts to love our neighbors, is the definition of a first world problem.  Most of it is not racist, merely ignorant.  A lot of it is completely trivial.  Some of the furor is so unjustified, being furious at the furor is natural.  Taking offense at, say, someone using your native language when their native language is English is completely unjustified.  There are many other more pressing issues at hand.  That is, in fact, why I am writing this post: I wanted to show you the Bible comes to bear on this controversial issue, but more importantly I wanted to point to bigger priorities.

Satan would love it if Christians wasted their time bickering over cultural appropriation.  I am quite sure the devil is using more secondary controversies such as these to distract the world, and even Christians, from much more pressing issues.  America is a country where infanticide is legal, and often performed by not only tax exempt but tax supported entities.  America recently decided to redefine marriage and rebel directly against God’s plan for the family.  The past century has seen the decline of God’s three created human institutions in America: the family, the church, and the state.  Religious liberty is probably on borrowed time in our country.  Fighting cultural appropriation is pretty low on our priority list when secularization has made the need for evangelism so abundantly clear.  We have a kingdom to fight for, our personal holiness to pursue, a church to love and care for, the lost to win, a commission to fulfill.  Cultural appropriation is can wait.

At the same time, I love the opportunity to think about cultural appropriation, because it becomes a time to think about how I can better love and care for people of various cultural backgrounds by thinking about how other people think and how they feel about certain things around us.  And that is absolutely critical to fulfilling my mission as a Christian on earth.

But there is another take away.  Culture is not morally neutral.  No matter what culture you come from, there are bends in it and identity issues associated with it that can jeopardize your love and unity within the church or even cause you to unintentionally stray from the directives of God’s Word.  I’ll close with that caution, inviting you to join me in self-examination.

Some further reading on race that I find germane:

Helping Asian Churches Become Multi-Ethnic

Why the Race Conversation is So Hard

Thabiti on the Myth of Race

Thabiti Anyabwile’s blog posts on Ethnicity

Towards a Biblical View of Cultural Appropriation

2 thoughts on “Towards a Biblical View of Cultural Appropriation

  1. Luc says:

    Hi there, bearded one; I really appreciate the work you did in this article, as I haven’t yet found another Biblical perspective on the issue. Can you tell me what sources or experiences you referenced to produce this article? I’m trying to do some more research on the subject, and I’d appreciate the help.


    1. thebeardedone says:

      Hey Luc, thanks for your comment! As we both know, the Christian blogosphere and book world hasn’t really caught up that much with the cultural appropriation phenomenon you see on tumblr, college campuses, political blogs, the Atlantic, etc. Honestly reading up on both sides of the secular issue is probably the best way to start.

      The connections between cultural appropriation, the idea of white privilege, and racism mean that studying any of those topics can help with the others. For some thoughts on white privilege in the abstract I recommend this:

      As far as racism and cultural sensitivity go, Thabiti Anyabwile at TGC, Jonathan Leeman at 9 Marks, and Tim Challies at his personal blog have said a lot over time that’s very helpful. Leeman’s “Why the Race Conversation is So Hard” sticks out particularly. Challies hasn’t written so much about race per se as he has mentioned cultural sensitivity while discussing other practical church issues (such as punctuality and fellowship). I realize that looks a lot like my “further reading” section, but honestly it’ll be a while before a lot of Christian bloggers write about it. The exception: Relevant Magazine’s Cultural Appropriation Index (unfortunately which is for subscribers only). The real issue I have with that is not that they landed on the more liberal side of the argument but that they don’t really explain in great detail why they landed on the liberal side of the argument–it reeks of shallow thinking to me.

      Let me know if you come across anything else you think is helpful or germane! I realize this post was somewhat pioneering in trying to apply Biblical principles to a modern phenomenon, so I don’t expect to be entirely correct yet.

      Liked by 1 person

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