From every nation: A Christian multiculturalism

Sir William Keys, the past president of the RSL, maintains that “meeting the challenge of multiculturalism is the single most important task facing Australia today”. If this is so, what contribution will Australian Christians make to this challenge? Will the Gospel of Jesus Christ contribute to this task in any way? Peter Bolt examines the issues.

Part 1: Australian multiculturalism

In August, the Federal Government launched its National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia, which, in the words of the Prime Minister, “… expresses the goals, priorities and strategies that the Government considers necessary in order to promote respect for individual identity, to ensure social cohesion and to enhance social justice”.1

The Agenda is a response to the cultural diversity that is already a fact of Australian life. Australia’s first immigrants arrived in 1788, bringing their culture with them. Immigration has continued since then, and today one in three Australians is a migrant or a child of a migrant, and 20.8% of our population are born overseas. Although Australia was outwardly monocultural until the 1950s, today, like most societies in the world, Australia is culturally diverse. Whereas in 1947, a mere 10% of Australians were from a non-Anglo-Celtic racial group, today the figure is 25%. Previously, Australian immigrants were predominantly European, but recent policy has increased the number of Asian people settling here (40.4% of settlers in 1987/8 compared with only 3.5% of settlers in the period 1959-65).2

Although cultural diversity has long been a factor of Australian life, multiculturalism has only been adopted as policy by successive Australian governments since 1973, replacing previous approaches such as the White Australia Policy, Integration or Assimilation Policy was thus brought in line with the fact of Australia’s diversity. In the words of Dr James Jupp “Australian governments have adopted multiculturalism because it makes sense, not because the cities were burning”.3

But what is multiculturalism? The term ‘multiculturalism’ was coined in Canada some 20 years ago, and has “always been an abstract, ill-defined and flexible concept”.4 Definitions concentrate on the twin themes of legitimate diversity within an overall unity. For example:

… an ideology which recognizes that people have a strong need to retain their identity and to foster their own culture.

… a policy of mutual acceptance …5

The message of being part of a large family, with different members, this concept of unity and diversity is slowly getting hold of society, the resistance is breaking down.6

… a belief that migrants have a right to be recognized and to participate as equals in Australian society, that they have legitimate histories of their own, a right to use their own languages and to pass those languages and their culture on to their children.7

[Multiculturalism] suggests that our society is composed of those whose world outlook derides from many places, may be expressed in many languages, and may incorporate many values—not all of them compatible with each other.8

As both a fact of life and an adopted government policy, multiculturalism will continue to affect Australians in the future. Every day we live and work with people from races other than our own. At the policy level, there will be various effects, for example:

  • racial discrimination is illegal
  • from October, speaking in such a way as to incite racial hatred is also illegal
  • public money will be directed towards the implementation of multicultural programs (the National Agenda has a $17 million list)
  • educational programs will be multiculturally oriented.

However, multiculturalism has been adopted not only because it is a fact of life, but also because it is of positive benefit. Mutual interaction is considered beneficial to people, with one culture feeding another and both ending up richer for the experience. As Bob Hawke puts it:

The task for governments is to respond to the challenge of (Australia’s) diversity. We need to meet its demands in the attitudes we encourage, the policies we design, and the programs we initiate and deliver. We need fully to harness the enormous wealth of human talent available to us.9

But it is also recognized that such a policy has potentially negative aspects as well. Opinion polls suggest that most Australians of the ‘ghettoing’ of Australia.10 Another problem is the “second class citizen” phenomenon. Studies show that migrants are still part of the disadvantaged class in Australia. They hold the lowest paid manual manufacturing jobs, have consistently higher unemployment levels, and are employed at lower level jobs than in their home country. Growing old is hard for migrants, who have disproportionate problems in social isolation and poverty. Migrant children are found in the lower streams in school (due to language difficulty).11 Programs such as those of the National Agenda seek to rectify these problems.

Perhaps the darkest side is the potential for division and hatred. Although Australia may not have experienced racial problems on the same scale as some other countries, the occasional racial riot, or racist comment or action, remind us that we have the same problems, even if they are simmering below the surface. It has also been observed that racism has been redirected towards the most recent arrivals. In the past, racist invective was towards the “wogs and dagos”. Now it is towards the “slopes, gooks and chinks”.12

In view of this darker side, limits must be drawn. “No one who advocates multiculturalism has ever denied that some practices are unacceptable in a liberal democracy. The violent resolution of conflict, the denial of free speech, the suppression of differences, are all contrary to liberal democracy and to multiculturalism.”13 Australia’s reaction to the Salman Rushdie affair illustrates that multicultural tolerance has it limits.

Alongside the respect for individual identity, a second plank is therefore necessary in the multicultural platform. There is the necessity of interaction for the sake of social cohesion.

“The rights to a distinctive identity and to various cultural practices exist within a broader social context and cannot be permitted to undermine the social context.”14 Given that interaction is encouraged for the sake of mutual benefit, in actual practice multiculturalism is mutual assimilation. Change will occur as a result of this interactive process.

The key to overcoming the negatives and ensuring the interaction necessary for social cohesion is a common language. “Language and cultural barriers prevent many non-English speaking citizens gaining access to education, training jobs and government services available to others. Knowledge of the national language is essential. … The National Agenda highlights the need for increased English language training opportunities”15 (to the tune of half its total budget). Knowledge of English is “essential”, but “knowledge of a second language” (i.e. other than English) is also encouraged as “a key to greater tolerance”.

Australian multiculturalism is a ‘vision’ for Australia’s future. As such it seeks to motivate the Australian people towards its future dream. This dream is what gives us our present challenge: all Australians, despite our diverse backgrounds, united by a common language in the common task of building a name for ourselves, “to fashion a better and fairer Australia for us and our children”.16

Part 2: Towards a Christian multiculturalism

What is culture?

At one level, a culture is all the social trappings of a particular group, e.g. food, dress, art and music. For many people, multiculturalism means having a variety of ethnic restaurants and national dress parades. Since everything that exists was made by and for Jesus Christ (Col 1:16), these trappings of various civilizations can be appreciated, used and even adopted by Christians if they are “received with thanksgiving because (they are) sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:1-5). In fact, given the freedom brought to us by the gospel, even if such things were once associated with idolatry, Christians can enjoy them—if we give due regard to the consciences of the “weaker brethren” (1 Cor 8-10, Rom 14).

The social activities and structures of a group of people may also fall under this aspect of culture (e.g. manners, social conventions, authority structures, extended family protocol). Likewise, since God is the one who gave people various “human institutions” (1 Pet 2:13) so that human life could be orderly, Christians need not find anything objectionable in such structures, even if they re different from our own cultural background.

But culture also has a deeper meaning for it is “the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge which constitute the shared bases of social action”.17 It is a person’s moral world view which moves him to behave in certain ways. When two people share the same ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge, they act in similar ways. This shared moral universe is their basis of social cohesion.

It now becomes obvious what Australian multiculturalism attempts to do. multiculturalism seeks to maintain the legitimacy of different world views white steering us all towards the prime objective—namely, social cohesion/action. By itself, this process would be doomed to failure. We could not expect a multitude of different cultures and world views simply to unite together. There needs to be some unifying factor or belief. And so enters the fact that we are all ‘Australians’, together in the same land, and our future is therefore tied up together. The practical expression of this shared aspect is the English language.

In pragmatic, post-Enlightenment Australia, such common ground may well be enough. But for anyone (such as the Christian) who actually has a world view that runs deeper than the surface dust of pragmatism, it is here that difficulties may well arise.

Of course, Christians can heartily endorse many of the multicultural programs. Christians are to love all people. There are to be no second-class citizens, and we ought to seek to preserve the advantages, respect and rights of all people. Within a liberal democracy, we can also act as Christian citizens and support the right to freedom of religion, speech and opportunity for all citizens. However, the reasons that we are involved in such programs are vastly different. We are not motivated by ‘being Australian’, but by our distinctively Christian ‘culture’.

A Christian view of cultures

God is the creator of all races that exist (Gen 10, Acts 17:25-26). This has to be so, since there is only one God (Rom 3:29-30). Very often, people wrongly link Christianity to western culture. We might be pedantic and respond that Jesus was in fact a Jew, and so part of an eastern culture, but the more important point is that all people were created by God and for Jesus Christ. Therefore, Christianity is the proper religion of all cultures.

A cultural group may well have their own religion, but if it is not the religion of Christ, it is wrong. It is not the truth, and it will mislead them now (and so a Christian may not be able to share with them in some social action), and ultimately it will take them to hell in eternity. If they are part of humanity, they need Jesus Christ (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).

The Christian mission

Jesus is the one who came as the expression of God’s love for his world (John 3:16-17). He is the one who died and rose again to draw all people to himself (John 12:32). He is the Lord of heaven and earth! The Christian mission is obvious.

When he had risen from the dead, Jesus revealed that his salvation was no nationalistic one, restricted to one culture only. Rather, all nations were to be brought together under Jesus Christ. They were all to become his disciples (Matt 28:18-20).

In Jesus Christ, God has revealed his plan for the end of time, namely “to bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:9-10). The Christian mission is to work towards this goal, by making disciples for Jesus Christ out of anyone and everyone.

The Christian individual

This has implications for the individual Christian. My natural, sinful heart may be racist, and totally nationalistic. However, I can no longer operate on the basis of my heart, but I must operate on the basis of Jesus’ compassion in the cross. Jesus who loved and died for me, loved and died for all people everywhere. Therefore, all people everywhere heed to hear his message. All people need to be persuaded to believe that message at all costs! That means my way of life is radically transformed as I seek “to become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:19-22, 10:31-11:1).

The whole of my life is to be lived under the shadow of the cross, the resurrection, the end-plan, and so the mission of Christ. This means that people—all people—need to be saved. And so I must bend over backwards to reach them. Notice that I become like them, in order to reach them for the gospel. This is ‘assimilation’. I assimilate to their culture (as far as the gospel allows me) so that, by God’s grace, they might be assimilated to the ‘Christian culture’.

The Christian church

Within a church there is a massive diversity. You don’t lose your particular racial background by becoming a Christian. Your racial background is not irrelevant; it is part of what makes you you, but it is no longer the chief identifying characteristic. What you are, first and foremost, is a servant of Jesus Christ. As such, you are united with all other servants of Jesus. The diversity is there, but it is no longer significant (Ga1 3:26-29).

Christian churches need to strive to maintain the unity that Jesus has given them, and not allow their diversity to cause division (Eph 4:1). Thus, church ought to be a truly multicultural community, although that is of secondary importance to our common unity in Christ and his mission (Phi1 1:27).

A Christian’s country or racial background is ultimately insignificant. He has no loyalties to any human culture. This is because his loyalties are to the country of our new citizenship: we are aliens and strangers on our way to heaven. Our orientation is not to the culture of our past, but to the culture of our future.

Even in heaven, we may well be aware of racial backgrounds (Rev 7:9), but again they are not of ultimate importance. The racial backgrounds simply serve to magnify the greatness of Christ. He must be terrific if he can unite such a diverse group of people for eternity! How else could you do that?

Rejoicing in our multicultural society!

Until the Lord returns, we find ourselves in multicultural Australia. Christians will also need to deal with this fact of Australian life, and play our part in this Australian challenge.

Many multicultural programs can be thoroughly endorsed by Christians. In fact, we have far deeper motivations for these programs than superficial Australian pragmatism. But as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, we also have a unique contribution to this challenge.

Defensively, it is important to realize that Christians, too, have a right to our culture. The cultural background of the majority of Australians is still the European culture in which the gospel played a large part, and it is our right to remind people of that and to ensure this is not overlooked in Education Department policy and practice.

As part of “interaction for the sake of social cohesion”, Christians can take opportunities to speak out against elements of cultures which are not good (including our own). Most importantly, we need to continue to lovingly affirm that God is Lord of all, and that other religions are not correct, nor equally valid. We must not shirk from strongly presenting the exclusive claims of Christ, for without him, people are thoroughly lost. Now, this may well be interpreted by some as non-multicultural. But nevertheless, Christian culture is evangelistic: it is part of our world view to lovingly persuade others to our Christian point of view. This is our right in such a society. We ought to exercise it to the full.

This is why Christians ought to rejoice that immigration is providing us with a ready mission field that is far cheaper than sending our people to other countries. We ought to pray that as we meet different ethnic groups, the Lord might raise up labourers for the particular harvest field they are standing in.

A Christian in Australia ought to be the most multicultural of all people—not as an Australian multiculturalist, striving with other diverse groups, united by our land and language, towards the goal of a better Australia for us and our children. No, I want to be a Christian multiculturalist—one who believes that racial background is no longer the defining characteristic of people, but rather their attitude to Jesus Christ; one who is united by the death of Christ with other believers in the common mission to make disciples for Christ of all nations; one who is heading for a far better county, in which there will be “a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb”.


1 The People of Australia: Sharing our Future (OMA, 1989).

2 J Angley & S Barber, Australian’s Immigration Program: Some Aspects (CIP #2; Legislative Research Service, 1988-9) 21.

3 ‘Diverse Cultures’.

4 Peter White, The Sydney Morning Herald, 29/8/86, ‘Migrants in Australia’, p. 39.

5 Bishop J Reid, Southern Cross, May, 1988, 7.

6 Franca Arena, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16/11/85.

7 White, Migrants, 39.

8 Jupp, ‘Diverse Cultures’, The People of Australia, 1989.

9 The People of Australia: Sharing our Future (OMA, 1989).

10 Jupp, ‘Diverse Cultures’.

11 White, Migrants, 140.

12 Paolo Totaro, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16/11/85, Migrants, 36-38.

13 Jupp, ‘Diverse Cultures’

14 David Cox, University of Melbourne, quoted in Reid, 7.

15 ‘Towards a Multicultural Australia’, The people of Australia.

16 Bob Hawke, ‘Responding to Diversity’, The People of Australia.

17 Collins English Dictionary.

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