by Kim Aasland (October 2022)
When we all speak the same language, wear the same clothes, observe the same holidays that means we are unified, right? Or is this just surface uniformity? What is the source of true unity?
It’s an age-old story. Powerful rulers come in, take over a variety of peoples, and in the name of “unity,” establish a common language and culture. The Roman empire used the exact same layout for every new city they established. Latin was the language of the empire and had a strong unifying force. Later when the Roman empire fell, the Roman Catholic church took over many of its functions: courts, armies, record keeping, assisting the poor, etc. And they kept the Latin. Latin morphed from the language of the empire to the language of the church and later the language of the universities. On the outside, this makes sense. Everyone can communicate. You can attend a Catholic mass anywhere in the world and know what is going on. You can share intellectual ideas and scientific discoveries.
The Soviet Union was very similar. All the “republics” had the exact same apartment buildings, factories, bread, buses, and vodka. All train schedules were in “Moscow time” even for completely different time zones. In the 1975 Soviet movie, The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!, a man ends up in the wrong city by accident but is convinced he is in the right place because everything looks the same. In the USSR, everyone spoke Russian. It was the language of the government and the language of the schools. It brought about “unity,” well, that is it forced a unity of Russian language because without it you could not get a university degree or a good job.
But at what cost? This type of unity is not real, not heart-felt. It is a surface, forced unity and greatly resented.
We have many modern stories of enforced “unity” going on in our world today. One is the Uigher population in China. When I visited Xinjiang province in northwest China back in 2007 I was surprised to see brand new, enormous highways that had been built in a relatively poor and obscure part of China, home to the Uigher, Moslem population. My friends explained that these roads were built as part of a resettlement plan to move Han Chinese into the area so that the Uigher population would change from being the area’s majority culture to the minority culture which is exactly what has happened. Now all schools in Xinjiang are in Chinese, not Uigher which is the world’s oldest Turkic language. But now it is in danger of dying out because of the government policies in China. And as many are aware, China has instituted “re-education camps” to force the Uigher population to assimilate through force, often brutal.
In strong contrast is the nation of Kazakhstan where I lived for 16 years. Kazakhstan became independent in 1991. When we arrived in 1995 there were vestiges of Soviet culture everywhere such as statues of Lenin, streets named “Sovietskaya,” etc. Watching the process of change towards becoming a strong, independent nation was fascinating. One of the first steps that the government took was to make Kazakh the official language of the country and to require all government officials to become fluent. Kazakhstan also renamed many of its streets and cities after famous Kazakh people and even moved the capital to the center of the country to indicate that this land did not belong to the Russians. It worked. I saw an increase in pride of speaking Kazakh, embracing Kazakh cultural arts and practicing Kazakh culture.
But…it was easy for Kazakhstan to replace one type of cultural master with another. The new ruler was oil. When oil was discovered, money flooded into Kazakhstan. Suddenly where there had been a cash economy now there were banks and credit cards. Where there had been oil tankers on the side of the road there were now fancy gas stations. Instead of the only shopping option being outdoor bazaars and small neighborhood stores, there were now grocery stores and shopping malls. In villages with no running water everyone had a cell phone. To be clear I am not against progress and making our lives easier. My concern is that we not lose the core of one’s culture in the midst of progress. Kazakhs were nomadic for centuries and had been known for their connection to nature and their love of the steppe, horses, yurts, family and poetry. But few Kazakhs venture out on the steppe now. When we forget where we came from we are easily assimilated into whatever is the culture of power at the moment.
Another pitfall of seeking to promote cultural diversity is the problem of violent extremism. Kazakhstan has tried to honor all cultures since its inception, codifying into law religious freedom. However, it’s tricky because Kazakhstan is not that far from Afghanistan, land of the Taliban, and Kazakhstan must safeguard against extremist subgroups who seek to tear the nation apart. So Kazakhstan does put limitations on religious activities. The US wrestles with similar issues, being very diverse from state to state and even within states and having a high value on freedom of expression which can so easily morph into extremism. It is not a simple matter to find the line between national unity and allowing for individual beliefs.
The book of Revelations contains a beautiful vision of every tongue and tribe and nation and people worshiping in heaven. This to me is the core of true unity – to have the same love, being one in spirit as stated in Philippians 2:2. Some in the church have embraced this cultural vision. St. Jerome created the Vulgate, translating the Bible into the language of his people. The eastern Orthodox church was one of the earliest to allow services in the language of the people and allowed patriarchs in multiple countries as opposed to the one central leader. Wycliffe Bible translators have translated the Bible into a plethora of languages, many remote and spoken by few people. As Lamin Saneh explains in his book Translating the Message “To be grounded in your culture and to be a faithful Christian are complementary” (97). The aim of Jesus, as I understand, is not to create one people who all worship God in the same way and have the same culture, but to multiply his glory by revealing the gospel in multiple languages and cultures.
There is a way in which the church is like-minded because we have the same love and the same spirit. That’s real unity. We have the same love, but different cultures and languages. The beauty of this is that one culture may illustrate a specific aspect of the glory of God more accurately than another culture. Everyone reflects aspects of God but no one culture on its own reflects it all. Cultural diversity is not to be feared but embraced. It’s not a question of either/or but both/and. Yes, it is helpful to have a common language. Yes, it is nice to have recognizable brands. Yes, it is good to make our lives easier. But we should also press into that which makes us unique and bring to the common table what others do not. It is essential to encourage unity which embraces diversity rather than passing off uniformity as a guise. In that way we are all enriched and the controlling force is a love freely shared rather than a system imposed on us by those more powerful.
Thanks for this, Kim. My favorite line is “and bring to the common table what others do not.” I think often of the life has been intentionally enriched by those not like me and impoverished when I’ve chosen homogeneity over diversity. Always grateful for your ruminations!
A few typos. Let me try again: “I think often of the ways my life has been immeasurably enriched by those unlike me and impoverished when I’ve settled for homogeneity. “