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Christ and Culture

By Ross Reitz

If you saw the movie “Black Panther,” you probably remember the head of the army, who wore a blue blanket over his clothes and rode a horse. That character is patterned after the Basotho tribe. The Basotho are the only African tribe known for riding horses, and they really do wear blankets — in part because they live over a mile high in the mountains and past the Tropic of Capricorn. They can even get several feet of snow from June through August. I lived with the Basotho for two years. As I took part in that culture, I learned how to ride a horse, the best way to wear a blanket when walking through snow, how to harvest wheat with a sickle, and how to thatch a roof with straw.

As Christians, we believe that Christ left Heaven to become human so that he could experience life as we see it and communicate God’s love within the framework of a culture. Likewise, missionaries work to learn the cultures where they live so that they also can show God’s love in a culture that makes sense to those around them.

But sometimes we mix up culture and the gospel. With my fellow Basotho Christians, I learned different cultural patterns of generosity and hospitality, which are part of the Christian message. However, as a Christian, I did have to confront that Christians, no matter their culture, do not sacrifice animals to keep their ancestors from getting angry, thinking their dead ancestors will come back to destroy their crops or kill their children.

In the same way, Christians in the U.S. have often mixed up the gospel and culture. We may start with a message abut Christ’s love, but how often do our sermons or Sunday school lessons slide into discussions about the right to carry automatic weapons? Or the right to have violent speech? Or the right to have a Confederate bumper sticker or flag? Yet none of these beliefs is consistent with the teachings of Christ or the rest of the Bible.

We even use our culture as a way of excluding others. We pick a sound for our music that will attract only one group of people, and refuse any diversity in music to include others. Christians have told me that they can only worship to a certain style of song. The book of James, however, defines worship very differently. “The worship that God wants is this: caring for orphans or widows who need help and keeping yourself free from the world’s influences. This is the kind of worship that God accepts as pure and good” (James 1:27, ERV). Swaying with a raised hand and closed eyes is fine, but there is not really Biblical evidence that that kind of worship is important to God. Loving those in need is what God cares about.

Over time, Jewish religious leaders built more and more rules to define godly behavior. Jesus broke almost all of their rules, and then condemned the Pharisees for missing God’s point. While we have few “rules” now in Christianity, we do use the term “Christian worldview” to excuse a lot of behaviors that are quite opposite to Christ’s teaching. We have created beliefs about extreme free market economies or the importance of defense spending, and then call those beliefs “Christian,” though they don’t really fit with Christ’s words. Just like Jesus called the Pharisees to examine their culture and throw out anything that does not fit with God’s true teaching, Jesus also calls us to examine our priorities and to get rid of any cultural belief that doesn’t match with the teaching and example of Christ.

Ross Reitz has been a Suffolk resident since 2009. Prior to that, he taught the Bible in Africa for two years and spent six years as a teacher at a Christian school in Philadelphia, Pa.