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The new 8th commandment: Cultural appropriation

In the hyper-sensitive World of Woke, “Thou shalt not steal” is now “Thou shalt not commit cultural appropriation.”  When “identity features” of disadvantaged cultures are used by a dominant culture for superficial purposes, it is seen as offensive.  Hence, the name-change for sports monikers like the Redskins and Indians.  And “blackface” is definitely out. 

 F. LaGard Smith
Courtesy of F. LaGard Smith

If you can’t identify with the cultural experience of an oppressed minority, so it goes, it’s off-limits to use anything reflecting that culture.  Should whites, then, be banned from performing jazz, or the blues?  The “blackness” of Elvis was sufficiently evident to receive that very criticism.  Are whites, who can’t relate to slavery, to be barred from singing “Negro spirituals?”  What about gay actors playing straight roles; or blacks playing white roles (as in Broadway’s “Hamilton”)?    

From serious to silly, one can hear complaints over non-Mexicans sporting sombreros, and non-Asians dressing in kimonos.  Should non-Irish be banned from wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day?  Or the Shriners from donning their Moroccan (historically Muslim) Fezzes?  So far, we’ve been spared complaints about Scottish Tartan ties, and non-Italians eating pizza.  These “cultural appropriations” are a reminder that, far from intending offense, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  We’ve come a long way from “melting pot” to “pot boiling over.”

But I get it.  I, myself, am outraged that a “progressive” generation has appropriated what used to be my country’s faith culture for a mess of superficial “moral” pottage.  Love thy neighbor as thyself?  “Diversity” and “inclusion” haven’t a clue what that means, nor are “progressive” believers any the wiser.  The brand of Christianity that speaks love for trendy immorality while spewing thinly-disguised hate for those who dare draw a moral line gives new meaning to “bearing false witness.”  It exposes the most insidious of all “cultural appropriation” — taking genuine Christian faith and using it in counterfeit ways that evidence utter contempt.

If the totems and war bonnets of Native Americans are not to be abused out of respect for religious sensitivities, how much more so the cross — a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice for sin — now culturally appropriated as little more than fashion bling.  But costume jewelry is penny ante compared with the Son of Man who died on that cruel cross.  The most sublime “cultural appropriation” ever was Christ’s Incarnation, in which the (dominant) Divine wrapped himself in the garb of (sin-oppressed) humankind, “taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7).  And (surprise!) people “took offense at him” (Mt. 13:57). 

When the writer of Hebrews says that the incarnate Jesus “was tempted just as we are” (Heb. 4:15), I want to say that he came to earth to “walk a mile in our moccasins.”  If that expression is still permitted, it actually should be used by both sides in an effort to smoke the peace pipe.  If we could all better appreciate what “the other side” has experienced, there would be less cause for either thoughtless offense or prickly sensitivity.  But this would require something that’s in short supply today: the humility that prompted Jesus’ remarkable descent into our world. 

Which suggests a personal role-reversal when it comes to “cultural appropriation,” this time calling us to “put on Christ” and “be clothed with Christ.”  Far from being offensive, this bold “identity theft” is our only hope for avoiding true offense or touchy interest-group fragility.

F. LaGard Smith is a retired law school professor (Pepperdine, Liberty, and Faulkner law schools), and is the author of some 35 books, touching on law, faith, and social issues.  He is the compiler and narrator of The Daily Bible (the NIV and NLT arranged in chronological order), and posts weekly devotionals on Facebook, drawing spiritual applications from current events.

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