I was sitting in France with school students who had just finished two weeks of service to the local children. The other teachers and I were interested to know their personal experiences – not just in terms of ‘what did you do?’, but in terms of whether their experiences had made any difference to them.
One of the young people, who was in year 10 when back in Australia, said this after a moment of reflection: “Faith transcends culture.”
It was a beautiful moment. Those around the table appreciated it deeply. Through discussion with this student and others, the idea that she was expressing became clear. These young people were working in teams whose membership came from different Christian schools from different nations. As well as Australians, there were students from Germany, France, Lithuania, Hong Kong and other places. They had to work hard to understand each other.
And then they went into the suburbs (working with French Christian community workers) and engaged with children, many of whom had a different language to them. This included working with a group of refugees from Ukraine.
But as the student said, their common Christian faith was greater than all these differences. It was not that the differences somehow disappeared or could be ignored. No, it was that the differences ‘no longer mattered’. What might have become divisive became something of mutual interest.
The same occurred in the ‘adult gathering’ that happened at the same time as the students were serving in the community. There were school leaders and teachers from all the nations listed above, and even though it sounds like a cliché, “The fellowship was sweet.”
What the teachers and the students were experiencing was what the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28 – which in paraphrase version, can be understood as saying, “If you are in Christ, it does not matter if you are a man or woman, a Jew or gentile, or an employer or employee – you are all of equal worth because you are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.”
That teaching of Paul continues the tradition started in Genesis 1 – that the image of God is in both man and woman. They are to be different in function but of the same worth as a person. As Christopher Watkin notes, this is the basis of universal respect – every person, regardless of ethnic background or social status, is in the image of God. But as Watkins also notes, this starting point in the Bible keeps us humble. We are in the image of God; we are not gods ourselves.
Surely this understanding is needed in our world today. At a time when some of our leaders in universities and activist movements wanted to put us into categories of worth, these young people and their teachers were seeing the unity that is in Christ. Such unity was countercultural in the time of Paul and is once more becoming unusual in our times.
That is not just the conclusion of Christian Bible teachers. Two non-Christian authors who have explored the development of universal respect confirm Christianity as the unique source of our contemporary ideas about respect and equality.
Larry Siedentop’s 2014 Inventing the Individual explains that ancient societies were not made up of a collection of individuals. As he described it, “Gods and groups marched hand in hand.” As an extension of this structure, Siedentop observed that inequality was the social norm. That is, in ancient cities, ancient tribes and even into the Enlightenment, people were given a ‘category’ that determined their level of worth. One of the implications was that the concept of people’s capacity for rationality was determined by their social category.
Siedentop describes what changed – in summary, it was the radical message of the Jews that started the shift. Their law applied to everyone the same, which has become our basis accepting for individual respect before the law. The next counter-cultural moment was Jesus. In Siedentop’s words, Jesus’ crucifixion “provided the individual with a foothold in reality.” And the Apostle Paul, in his letters, demonstrated how this reality could be applied in living together. Paul was consistent in his teaching that our response to this invitation to enact human agency towards love of God and others was individual – it was not by category or social label. Again, in Siedentop’s words, “Paul’s message is directed not merely to Jews, but to all humanity.”
Such a radical re-conceptualisation of personhood was also described by Tom Holland in his 2019 Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. He summarises his journey in the introduction to the book: “Assumptions that I had grown up with – about how a society should properly be organised, and the principles that it should uphold – were not bred of classical antiquity, still less of ‘human nature’, but very distinctively of that civilisation’s Christian past.”
So – what the students and the teachers experienced personally is what these theorists have described. Unity is foundationally based on understanding who we are before God. Moses introduced the idea. Jesus fulfilled the processes for reconciliation back into our relationship with God and others. And Paul explained what it looks like in the life of those ‘in Christ’.
Thus, it is that in Christ that differences become interesting opportunities to serve each other, rather than tools to divide us.