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Race riots, multiculturalism and the gospel

By Remy Low - posted Friday, 13 January 2006

“… Bash Lebs and Wogs … Help us protect our brothers and sisters. Let’s claim back our shire … We’ll show them! It’s on again Sunday!”
 – SMS circulated among locals of Sutherland Shire, Sydney

“The Aussies will feel the full force of the Arabs as one - “brothers in arms” unite now… straight up WAR. The Lebs/Wogs won’t stand for this.”
SMS circulated among the Middle-Eastern community in Sydney

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
Paul’s letter to the Colossians 3:11 (NIV)


The dream of a multicultural Australia has long been held as a worthy ideal in the halls of academia and sections of Australian politics. It is a great ideal indeed! People from all nations gather together in Australia, living peacefully and learning from one another in a bricolage of culture. The many and varied stories of journey and tradition would be shared in colourful streets where mutual respect and love ruled the day. The journeys were over: everyone has arrived. A postmodern, post-imperial, post-colonial utopia of difference and embrace, together throwing off the heavy historical shackles of the White Australia policy and the Aboriginal genocides that dogged the image of the “lucky country”.

Snap back to December 11 2005 and the race riots in Sydney’s southern suburbs. Fuelled by anger over the bashing of lifeguards, and stoked by heavy alcohol consumption, people of “Middle-Eastern appearance” were set upon by large mobs of “White” Australians. By nightfall, retaliation attacks were in motion. The multicultural dream now seems severely wounded, if not dying. From what I understand, this feeling is also pervasive in Europe and the wider post-Christian world, which makes this a global issue. What I want to propose here is a rationale, indeed "the way" the church can be a radical witness in these unsettling times.

I’m not going to pretend I have an exhaustive sociological answer as to the root causes of the recent and continuing clashes. Suffice to say that reductionist tendencies are already at play in the media and the minds of many at ground level. Some say it’s a culture clash, others say it’s “boys being boys.” A few point to socioeconomics and still others to inherent violence and racism in Australian culture.

While I am sure some or all of these are elements of the clashes at least on the surface, I am unwilling to commit to any of these as the single determinant, if there really is one - which I doubt. Causal links are important, but do not need to be known in order for the community of God to live in a distinctive manner. We can speculate all day and come to nothing, or we can live differently as members of God’s kingdom on earth.

How are we different? We are followers of Jesus, the one who came not to annihilate the Romans and gentiles for being unwelcome extras on earth, but came in order to reconcile the world to himself. Jesus’ mission was to gather to himself an Israel marked not by national symbols or ethnicity or socio-economics, but by the values of those who would worship God in spirit and in truth. To those who receive him, the way, he gave the right to be called children of God, “children born not of natural descent ... but born of God”. (John 1:12-13). No wonder the Apostle Paul (not to mention John the Baptist in Matthew 3:9-10) strongly critiqued ethnic pride and racist exclusion. Jesus Christ came for all.

So how should we, as God’s people, live? First, Christians should take seriously Jesus’ message of radical inclusion: one that transcends race, culture, socio-economics and gender (for example, John 4:24, Matthew 8:11). Multivariate individual narratives and cultures are not subsumed or crushed, but rather difference is celebrated as God calls people of every nation to himself in Jesus. This difference actually serves to glorify him (for example, Revelation 7:9).


Second, Christians should be marked by love for one another, making every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace. This flows out of my first point above. We, in difference, should behave intimately and collaboratively as one body (cf. the letter to the Ephesians).

Third, Christians should be outwardly focused. I deeply appreciate the “missional” aspect of the so-called emerging church. Through our witness - that is, by the way we live and not just in our rhetoric - we exhibit what, and in whom, we truly believe. Proclamation of Christ and of grace is paramount, but failure to embody this message reveals a lack of integrity. In a world of superficiality and spin, how we behave towards one another within and without the community of God in these times does matter. Brian McLaren, a leading thinker in the emerging church movement, helpfully calls this “orthopraxy”, or right living.

Is the multicultural dream dead? No, not in the communities of God, nor should it be. The church has a mixed track record on this, if not an outright bloodied history of cultural imperialism. We must as Christians admit and repent of racial and cultural intolerance. We are to be more post-colonial than post-colonialists, more multicultural than the ideologues of the day. As we continually reflect on the person of Jesus Christ, who as Karl Barth writes “is himself the way”, we are reminded to follow this way.

There is neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, Middle-Eastern nor Caucasian, African nor Asian, cool nor uncool, strange nor unstrange, “but Christ is all, and is in all”.(Colossians 3:11)

I think this is a good way.

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First published in Soundings on December 16, 2005.

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About the Author

Remy Low is a young Malaysian-Australian social science teacher who attends Petersham Baptist Church in Sydney’s multicultural Inner West.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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