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Should the protest of Reformed Christians against laws allowing shopping on Sunday be heeded? Do transgendered people have a right to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with?
We live in a world full of diversity. There is ethnic diversity, gender diversity, religious diversity, etc. The world has always been diverse in this way, but the current interrelated processes of globalization and commercialization have led to what researchers are describing as ‘super-diversity’. This represents great opportunties, as well as real challenges for our contemporary societies.
Should Muslim women, functioning as civil servants, be excused from shaking the hands of men, for example? Should the protest of Reformed Christians against laws allowing shopping on Sunday be heeded? Do transgendered people have a right to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with? These are just some of the issues that currently are discussed in society at large.
About these and other challenges and opportunties of diversity, recently an international academic conference took place, organized by our Institute and other partners, from April 29-30 in Leuven, Belgium. The conference was entitled “Increasing Diversity: Loss of Control or Adaptive Identity Construction?” It was meaningful to explore this theme in a place so near to Brussels, a city that is at the heart of Europe and that is a posterchild of diversity, in many ways. People of all nationalities, with different cultural backgrounds and with different religions reside, work and study there.
This diversity is, in our shared Western social imaginary, construed as a good, as a positive value. It is stressed that we learn from these differences and that they enrich our societies, our organizations, and our individual lives.
Also from a Christian perspective, there is much reason to value diversity – it can be seen as a reflection of the rich and multifaceted manifestations of God’s love, witnessed to by his acts of creation. Fortunately, there is often indeed cause for such an affirming attitude towards diversity.
Yet the facts on the ground also tell another, different, story about diversity, a story of the enormous friction that diversity can give rise to, which in turn can reach a disturbing darkness. In Brussels, the city that is often lauded for its significance as a symbol of diversity, the melting pot of nationalities, cultures and religions has been slowly poisoned, up until the point that, some time ago, it all exploded, literally, in multiple brutal attacks on innocent human lives, by Islamist terrorist using a most vicious weapons, schrapnell bombs.
These horrific acts of terror are extreme examples, of course, but they help to signal to the great many problems and the deep friction that is caused by the presence of religious diversity in– the actual diversity that takes place on the ground – can lead to violence, pain, and the worrysome process of re-tribalization along cultural, religious, or national lines, or those of social class.
This duplicity in the nature of diversity makes it an enigma: it can be a blessing and a curse and often it is both at the same time. At our conference, we explored this enigma in depth, from a multidisciplinary and international perspective. Particularly valuable were the contributions from scholars from South Africa, the ‘rainbow’ nation of great diversity, which has led to both pain and beauty. These contributions were supplemented by biblical perspectives on diversity, as well as by philosophical perspectives – I myself delivered a paper, for example, on the importance of dealing with ‘disgust’ – a strong emotion, which often keeps people from valuing diversity properly.
The proceedings from this conference will be published in a forthcoming book – it is our hope that our reflections on this important theme will find resonance and may contribute towards a nuanced political and social approach to diversity. By contributing to this important current debate, we seek to be good representatives of Christ, even towards a society that has largely forgotten about the salvation that is in his name.
Steven van den Heuvel (Ph.D.) is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Evangelical Theological Faculty, Leuven, Belgium and member of the Steering Committee for the Institute of Leadership and Social Ethics.
This blog is part of a blog series on Leadership & Social Ethics, published by the Institute of Leadership and Social Ethics. For more information, please visit the website.