The Role of Minorities in a Global Society
by N. Barney Pltyana
(This article was presented as the keynote address at the second International Consultation on Minority Issues and Mission Strategies, October 1994, Kyoto, Japan. The author is the senior research officer at RICSA in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town in Rondebosch, South Africa.)
In South Africa, we have just emerged from the dark tunnel of apartheid. Apartheid was about separation and domination of the black indigenous majority in our country. It was an ideology of domination by a settler minority: the imposition by ruthless means of political and cultural hegemony. Apartheid has now been dealt a death blow by democracy. It has been like the lifting of a burden on the psyche of this nation. April 27, 1994, was truly a moment of liberation for all South Africans.
What we are left with is the legacy of apartheid. In its wake, apartheid has left a divided and scarred nation. Many years of inequality mean that the legitimate expectations of millions of South Africans can hardly be met fast enough to avoid frustrations and that present resources are hardly adequate to correct the historic distortions caused by apartheid with the urgency required. South Africans and the new government of national unity are searching for a concept of government and national life that seeks to correct these historic imbalances and yet heals and reconciles society and communities. It seeks to mark a qualitative difference from a country ruled by fear and privilege to one guided by the universal principles of human rights.
The interim Constitution has a justiciable Bill of Fundamental Rights in which about 24 fundamental rights have been entrenched. Among these is a commitment to equality and a prohibition against all forms of discrimination, especially by race, ethnic or social origin, religion, culture and language. It also protects freedom of religion, belief and opinion and, furthermore, states that "every person has the right to use their language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice." There is also a Constitutional Court which will enforce these rights and a Human Rights Commission which will protect them. South Africa has also acceded to the international conventions on human rights, including those concerning the rights of women, the rights of children, anti-racism and all forms of discrimination, etc. Government policy is promoting reconciliation and yet with justice that corrects the imbalances of the past. In other words, the new dispensation seeks to establish the moral character of the nation.
Of course, all this is easier said than done. South Africa is a country of many cultures. Fears of cultural domination can be found, especially among those who used their political domination to impose their will upon others. Thus, a section of the minority Afrikaners talk about a volkstaat which they interpret as the right of self-determination in their own territory within South Africa - a version of the failed homelands policy. There is also conflict among the Zulus, for the Inkatha Freedom Party, which claims to represent Zulu interests, is insisting on a protective, confederal constitution. Among both segments of our society can be found disgruntled elements who are inclined to engage in violent activities.
This means that the search for solutions is an ongoing activity. The interim Constitution must soon give way to a new Constitution which is presently being debated by a Constitutional Assembly. The elements of that Constitution must both give expression to the national unity which many are dreaming of and yet take account of the diversity of cultures and political aspirations of various minorities. The tendency to hold this dialectic in tension is much evident in the present South Africa. The inauguration of President Nelson Mandela on May 10 had as its theme "One Nation, Many Cultures." There is the very strong desire that out of many cultures we should mold a united nation. The search for national unity is a necessary antidote to the ideology of apartheid which devastated South Africa for so long. The subject of this address then is to examine how this task can be undertaken. Before I do that, however, I wish to explore some global dimensions of this phenomenon.
It has become a trite statement to say that 1989 marked a watershed in international relations. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and with it the gradual disintegration of the Soviet empire was hailed as a necessary precursor to the establishment of democratic and capitalist market systems all over the world. The argument was that liberal democracy was the only basis for human liberty and the creation of wealth. We were treated to an ideology of the merits of the market economy. These developments which marked the "end" of the Cold War also lifted the threat of a nuclear conflagration, eased tensions among the superpowers and established the United States's domination of the world. There was hope that in these changed circumstances the United Nations could assume its role as the arbiter of international conflicts to establish peace in the world. Cynics would say that the United Nations has not been able to establish itself to fulfill the role envisioned for the organization in its charter. Instead, it has become a forum for American foreign policy. International economic institutions, likewise, have seen influence shifting to the G-7 group of nations where U.S. policy is dominant. The marginalization of the United Nations, its organs and agencies did not change.
More precisely, this period saw the multiplication of ethnic conflicts across the globe: the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia into its national components and of the Soviet Union into its ethnic republics, the restoration of the sovereignty of the Baltic republics, civil war in Africa in Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Angola, Mozambique and Rwanda - all these and many more demonstrated that the dissembling of nation-states was no solution to human problems.
In addition, there was a whole range of different sets of problems which did not receive attention with the urgency they deserve. I refer to the problems of indigenous people - stateless nations who continue to seek their sovereignty and cultural rights as distinct peoples from the conquering dominant settlers. Likewise, the plight of historically displaced peoples who find themselves as minorities outside of their national boundaries, like the Koreans in Japan, have not yet become the subject of international conventions, and what happens when a democratically elected government, like in Haiti or Nigeria, is overthrown by an illegitimate military coup? The people are powerless to resist for very long, and human rights are violated. The United States also sends troops to dislodge and occupy the country, as in the case of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and more recently in Haiti, except, of course, Haiti is in a fortunate position like Nigeria is not: not in America's backyard and intervention not in America's interests. Such arbitrariness and selectivity, however, discredit global efforts at a just world order. I am going to suggest that there are two necessary steps to action which global activities always ignore: culture and civil society.
The Dynamics of Culture
Ethnic minorities are those communities which can be distinguished and often distinguish themselves as a distinct group through observable features, like color, language, religion and culture. Minorities are such because their way of life is a subaltern culture which neither represents the majority nor the dominant force. This is not always affected by numbers, although often coincides with numbers, i.e., a numerically strong group enforces its will on minority groups. A historic exception to this rule, of course, was South Africa where a white numerical minority was the dominant political and cultural group in the country for a long time. If we put the problem this way, then we must take account of two factors: the distinct character of the minority group within and in relationship with the whole. In other words, how can a minority retain its identity and still be able to fully participate in national life?
Minorities constantly have to battle with this. In the Book of Genesis (45:33-46:12), Joseph advised his family who had come from Israel to declare to the Pharaoh that they were traditional pastoralists. Because the Egyptians were prejudiced against shepherds, they would be able to get their wish and be placed in Goshen apart from the Egyptians. Here they could practice their culture and religion and maintain their identity, yet it was these distinct practices and the fact that they were set apart which rendered their persecution by the Egyptians so easy. That is the dilemma of all minorities. Should they be distinct, or should they merge with the dominant population?
Culture has traditionally been defined as that body of laws, traditions, customs and practices which set a particular morality and worldview. Culture is an organic product of a community or nation. So understood, culture becomes a static and self-contained state of existence. In reality, of course, we find that culture is much more dynamic. Social scientists have now begun to teach us that we learn our cultures through an intricate process of socialization; it is developed and created, i.e., "cultured." On this basis, therefore, we come to understand that culture is a dynamic process where each generation contributes to this process in terms of its own life conditions. Thus, no culture can be wholly homogeneous or so distinct that it has nothing to share with others. In the debate on culture, we are constantly traversing the borderlands of human existence. Cultures learn and are enriched by other cultures; cultures are ambiguous in terms of where they begin and end; cultures are dynamic. And thus, argues Charles Villa-Vicencio, "a political model that seeks to limit or exclude the ongoing encounter of cultures and religions limits the future growth and possibilities of the very culture it seeks to protect."(1)
One should not underestimate the potential for culture to cultivate conservative and reactionary tendencies. Claims to culture have led to conflict, and there are many who are understandably alienated from the discourse on culture because culture marginalizes and excludes. Women especially feel the oppressive hand of their cultures, and many women are having to embark on a struggle for liberation from cultural expressions of patriarchy. In South Africa, at the heart of the ideology of apartheid was the notion that all cultures were separate and had to be kept apart. This discourse of separation was a veiled reference to superiority and hegemony of the dominant culture of the white minority.
For these reasons, it is right to seek a concept that retains the value of culture but avoids it being used in exclusively oppressive and negative terms. To this end, Robert Thornton's view of culture as "an essential resource" which all humanity draws upon to make life meaningful and to enrich their relationships in society comes to one's aid. This view places less emphasis on the distinctiveness of one culture from another but on the meaning and significance of culture and its openness to all who drink from its fountain for refreshment. Thus, social anthropologists are now saying that culture gives one the tools and the capacity to interpret, to understand and to make sense of the world.
To summarize the multiple levels of meaning of culture, I resort to Clifford Geertz who writes that (1) culture is created and re-created by people through their social interaction rather than imposed upon them; (2) being continuously in process, culture has neither deterministic power nor objectively identifiable referents; and (3) it is manifest rather in the capacity it endows people to perceive meaning in or attach meaning to social behavior.(2)
This leads me to an examination of the issues of cultural pluralism, differentiation, unity and diversity. The difficulties with culture elaborated above lead too easily to viewing culture as a problem. For this reason, culture becomes the enemy which must be eliminated. The aspiration would then be towards a cultural diffusion that is not identifiable with any particular culture. In fact, that is what the Marxist-socialist states did. They suppressed cultural differences in Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and wherever there were ethnic minorities which sought to assert their identities and distinctive character.
In much of the West where the "liberal consensus" has held sway, there has been, however, what Charles Taylor calls "a difference-blind liberalism." The ideal world is one where everybody is notionally the same or part of the "melting pot" of cultures - the very epitome of the American dream. In his recent essay, "The Politics of Recognition,"(3) Taylor reflects theoretically on the shaping of a multicultural society. He criticizes traditional liberalism which is inclined to homogenize and fuse identities, to universalize. Such universalization effectively denies the personhood of another and subjects "others" to definitions of others. This procedural liberalism is a form of denial. Against it, Taylor advocates the principle of recognition. It is the recognition of inherent differences and the mutual demand for self-esteem. He argues that there is something enduring about cultures which have provided a "horizon of meaning" to societies and communities throughout the ages and they deserve recognition. This is the recognition of each and everyone's "limited part in the whole human story," as Harvey Cox puts it.(4) Renato Rosaldo has discerned that the trouble with this liberal consensus of the Rawlsian "thin consensus" is that the dominant culture becomes hegemonic and universalizes. Villa-Vicencio argues that this liberal consensus, based as it is on some phenomenological concept, is arguing the impossible. It effectively undermines the participation, on their own terms, of ethnic minorities in such a manner that they do not, thereby, surrender their identity and personhood. "It is an attempt in the name of an imposed consensus," he argues, "to sanitize the public square of cultural, religious and other differences that violate the dominant ideas of the existing order."
Of course, behind recognition of difference is that it is possible for effective and creative mutual affirmation to take place. Recognition must be about affirming the humanity of the other.
Jurgen Habermas's theory of communicative action takes us to some of the principles necessary for this affirmation in human society. The starting point for Habermas is to say that "observable social action must be grasped from the perspective of the acting subject." In his system, all humanity is engaged in constant action and speechmaking. They utilize symbols and cultures as they seek understanding. Understanding, therefore, comes about through a process of meaningful communication. If communication, based on this principle, is to lead to understanding and strategic action, the basis for social action, then "social action exists only with reference to the system of traditional cultural patterns in which self-understanding of social groups is articulated." Neither Habermas nor I are advocating a passive or mechanistic view of these social processes. It is, however, the quality of these relationships that enriches community. As Bernard Lonergan puts it, the rules of meaningful communication are simple: "be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving and, if necessary, change."
Communication is a text which forms the basis of human encounter. It is the text with which we must remain in dialog; it forces us to attend to the "other" and to recognize difference. David Tracy goes on to say that "to recognize possibility (in the encounter with the text) is to sense some similarity with what has already been experienced and understood."(5) It is out of this encounter that our horizons are extended and cultures made and remade. This encounter is also a revelation. A revelation to oneself of who one really is and what we can become. A revelation of the other which helps to extend the areas of cooperation and understanding. Without that encounter with the text of human existence, humanity can only become a mass of isolated beings, or worse still, solipsists. To guard against such an eventuality, Hans-Georg Gadamer invented the phrase "a fusion of horizons." By this, he means both a faithfulness to the particularity but never to be contained by it. One's particularity only becomes a standpoint from which one levers out meaning and understanding, like Archimedes, from the other, from the unknown. "To acquire a horizon," he writes, "means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand - not in order to look away from it but to see it better within a larger whole and in truer proportion."(6)
Understood in this way, culture is liberating and affirms humanity's interdependence. If such is the case, possibilities for unthreatening relationships open up, and understanding becomes healthy and creative. This becomes an assurance for minorities ever so fearful of being swamped and denied existence. Ethnic minorities would then have their rights and their humanity affirmed to practice their culture and their religion according to their own kind and to extend the possibilities of their personhood. On this basis, minorities can participate in the universal enterprise and can make their own unique contribution.
I began by making reference to the settlement of the Israelites in Joseph's territory of Goshen. I pointed out that the choice appeared to be a voluntary and convenient one for the Israelites who were uncertain of their future but trusted that the Lord had sent Joseph ahead of them to save them from perdition. (Gen. 50:19-21) There is a subtle reference in the story, however, to a desire to maintain their way of life and to set themselves apart. Later in the story of the Exodus it becomes clear that their separation facilitates their liberation, but the Biblical text from now on is ambiguous. The tribes of Yahweh were enjoined to keep themselves separate and pure, and the conquest narratives point to an abiding insecurity. The Israelites are often castigated for conforming with the heathen tribes by marrying their daughters and even living among them. At the point of settlement, Jeremiah points to an alternative tradition when he says that they must marry the daughters of the aliens, plant their vineyards and plow their fields. At the point the tribes of Yahweh are no longer strangers but sojourners, they are no longer in passing but become a settled community. The shift of occupation from pastoralists to agriculturists points to this.(7) The truth, of course, is that there is a prevailing ambivalence in Biblical material about the election and privileges of the few in the history of salvation and the fact that salvation is universal. This can be seen in the debate at the first Council of Jerusalem and the activities of the Judaizers which Paul vehemently denounces. Dr. John N. Jonsson, a South African Baptist of Scandinavian missionary parentage who has been teaching at Baylor University in the United States for many years, expresses himself thus:
And yet the spread of this new religion extended to Gentile territories, no longer confining its message to Jews in the Diaspora. The amazing thing which Paul noted was that, though the message was directed at the Jews, the Gentiles were converted, as the writer to the Hebrews testifies. This is the Gospel that asserts that there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was being experienced as a leveler.
And yet, in the name of the Gospel, domination, discrimination and cultural hegemony have been practiced. In the name of the missionary mandate, nations have been robbed of their culture, often by inhuman means. It is for this reason that H. Reinhold Niebuhr's essay "The Idea of Radical Monotheism" written in the 1930s is enlightening for our time. Niebuhr contrasts two positions which pervade forms of popular religion. The one is henotheism, loyalty and acknowledgement of one God, and radical monotheism, a faith principle whose reference point is the "One beyond all the many [gods] whence all the many derive their being and by participation in which they exist."(9) Niebuhr's henotheism has a strong resonance with traditional or primal religions where the community becomes a source of value and moral worldview. This community embraces the ancestors who remain a part of the living community, even beyond death.
In his criticism of this notion and with an eye to the devastation caused by Nazism, Niebuhr argues that this has unfortunate moral consequences:
Henotheism is totalizing and homogenizing. It is unable to look beyond itself for value or referents. In short, such a system has no god.
Niebuhr's radical monotheism is an ideal, a utopia which has not been reached. At its heart "is the assurance that because I am, I am valued and because you are, you are beloved and because whatever is has being, therefore, it is worthy of love."(12) This principle does not deny plurality, but it directs all plurality and originates it in one source: "In Him, we live and move and have our being." Being and value in this One Beyond are collapsed into one.
All theologians accept that theology is not simply abstract philosophy. Theology is rooted in life and practice, especially in worship and adoration which appeals less to the mind than to feeling and emotion: what Niebuhr calls "the faithful believer." John Heywood Thomas, discussing the theology of Paul Tillich, expresses this relationship in these terms: "The essential connection with the concrete standpoint of an individual confession distinguishes theology from philosophy of religion."(l3) This point is expressed most appropriately by George Lindbeck when he writes that "religion...is that ultimate dimension of culture... which gives shape and intensity to the experiential matrix from which significant cultural achievements flow."(14)
Lindbeck argues that it is through a cultural-linguistic category that religion finds its most enduring expression. This expressive model utilizes all symbolic and linguistic models, as he says, "It is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle, varied and differentiated can be our experience."(15)
Tillich then moves from this to make a case for a theology of culture. His effort is to link a system of ethics theologically with culture without which there could be no system of ethics. The task of a theology of culture is "to survey the whole culture from the standpoint of substance in an attempt to reveal its spiritual import."(16) For Tillich, religion is the substance of culture, as Thomas puts it: "Theology is itself a cultural phenomenon but that its subject matter relates to the very basis of culture."(17) Thomas then makes the point that Tillich is the theologian who has discovered the meaning of theology out of a particular cultural struggle. In order to bring Tillich more expressly into a Christian theological framework, Thomas summarizes Tillich as follows:
Niebuhr states the dilemma of Christians when he says that followers of Christ can neither fully endorse their cultures nor reject them altogether. The model Niebuhr endorses appears to be that of Christ as the transformer of culture, for, according to Adrian Hastings, "every culture falls utterly short of the demands of the Gospel. There can really be no question of establishing a Christian culture anywhere."(19) Nels F. S. Ferre in an essay in honor of Tillich entitled "Christian Presuppositions for a Creative Culture" argues that the ideal is "a world of reality beyond all culture, affording a pattern for explaining the origin of human history, offering power for social change and providing a standard for social conduct."(20)
In summary, one would say that theology too is caught in the tension between the particularities of culture whereby different people express their religious ideas and experiences and the universal notion which seeks to transform all culture under Christ. That leads me to my final section on civil society, or "the possibility of global thinking in an age of particularism," as David J. Krieger puts in it in his very informative essay in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (21)
The Role of the Church in Civil Society
I have noted above that Tillich believes that it is often in situations of cultural struggle that the perimeters of a theology of culture become evident. Civil society is just such a mass of activists who seek to make a difference who inhabit the margins of society. Larry Diamond in his introduction to the book The Democratic Revolution: Struggles for Freedom and Pluralism in the Developing World pays tribute to those who have sustained the struggle for democratic values. He believes that democratic revolutions in modern times are no longer brought about by bloody revolutions but by the "element of struggle, personal risk taking, mobilization and sustained, imaginative organization on the part of a large number of citizens."(22)
In this context, civil society has been defined by Alfred Stepan as "that arena where manifold social movements, such as neighborhood associations, women's groups, religious groupings and intellectual currents and civic organizations from all classes, . . . attempt to constitute themselves in an ensemble of arrangements so that they can express themselves and advance their interests."(23)
Civil society, based on this understanding, is a "reservoir of resources" for the limitation of state authority and for the participation of the citizenry in democratic institutions. In seeking to ensure accountability in public life, they strengthen democracy. If that is to happen, however, the forces of the citizenry must themselves be founded on democratic principles and be accountable. In this way, civil society has the capacity to strengthen democracy.(24)
Israel Batista has clearly analyzed the concept of civil society with its changing meanings and application as well as ambiguities. He gives a number of categories of the concept:
Minorities, however, often operate under tremendous difficulties.(26) They need to form alliances with those of goodwill in civil society. This requires that their message be expressed in a manner as to make it possible for others outside the confines of their culture or ethnicity to understand and empathize with them. It is often necessary that their project be couched in terms which suggest a common core commitment to some moral values shared by the wider society. However, in order to do that, ethnic identity cannot be sacrificed because that becomes a major motivational force for common action.
The problem with the Afrikaner and Zulu ethnic minorities in South Africa today is that they are not able to win the support of the broader society because their demands appear to run counter to the vision captured in the interim Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In relation to this, Krieger contends that "argumentation presupposes commonly accepted criteria of validity, a common life world horizon of meaning in terms of which hypothetical claims may be criticized and validated."(27) Krieger maintains that at the center of this transformation from particularity to globalism is the necessity of a new meaning of "conversion." This process begins at the moment of crisis when metanarratives no longer seem to make sense, which then leads to a new worldview and explanation of reality. Krieger seeks via the media between the unfounded claim to universality of modernism and the post- modernism celebration of pluralism which relativizes that all value is by way of a methodological conversion carried out "concretely as a non-violent praxis that establishes a cosmotheandric solidarity."(28)
What this suggests is that there must be involved struggle around shared values. These values must be communicated as communicative action. Krieger argues that cultural reproduction and social integration cannot be achieved merely by way of self-assertion. An application of the theory of power does not produce results in all situations. What he points to is some "higher values" which are indubitable but which sustain the particular minority in its moral justification; for "from it, we may derive universal norms of an ethics of discourse and reconstruct pragmatic conditions of a universal community of communication."(29)
Krieger's attempt is, of course, a very bold one. It attempts to get the minority out of a dilemma of powerlessness and yet a just cause. It points the direction towards a strategy of communicative action as an essential component of struggle. Success in that endeavor is only possible by paying attention to the principles of speech-acts, language games and strategic action. That is only possible if the boundaries of culture are penetrable.
The Church, as has been noted, is an integral part of civil society. It engages the struggle as an expression of its mission imperative. It is a mission rooted in faith and directed at proclaiming the Good News, defending the rights of the poor, empowering them in struggle and giving a moral basis to that struggle. This struggle is the task of the Church because the Church cannot set itself apart from civil society. It is civil society that lays the foundations for a new quality of relationships within society. I trust that this conference will work out the details of that mission strategy.