Freedom from the Culture
Our identity is in Christ
By Anita Coleman
As the long, hot days of summer come to an end and the election for our President draws to a close, I find myself remembering my summer of The Alhambra de Granada. Its Arabic name, Qa’lat al-Hamra, means Red Castle. Perhaps the reddish walls of the Alhambra reflect my mood this tempestuous electoral season, but it’s the past glory and harmony of the three different cultures which lived together in peace upon which I find myself reflecting.
When I was a professor at a university in the American southwest I spent my a part of my summers doing research and the other part participating in or more conferences. One year my conference site was Granada, Andalusia, Spain. Granada, home to the Alhambra, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a palace and gardens, upon which the three Abrahamic cultures – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – have left a remarkable imprint of beauty. And beyond the Alhambra, many buildings in Granada city reflect Jewish, Islamic and Christian influences. The Star of David, pomegranate, and the cross are motifs among the calligraphic and vegetative designs which decorate the extensive tilework, muqarna, arches, and domes.
The city-province of Granada was known to the Romans but it was the Moors who developed it. According to legend the Jews came here during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar (586 BCE). The extant evidence though is more realistic, around 711, when the Iberian peninsula of Spain was conquered by the Arabs and Berbers, the North African Moors. In the following centuries, Granada became an enlightened centre of learning, a city of light in medieval Europe. Three very different cultures, despite ongoing skirmishes and wars between Catholic rulers and periodic Muslim incursions all around them, lived together peacefully.
A complex culture evolved, and they created breathtakingly beautiful art and architecture, of which the Alhambra is just one example. The society comprised of the Moors, Spanish Muslims, Christians and Jews was tolerant and heterogeneous. Intermarriages were common. On 2 Jan., 1492, Granada fell – Reconquista by Catholic Spain had begun a couple of years earlier – the same year Columbus sailed for the New World. In fact, it was at a campsite near the Alhambra where Queen Isabella finally agreed to Christopher Columbus’ exorbitant demands should he find India and China!
We don’t seem to be able to live in peace. Outside forces are always coming in, disrupting our peace and we seem powerless to stop it. In Galatia, false gospel teachers had come after Paul left and persuaded some of the new believers in Christ to follow Jewish practices. The Galatians were convinced they needed Jewish markers to become full Christians. They gave up the true gospel and grace.
The community life of the Galatians was torn apart as they tried to outdo one another spiritually. Instead of helping, they were hurting each other. They had a new identity in Christ and had received God’s gifts of grace and the indwelling Holy Spirit. But this wasn’t enough for some of them. They wanted to be seen as set apart to be the people of God, like the Jews, and prompting Paul to advise them: Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5: 26)
Less than two centuries later, the unknown author of the Letter to Diognetus wrote one of the most attractive descriptions of the early followers of Jesus.
“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs… And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives…. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men …They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory…To sum it all in one word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world…”
The ancient Christians fit themselves with the existing civic culture as much as possible. They did not change their names or disengage; they took their faith into the world but did not let any aspect of the world’s culture – nationality, language, habits or customs – take away their focus from living out the Kingdom values. They lived in the kingdom of God that Jesus Christ has brought in and worked to build it. They understood that shalom, wholeness, peace, belongs to Jesus and God. Our identity is in Christ, not in an American national culture.
Anita Coleman is a wife, mother, and scholar. This post is adapted from Day 26 of her devotional/Bible study, Casa Charis: A Daybook of Freedom published in 2013.