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Crossing Borders: Shaping Faith, Ministry, and Identity in Multicultural Australia

Published by Assembly Multicultural and Cross-cultural Ministry and the NSW Synod Board of Mission
$30.00 (includes postage) Contact Ruth Crispin, PO Box A2266, Sydney South NSW 1235

For the reader interested in following the journeys of the many minority migrant and Indigenous ethnic groups that make up the cultural mosaic of Australian society, Crossing Borders provides a series of fascinating insights into the struggles that each group has faced in staking a claim for itself in a new and often hostile environment.

While written from an essentially Uniting Church perspective, the inclusion of a number of highly detailed accounts from other denominational perspectives is particularly welcome for the additional breadth they provide to an already rich canvass.

Revd Richmond and Revd Dr Yang have gathered an important collection of accounts detailing the successes and failures of cultural interaction in Australia within the Christian context.

The case studies cover the many examples of cultural diaspora that inevitably follow conflict and persecution of Christians in many parts of the world, from Sudan (Clyne 2006), through Sri Lanka (Jegasothy 2006), to Korea (Yang 2006) and the South Pacific (Elia 2006).

The fact that many if not most of these ‘multicultural’ groups faced opposition and occasional open hostility from established ‘mainstream’ Christian groups – that is those groups representing the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture of mainstream society – is unsurprising, yet all the more troubling for being so.

The ethnocentrism of mainstream Australian society, including Church groups, while at times subtle, is something that virtually every group of believers has faced (Richmond and Yang 2006, pp.14-15).

The reader is taken on a journey through many of these hardships and the resilience of minorities is both encouraging and dispiriting.

Perhaps one minor criticism is that the term ‘cross-cultural’ is adopted somewhat uncritically by many of the contributors throughout the book and this is held to mean “the space within which one culture will interact with another in intentional and meaningful ways (Henderson 2006)”.

The use of the term ‘cross-cultural’ can be problematic in this context because of the potential confusion with the term ‘intercultural’: the former referring to an act of comparison between cultures, with the latter generally being held to refer to deliberate interaction between groups that do not share a common culture (Fries 2002).

One of the defining characteristics of intercultural communication in its idealised sense is the need to create a new zone of interaction between the two (or more) cultural groups in which a new, common language and pattern of interaction is created and adopted.

Crossing Borders reveals a great deal of assimilation, as various groups adapted and changed to suit their surroundings, but very little true intercultural interaction.

In a very real sense, this confusion perhaps highlights one of the recurring themes throughout the book: Australian society has become much more knowledgeable about other cultures (in a cross-cultural comparative sense) without acquiring the critically important skill of interacting effectively between cultures, at least in the cooperative sense implied in the term ‘intercultural’; this type of interaction implies a strong degree of equality between the parties. Indeed, as suggested by Emilsen in his very thought provoking and challenging analysis in Crossing Borders, there are questions over the extent to which any form of multicultural exchange is in fact acceptable to what is an essentially monocultural mainstream in Australian society (Emilsen 2006).

The optimistic editorial comment at the conclusion of Emilsen’s article notwithstanding, Australian Government policy, which in a purely political sense is reflective of national mood, may in fact be moving inexorably in the direction suggested by Emilsen (ABC 2006; Emilsen 2006, p.251).

If multiculturalism becomes a ‘dirty word’ as reported by Hart (2006, p.3), what are the possibilities for a ‘post-multicultural’ church? Crossing Borders is largely silent on this issue.

The challenges raised in the ‘Theological Statement’ at the end of the book are formidable and I believe pose the pivotal questions for the Church today (Multicultural Network 2006, pp.317-8).

The extent to which mainstream Australian churches are willing to abandon what is essentially a monocultural, assimilationist approach to interacting with ‘multicultural’ Australia is a key question for the future direction of Australian Christianity. If multiculturalism is diminishing in its power to inspire a vision of intercultural cooperation and partnership, what will take its place?

And lying at the heart of this remains the unresolved question of the place of Indigenous Australians, an embattled and marginalised minority in our society that has struggled (and still struggles) with its own identity, a struggle that is mirrored in mainstream Australian society in many ways, albeit for different reasons.

As it emerges from the pages of Crossing Borders, the identity of mainstream Australia is apparently formed so as to deny or suppress difference, a predisposition that is driven at least in part by fear (Law 2006).

And while differences remain, the politics of assimilation or fear, whether in government or the church, will generate conflict.

The challenge for all Australian Christians is complex and entangled in the very words and behaviours that govern daily interactions.

While there is an almost inescapable sense that the vision is indeed fading and the tide is turning, Crossing Borders raises a standard; we are shown our past, present, and potential future; it is also a call to arms that should challenge its readership to act with courage and faith, and above all, to trust in God…

Review by Malcolm Prichard, Principal of Korminda College, a Uniting Church and Anglican school in Darwin.