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A Peculiar People

By November 1, 2011 No Comments

I recently returned to Canada for a two-week sojourn to teach at the University of Toronto. This was a homecoming of sorts—to my “home and native land,” to the familiar environs of the U of T, and to the vicinity of the Institute for Christian Studies where I did my master’s degree. But as I was strolling around Queen’s Park one evening, contemplating the iconic statues of various political saints that surround the Ontario Parliament, a disconcerting realization settled upon me: this was no longer home.

We moved to the United States sixteen years ago. And while the adage certainly holds true (“You can take the boy out of Canada, but you can’t take Canada out of the boy”), immigration has repercussions. (If you think moving from Canada to the United States doesn’t really count as immigration, well—I’m guessing you’re an American.) I am a “resident alien” in the country in which I live; but I’m not a resident of the country from which I come. More existentially, that walk around Queen’s Park reminded me that while all my memories are Canadian, all my cultural references are American. I can’t vote in the elections about which I’m most informed; and I’m not informed about those in which, technically, I could still vote. I’m between countries, not quite at home anywhere.

In my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, this is hardly a unique experience. Consider the remarkable growth of Korean congregations in the CRC, or Nigerian and Haitian Christians who have made the CRC their home in the United States and Canada, or children from China who have been welcomed into Christian Reformed families. And, of course, there were a few Dutch folk who immigrated to the United States, and later Canada.

Indeed, the immigrant experience is a very important part of the CRC story. But I worry that we often misunderstand and misconstrue this aspect of the CRC heritage. For example, there are some historians who would almost reduce the CRC to the dynamics of immigration. On this account, the CRC emerges as an “ethnic” denomination, a kind of ecclesiastical ghetto trying to transplant Netherlandish ways into insulated North American enclaves. By reducing ecclesial habits to ethnic memory, such historians tend to explain the distinctives of the CRC as immigrant “hangovers,” as quaint habits retained from “the old country.”

There is a very important upshot of this account: any allegiance to CRC “tradition” is seen as a covert attempt to cling to the old country. In other words, any defense of distinctive, traditional CRC practice is reduced to immigrant nostalgia. Theological claims are reduced to ulterior motives. In short, if you buy into this story, and run with it long enough, what pretends to be “Reformed” is reduced to being “Dutch.”

It seems to me a number of CRC folks have unwittingly bought into this account, which might explain what has always been a curious phenomenon for me: CRC selfloathing. I name this tentatively, as a bit of an elephant in the room. But I suspect many will immediately know what I’m talking about.

This, too, is a common feature of immigrant experience, especially for children of immigrants or “Generation 1.5” (those who immigrated as children). It is the strange embarrassment of being “peculiar”: not knowing the language or customs, coming to school with a lunch that smells different, regularly having to translate for your parents, and much more. (Novelist and writer Jhumpa Lahiri is a masterful documenter of the precarious peculiarity of immigrant communities, especially as experienced by children.) Hoping to avoid this awkwardness, the children of immigrants are often eager to assimilate and thus distance themselves from the markers of their parents’ “old ways.”

Because a lot of CRC folk—including, it seems to me, denominational leaders— have unwittingly bought the historians’ ethnic reductionism, they have also implicitly accepted the Reformed = Dutch equation. As a result, the dynamics of immigrant embarrassment wash onto our denomination’s theological heritage. Rightly wanting to unhook the CRC from mere “Dutchness,” but having confused Reformed practice with Dutch ethnicity, eager “reformers” in the CRC advocate throwing overboard all sorts of Reformed theological distinctives in the name of relevance, reform, and even anti-racism.

We need a different paradigm. We need to refuse the tendency to reduce Reformed identity to mere Dutch heritage. We need to resist accounts that confuse theological distinctives with ethnic habits. I have elsewhere argued that those of us in historically “ethnic” Reformed denominations need to do some work “sifting” our ethnic habits from our theological inheritance. This is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we can’t let merely ethnic preferences masquerade as theological distinctives; that is, we can’t allow Dutch traditionalism to parade under a “Reformed” banner. But I don’t think this is our biggest problem today. No, we need to appreciate the second edge of this point: while we cannot allow mere Dutchness to mask itself as “Reformed,” neither can we jettison the riches of a Reformed theological heritage under the pretense that it is merely an ethnic inheritance. We can’t confuse Reformed babies with Dutch bathwater.

What our denomination needs to embrace is good peculiarity. Or, to put it otherwise, we should want to be peculiar for the right reasons. Like the children of immigrants, we might sometimes be embarrassed by our peculiarity: our inability to fit in, our sense of not being quite at home anywhere, all the ways our family “stands out” as strange. We might be eager to assimilate, to look like others, to mimic the local dialect, to erase our peculiarity.

But peculiarity is prized in Scripture. Indeed, it is almost a synonym for holiness. Consider Peter’s description of the people of God in their sojourn among the nations:

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

In one of those delightful archaisms of the King James Bible, “a people belonging to God” is simply translated as “a peculiar people.” To be called by God into his covenant people is itself an experience of immigration, emigrating from darkness to light, finding our citizenship in this “peculiar people” that is a “holy nation.” We are called to be peculiar.

We need to appreciate that many of the habits and practices carried to North America by our Dutch forebears were not just ways to cling to an ethnic identity; they were formative practices of holy peculiarity, rooted in Reformed theological convictions and indebted to a Christian heritage much older than the Union of Utrecht. The formative wisdom carried in these Reformed practices is part of our catholic heritage as Christians. They are tangible expressions of holiness with a unique Reformed accent. To abandon them is not a triumphal overcoming of a parochial heritage; it is to spurn good gifts handed down to us.

Consider just one concrete example. If you talk to some CRC old-timers, you’ll inevitably hear some funny stories about what they could and could not do on Sunday. Observing a “sabbatarian rule,” most CRC communities kept the Sabbath as holy, as a day of rest. Such Sabbath-keeping produced an array of seemingly arbitrary expressions (which is why CRCers have always enjoyed reading Potok’s The Chosen). No working, of course—which translated into all sorts of instantiations: no cooking, no cutting the grass, no going to restaurants, no reading “secular” books, no playing baseball, no watching baseball, and so on. Admittedly, there seemed to be some hair-splitting: Yes, Henk, you can go in the lake, but only up to your waist, and no jumping up and down! But the practice of Sabbath-keeping was not just negative. “Rest” wasn’t just absence of activity; it was also devotion to worship, reflection, catechesis, and fellowship.

Is this just part of an embarrassing ethnic hangover, something they did because they were Dutch? Or did this practice of Sabbath-keeping represent a good peculiarity that grew out of essentially Reformed expressions of Christian faith? Indeed, one can find some of our most important Christian thinkers today—spiritual writers like Marva Dawn, Dorothy Bass, and Norman Wirzba—reminding the church of the importance of Sabbath-keeping as a uniquely Christian practice for resisting the totalitarianism of globalization. Did our forebears perhaps know something we didn’t—not because they were Dutch, but because they were Reformed?

The future of the CRC, and really all Dutch Reformed groups in North America, requires that we squarely face the realities of our ethnic heritage(s). But many of the unique strengths and gifts of our Reformed heritage should not be confused with an ethnic inheritance. They are, rather, the gifts of God for the people of God.

James K. A. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His most recent book is Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition (Brazos, 2010).