Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Last May, a teenage girl in Salt Lake City triggered outrage when she wore a qipao (a traditional Chinese dress) to the prom. Her photo was posted everywhere, and she was publicly shamed on social media for “appropriating” a style of dress to which she was forbidden. It was a situation that caused controversy, but did it cause the “conversation” that progressives say we always need? And specifically, could “appropriation” ideology impact Catholicism?
Catholics celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, when the Virgin Mary appeared as a pregnant Aztec princess to an Aztec widower. In this age of outrage, how can such a clear case of appropriation be countenanced? When a teenaged girl is shamed for wearing a Chinese-style dress to a prom because she is not Chinese, can the Mother of God claim immunity?
But “appropriation” is a malleable term; it can be launched at anyone for anything. Its true value is to shame, isolate, and give a face to the enemy. It is a highly politicized term that accuses a dominant, powerful culture of using the imagery of a less powerful culture.
Now Our Lady of Guadalupe has been reduced to a generic symbol of Hispanic culture; all types of knickknacks, tattoos, murals, décor and fashions are emblazoned with her image. But if progressives were consistent, Our Lady would be denounced as a Spanish Christian in Aztec garb. Using the same rationale, how can Our Lady of La Vang, in traditional Vietnamese dress, be exempt?
Catholics understand Our Lady’s various dress and languages not as appropriation, stealing another’s cultural goods, but as sharing the Gospel message in a manner that is understandable.
This is the core of the challenge that “appropriation” ideology sets for Christian culture. It is an “outrage” to bring the Gospel to every creature (Matthew 28:19-20) because the Gospel represents the oppressive West that dominates and appropriates other cultures. In this, the Catholic Church is the chief victimizer through her many missionaries and missionary orders. And in bringing Christianity to all people, the Church has historically brought with it a unique and thriving culture.
So, in our brave new globalized world, evangelization is now considered a form of tyranny. During the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, young Native Americans were praised for returning to their ancestral practices, taking back their land from greedy oil interests as well as rejecting Christianity. Recently, on Jan. 20, Fr. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, announced that the murals depicting the life of Christopher Columbus would be covered up due to offensive content. Historically, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe led to mass conversion and a renunciation of human sacrifice. Previous generations saw conversion as liberation, a point that seems to be largely forgotten today.
The death this past November of Washington state missionary Dr. John Chau on India’s North Sentinel Island demonstrates this belief that evangelization is equated with appropriation, assimilation and colonialism. In a recent article in Sojourners magazine, Dr. Chau’s desire to bring Christianity to North Sentinel Island was a form of “extending whiteness.” Evangelization is considered a violation of personal boundaries, entering the private world of beliefs and feelings, which are supposed to be completely dependent on one’s ethnic identity.
In our relativistic culture, Our Lady’s evangelism would be condemned as Christian supremacy, pure appropriation (she was an Israelite), and colonialism. Using traditional Aztec imagery, Our Lady proclaimed the Gospel and the dignity of human life. Are Catholics now supposed to believe that the Faith and the sanctity of life are simply our own societal norms, our private identity, that are merely relative, or outdated?
This is the covert message of the “appropriation” theory. It is the destructive end of multiculturalism, in which all cultures are relativized. And with culture relative, so then are the values of various cultures. And these values have derived from religion.
The current outrage over “appropriation” can easily be explained as a thinly veiled condemnation of Christianity’s evangelistic character. It reduces religion to ethnic identity. When changing one’s mind or listening to things one doesn’t want to hear are deemed politically incorrect, evangelization and conversion are “triggering.”
It calls to mind Our Lord’s dialogue with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42). The Samaritan woman sees worship in ethnic terms — the Jews worship at the Jerusalem Temple, she and her fellow Samaritans worship on the mountain. Jesus’ reply is that one day the Father will be worshipped in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). He transcends ethnic barriers, inspiring the Samaritan woman to evangelize.
Fear of causing offense has led to fear of sharing; consequently, people retreat to their own like-minded group. Moreover, it has warped the Gospel, because we are afraid to preach the parts that are “uncomfortable.” One need only see how Brian Buescher, a Nebraska judicial nominee, was condemned as “extremist” by Senators Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris for belonging to the Knights of Columbus this past December. When Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2017, Sen. Dianne Feinstein accused her of having the “dogma live loudly” in her.
But evangelization was the first so-called “sharing” economy, the exact opposite of the “appropriation” model, where a culture hoards its own riches. On the contrary, Christianity shares salvation through Christ, and in so doing, shares a “civilization of love,” a unique development in the history of the world. Jesus urged His followers to be bold in proclaiming the Good News, warning (Luke 9:26), “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” It is a demanding, severe statement from Our Lord. And our post-Christian culture needs His Gospel as much as it ever did.