An ethical issue which keeps appearing in my work is about appropriation: the taking of an object, word, or practice by a cultural group who did not create it. There are many areas of life in which appropriation is possible – cultural appropriate, artistic appropriation, musical appropriation – but I am mainly concerned about religious appropriation. When I wrote about appropriation before, I was writing from my perspective as a member of the Neo-Pagan community; now I want to talk about some of the complex situations I have considered since.
There are some cases which, I think, are widely agreed to be appropriation among those who agree that it exists. (There are, of course, people who don’t think that it exists as a concept, or who insist on distinguishing between appropriation and misappropriation, not accepting that it is all morally problematic. I am not discussing these perspectives in this post because I think that the facts that a) ideas move between cultures and b) sometimes the use of one culture’s idea by another culture is harmful to the first culture have been demonstrated elsewhere, including by evidence which I provided/linked to in my previous post.) For example, the wearing of ‘Native American headdresses’, a very specific piece of ritual kit used by some, and only some, Native American groups, as fashion accessories, obviously degrades and damages Native American cultures, not least by lumping them all together and, frequently, treating them as historical rather than owned and practised by living people.
One of the aspects of that case is the power imbalance between the Native American groups involved and the white Americans who are wearing headdresses as a fashion. The specific history of relations between these two cultures in that place has irrevocably shaped any cultural interchange which happens now. In other cases, the use of cultural material by another group is accepted, even encouraged, by the people from whom it is taken, and this kind of sharing can be advantageous: although it could be interpreted in other ways, recent reports about the popularity of Korean cultural products, especially music and TV shows, in China could be read as this kind of story (especially if it is the case that Korea’s cultural popularity has been instrumental in producing a trade deal which is advantageous for Korea). The popularity of some American cultural products worldwide is clearly good for the USA; but MacDonald’s channels money in a way that the worldwide sale of dream catchers, an originally Ojibwe sacred item which has been taken up, made and sold by many other people, both Native and non-Native, American and non-American, as a ‘New Age’ fashion accessory.
In religious appropriation, then, what are we talking about? Sometimes it will be the same thing: objects, food, music. Sometimes images appear in inappropriate places: Buddha as a tattoo, Kali on a toilet seat. Sometimes it will be practices: yoga might be the classic example of this. Sometimes words, ideas, or stories move between cultures: terms like ‘karma’, originally part of Hindu and Buddhist religions, now circulate freely and detached from their context in Western discourse. The latter is especially a problem if, like me, you think that the meaning of words is derived from their use in particular contexts. (A blog post later this year will deal with this idea in more detail.) A pattern I observe among Quakers is a push to use words which prove how inclusive we are. Using ‘Allah’, for example, in a list of names of God alongside Spirit, Light, Christ, and maybe some from other cultures (Inner Buddha Nature, Tao, and Krishna all appear in real examples) probably does not so much reflect the presence of Muslim-Quaker dual belongers in the community (although there are a few around) as it reflects a desire to demonstrate willingness to respect the religion of a group much denigrated in British mass media at present. The desire comes from a place of goodwill; but whether a Muslim, or even an Arabic-speaking Christian who might also use the word ‘Allah’, would really agree that it belonged in that list is another question.
Christians have some specific tangles around this issue. Setting aside the appropriation from other cultures, people seeking resources for a change to their tradition often go back and look for forgotten materials in their own history to appropriate for new purposes. This can be very effective – Christian feminist work on medieval women mystics might be an example – although there is still a moral dimension to ensuring that the past is represented as accurately as possible. However, because the Christian past includes material which is Jewish, there is also the complexity of interactions between the cultures. Christian persecution of Jews, Christian failures to recognise how Judaism has changed since the time of Jesus, and Christian cultural power in many of the places where Jews now live are all features of this landscape. For those working in Christian traditions and seeking to interpret the Bible now, the Jewish context of the documents is vitally important – but some apparently obvious ways to use this are problematic appropriations. For example, Christians holding Seders – read about this from a Jewish, interfaith family, Lutheran, or Anglican perspective.
What should we do about appropriation? I think we need to be aware of it, to name it and discuss it both within our religious communities and when relevant topics come up in the course of interfaith work. When considering whether to use material from another religion, whether it’s a single word or a book or a practice, we need to ask questions like: What do I stand to gain? What is my real motive – showing respect for the tradition, desire for the exotic, proving the superiority of my understanding? If I do this, what impression will I give to those who see and hear me? What hidden lesson might I be teaching alongside the message I intend to impart? What potential for damage to people and the relationships between people does this have?