Assimilation, Multiculturalism and Integration: A Response to the Great Migration

In the light of the present ‘great migration’ I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘integration’. This is a high value in Switzerland. But what does the word mean?


Well, in the series of Star Trek, there is an entity (meant to represent the Soviet Union I think) called “The Borg’. The Borg wants to draw everyone into itself, so that people become like the Borg. This is seen as destroying the individuality of those who are ‘drawn in’. The word that is used for this process is ‘assimilation.’ This is seen as bad, because the individuality of a person is destroyed, in the service of each person’s becoming ‘the same’. Assimilation means ‘becoming ‘similar’ or the same.


So when we talk of ‘integration, are we really talking about ‘assimilation’? In this process all

The change happens on ‘their part’ and no change happens on ‘our’ part. We ‘assimilate’ them so that they become ‘similar’ to us. Everyone is happy, except for the people who have lost a part of themselves in becoming ‘assimilated’.


An alternative is to talk about ‘multiculturalism’. This way of thinking allows for differences between cultures which live together to remain, and that each different culture within a country appreciates and values the difference, because of the richness that difference brings.

But, as I have seen this working well, the way in which difference is celebrated is through the way in which local cultural associations are promoted on T.V. or representatives of different cultural groups are brought into positions of power in government (like becoming Mayor and so on). Cultural groups that are different do in fact become part of something. They become part of a society, and reap the rewards of their participation.


So multiculturalism is a way of focusing on the value of difference, provided that at some point the difference is brought into the big tent of ‘’participation in society’.


I saw a programme on the Roman Empire last night that suggested that Rome did just this. It did not seek to make all the cultures it conquered ‘Roman’ by making them learn Latin etc., but it offered members of these cultures Roman citizenship, and by so doing, offered them the benefits of being ‘Roman’.


But the word ‘integrate’ has a different nuance from ‘assimilation’ or ‘multiculturalism.’ At the root of the word ‘integration’ is another word ‘integrity’. In my imagination I can see two objects coming together into some kind of ‘whole.’ But instead of one or other of the objects breaking apart (losing its ‘integrity’ as an object) there is forged a unity where both objects are transformed into a new unit, but one in which change is on both sides, and neither of the objects in the ‘union’ feel as though they are ‘breaking apart’ or losing too much in the process.


If that is what ‘integration’ means, then it sounds like a good thing, but as I know from more personal aspects of life, like being married, this word describes a process. The idea of marriage is that ‘The two shall become one flesh’ Being married (like ‘marrying up’ two pieces of wood or metal) is a process of becoming ‘one flesh’ out of two bodies. It is like becoming ‘one ‘married self’ out of two preciously unmarried selves. This involves the fear of losing something, and in the first instance, sometimes a rejection of what the other person wants as a result of that fear. The very idea of a ‘back seat driver’ demonstrates that when one person is ‘driving’ the other person who ‘only wants to help’ can sometimes be seen as the person who wants to ‘drive’ while not ‘driving!’


In ‘The King and I’ the king sings a song that has the lyrics ‘Should I join with other nations in alliance. If allies are weak am I not best alone. If allies are strong with power to protect me, might they not protect me out of all I own! ‘


When each wave of migrants comes to a country this rejection of the difference as a first move is what the children of the migrants experience at school. But by the second generation, the receiving culture gets used to the idea of the ‘difference’ of the ‘other’ and the ‘other’ begins to be able to communicate with the receiving culture because they have grown up in the language of the receiving culture, and we have a form of ‘integration.’ Both groups have had to change to get used to the ‘difference’ of the other, in order for them to be integrated.’


So then, in the process of integration, first comes an initial rejection of ‘the other’ but then, later on, a mutual change brings about a new entity, with integrity, that can itself receive others.


St Paul talks about this in his letters to his congregations when he speaks of ‘mutual submission in love.’ Notice he does not speak of ‘one side submitting to another while the other gets their own way all the time.’ But in order for submission to work, it has to happen in a context of mutuality and of love.


This is also an image of the Holy Trinity. We say that each of the three ‘persona’ of the Trinity are not ‘assimilated’ into one another, but nor are they ‘three separate gods’. There is indeed a ‘unity’ but a unity of three persona, in mutual communion and love. The Trinity could be a model for a society to adopt as its model of ‘integration.


But in order for this to happen, some conditions about the ‘mutual submission’ must be met.

First regular opportunities for contact between groups that are ‘different’ must be arranged. This is why I think that in future, St. John’s can help the process of ‘integration’ by having regular contact with the mosque in Aigle or other places.


Then the question of ‘in whose language will this contact happen’. At first, an interpreter service might be needed, but then I am convinced that there is great power in a migrant culture learning the language of the receiving culture. This helps to lessen the fear of the receiving culture, but also offers opportunities for the migrants to receive the benefits of the receiving culture through being able to deal with authorities, and more easily participate in the social life of the country.


The very first sign of the pouring out of God’s Spirit at Pentecost was that the language divide, which separated so many people from all around the world was dissolved in praise of God, who in Jesus reached out include (integrate) even sinners and God’s enemies into the life of God. What a miracle!


And the third condition for integration which I think is necessary is that within a short time, the migrant culture ought to be able to perceive that they are receiving the benefits of the society into which they have been received.


I read an article that described people’s behaviour on a ‘plane. Where the economy class people had to walk past first class passengers, their behaviour in the rest of the plane was worse: exacerbated by the knowledge of the luxury of first class, and the crowdedness of economy. The same was true of first class passengers who complained more about the behaviour of economy passengers, as they were forced to walk past them! When there is not a reasonable distribution of the benefits of being in a society, then the likelihood of resentment grows.


So I think that the Christian model of the Trinity, and of the Spirit, especially as we approach Pentecost, give us some models for thinking about how we want migrants to be, and how we want to be with them.






About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Engagement, Religion and Society, Uncategorized, Weekly Reflections at St. John's Montreux and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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