Living Aware: Sensitivity and Cultural Appropriation


Steve Ross, Dr. Matthew Jones, Harry Walls, and P.J. Tibayan were among those who shared their thoughts with students after the panel in chapel.

Bethany Reeves, Editor in Chief

Steve Ross, Dr. Matthew Jones, Harry Walls, and P.J. Tibayan were among those who shared their thoughts with students after the panel in chapel./Photo by Alicia Thompson

Recently, our chapel messages addressed issues of race and culture. From Monday’s message, where Dr. Matthew Jones traced racial issues back to humanity’s fall in Genesis 3, and Wednesday’s message, where P.J. Tibayan gave us 15 clear, biblical points about ethnocentrism, we transitioned to a panel-style session where we heard from several different speakers.

Dr. Matthew Jones and P.J. Tibayan returned and were accompanied by Pastor Kempiz Hernandez and Steve Ross. After chapel, there was an open discussion on the porch of the Caf. I got the chance to ask them a few questions, and they shared their perspectives on issues including sensitivity and cultural appropriation.


Bethany Reeves: Some people might say that people are too sensitive about these issues of race and ethnocentricity. How would you address that?

P.J. Tibayan: The margin is different for different groups. Some of it’s coming from a lot more pain, some of it’s coming from a lot of unawareness. Even that’s an issue. I think that whenever we talk about “too sensitive”, we’re using terms that are not biblical. Not that that’s wrong—I always want to go back to biblical categories first, then go back to it. So like, if I’m thinking “too sensitive” in the wrong way, maybe the biblical sin is impatience. So if you’re being impatient or bitter, or, having legitimate hurt and pain, and channeling it in non-fruit-of-the-Spirit ways, but channeling it in rather the works of the flesh, to use Galatians 5 categories, that’s when I think you get too sensitive. But, I’d kinda put it in those categories.

Let me say something else that’s a little bit more general and broad, but might touch on it. What I’ve noticed is that I don’t even know how aware of the conversation I am right now. I don’t try to gauge how far I am along. I just know that I thought I was aware, then I get my mind blown, and I’m like, “Okay, I’m not aware.” And then I thought I was aware, and then, like, something else happens, and I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t know.” I feel like worlds keep opening up to me, that I just realized, I don’t know how aware I am. I just try to become more aware.

I have this analogy that I use, of screaming louder when you’re not heard. Like imagine if you’re trying to tell someone something, and they don’t hear you. What’s your natural reflex? To scream louder. And when you’re screaming louder, they’re like, “Why is he screaming so loud? He’s clearly not in his right mind.” And so they actually increase their deafness. So what do you do when they’re increasing their deafness? You scream louder! And when you scream louder, they get even more deaf. So it’s a Satanic cycle of not hearing each other. And so, I think in that sense, some people deem people “too sensitive,” when they’re just trying to get a normal hearing, without someone being defensive and just brushing them to the side.

Matthew Jones: And I think you see, in Scripture, you see examples of both—for lack of a better word—extremes, if you will. We see Jesus engaging issues with much force and loaded rhetoric, even, at times, provocative. And on the other hand, a biblical category for us would be gentleness and meekness. So think about Paul in Galatians said, “You who are spiritual gently restore.” So, if you are “woke,” such a dumb term, but if you see this stuff, you should be gentle with those who don’t see it. And so we want to use that biblical category of gentle.

Biblically you see there is a time to call out sin and use force and whatever, and there’s another time to be gentle. And I’m deeply concerned that what we see in the media, on both the left and the right, in Youtube clips and memes and what have you, is ungodliness. It’s sound byte-y. It’s unnecessarily provocative. It’s mean-spirited. And it’s more about winning an argument (I’m right. You’re wrong.) than it is actually about building community and loving other people. That said, there’s a time to be forceful, and there’s always a time to be gentle.

There’s a saying, “The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.” So we just want to be discerning and led by the Spirit in the way that we engage people. We’ll never regret being gentle. And being gentle doesn’t mean that I compromise the truth in any way. It’s not my job to play the Holy Spirit and correct everyone’s wrong. And I’m grateful that the Spirit of the Living God doesn’t do that with me either, because I’d be overwhelmed by my own sin and foolishness and error.

BR: Okay, a quick follow up. What would you guys say about cultural appropriation and that whole issue? Do you think that’s a situation that falls into the issue of sensitivity, being gentle and how we should think through that?

MJ: I’d really like to hear what Steve thinks. My first thought is, you really have to be careful with cultural appropriation. Paul deals with this in terms of meats and sacrifices to idols and other things that cause people to stumble and Paul talks a lot about being sensitive to those things that will unnecessarily agitate and cause hurt, harm, and stumbling. So like if I know if I walk in with an African medallion and a dashiki, people are gonna be offended at that. And I think a lot of people, in the name of their own rights—we gotta be ready, as Christians, to give up our rights for other people.

So on the one hand, it might be all right for you to culturally appropriate certain things, but the real question is, are you hurting people in this process? And if so, as a believer, that should be a concern for us.

Steve Ross: Yeah, for sure. I’ve been offended many times, because of that. We always talk about, with students here, people always come up to me and they’re like, “Aw, what’s up dawg.”

With things like that, it’s probably one of the easiest mistakes to make, because what you wanna do is you wanna relate, so you’re trying to speak like a person or dress like them or whatever. Your desire might be to affirm them in their culture. But it’s a misuse.

But then don’t hear me say that you cannot, because at the same time, when we were in Oak Manor, my wife, many times, would have girls sit between her legs while she’s braiding their hair. She’d put corn rows in their hair, stuff like that, but it was someone who had a relationship with us, and also it was also from a context where it wasn’t something they were doing because they were now trying to just express some affinity toward us.

It’s not whether or not you can do it, you just have to be careful and sensitive and in the context of a relationship, and for the right reasons, I think.

Kempiz Hernandez: I love that. You’ve gotta put it in the context of a relationship. Right? That’s why it’s very important that we should be very careful about just categorizing it.

But if you just met somebody, or you’re trying to make connections, then your motivation is probably, “Well, this is how they are, given their ethnicity.” Then you get yourself into trouble. So relationship is key.

SR: Yes. And so, just to help his point be clear, with my example, you may remember that just a couple years ago, Kim Kardashian and her sisters were braiding their hair a certain way, and they even started calling it the “Kardashian Braids”. But it’s like, “No, that’s what we do all the time. We’ve been wearing those since forever. So social media was going off and people were talking about that very thing. So that’s why it’s very, very sensitive, and I think, for when you’re thinking about Christian witness and Great Commission faithfulness, it’s probably good that we don’t try to toe lines. You know what I mean?

We’re not trying to figure out how much we can get away with. We’re more so preferring each other and setting aside our—

MJ: Consider others more important than ourselves

SR: More important than yourself. Outdo one another in showing honor. So just don’t do it, you know what I mean?


Issues like cultural appropriation and acting with sensitivity are multidimensional and, as these men shared, are not solved by a list of dos and don’ts. It’s been important to me to see these issues through several other pairs of eyes, and I hope it challenges all of us as we strive for unity in Christ.