Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Failure to Understand?

I found myself aghast earlier this week at the failure of someone I once looked up to as something of a spiritual mentor, which I guess he was as he was once upon a time the pastor of the church I attended. Said pastor's failure was not sexual, he hasn't been caught kiddy fiddling or messing around with the treasurer's wife. His failure wasn't one of financial impropriety, he hasn't been caught with his hand in the till or lavished himself with material goods in some misguided belief that Christians should have all the health and wealth the world has to offer. His failure was far less obvious but far more insidious. He failed to understand that the culture of a foreign country is different from that of his home country, and as such can not be judged in the same terms as he would the culture which he knows well.

This got me thinking about modern missionary work and how it is often times entirely irrelevant to the culture being evangelised, or worse completely arrogant in its assumption of cultural mores being a Christian norm. I remember a friend of mine going to Kenya in order to study and telling me about Korean missionaries whose kept servants and said servants would bow to guests. Now the employment of a servant is not something I have any particular gripe with, afterall people need jobs in order to live, however I don't recall bowing to guests being part of Kenyan culture, the missionaries had simply enforced their culture in a different place rather than finding culturally relevant ways to express the Christian faith.

I can well understand how moving from one culture to another is difficult, having done it many times, but the assumption that one's own culture is somehow more Christian than another is arrogant, and even racist in the extreme. The situation that prompted this train of thought was a letter from the pastor mentioned earlier where he described a mission trip to Eastern Europe, and claiming that the people in a given village were so poor that they would run around naked. I feel thoroughly comfortable saying this simply because for 10 years I lived in the Czech Republic, not in an anglophone expat bubble but rather in a way that was similar to the average Czech. Most of my friends were Czech, I spoke Czech, I lived and worked as a Czech and so I am comfortable is saying that the children weren't running around naked because they were poor, but rather because that is what children do in a culture which didn't have the ridiculous strictures of the Victorian era.

The failure to understand this most basic fact of a foreign culture is unfortunately rife in the independent churches whose primary aim is the numbers game rather than the quality of life for the people they claim to be reaching in their missionary work. Humanitarian aid is an important part of any mission work in my opinion, however, when people live purely from the handouts of the generous West, then you have to ask questions about the validity of the missionary work taking place. Humanitarian aid is not about creating a dependency culture, but rather a helping hand to get up and running, as such if a society or culture refuses to improve their own lot when given years of humanitarian aid, and 20 years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe begs the question whether the aid is useful or even desirable, then the question must be asked if it isn't time to cut the aid off.

Anyway, back to my basic point, without a proper understanding of the culture one is seeking to reach and the willingness to live and work in that culture as a native, can such a person call themselves a missionary? I often think of my good friend Mark Stewart, living and working in the Czech Republic, learning Czech and making the effort the effect change in a culture which is very different from his native USA, while not inflicting American social and moral mores on the locals. To my mind, Mark is the model Christian missionary, while the letter writing classes of the Christian world like to make a splash in the shallow end and indulge in the adulation of their audiences, he is making a real difference in people's lives.

1 comment:

PhotogMark said...

how did it take me so long to read this? you flatter, dear friend, but it makes me feel good.

I agree with your premise, however, that we "missionaries" act with much arrogance and patronization. It's hard, though, to really understand how to help without creating dependency, to teach without just enforcing what we've been taught. And God knows I don't do it perfectly. (I usually try to avoid the whole problem by keeping my effing opinion to myself...although that leads me into the inverse sin of passivity...) And I have to give credit to my dear friends in Africa for any "real" understanding I have of this stuff...

For me, as for many with whom I've worked, the primary goal is not to change the culture, but to BE changed myself, and that by believing the gospel ever more deeply. I DO believe that if the changes in me are attractive, or positively-challenging, or life-bringing, then others will be intrigued and want to know more, and that THAT may in turn change the culture. Maybe. IF others want that kind of change.

In Christian-ese we call that "fruit", but i like to point out to my Christian-y friends that we can't "manufacture" fruit, we can only "produce" it from powers outside of us. We shouldn't stifle the fruit, and we can encourage it, give it a healthy place to grow, but I can't MAKE it happen. (And such is the primary obstacle to the gospel - I can't MAKE change happen, I have to give up control for the process to work...) Anyway, I HOPE that if others are attracted or intrigued by my life - even if it's just how such a screwed up, "normal" guy can still find/offer peace, forgiveness, joy, love, etc... - that they'll be free to ask about it. Then it's up to them to decide if it's something they want to explore too.

As a way of explanation, I like to call what I (very imperfectly) do "incarnational living" - that is, living as though it were Jesus living here. Not in the over-simplistic WWJD bracelet kind of thing, but actually asking "HOW would Jesus live, if he had MY gifts, MY opportunities, MY frailties, MY context..." And then to hold STRONGLY to the fact that Jesus came to serve those who refused to understand him or appreciate him, to die for the good of his enemies, to offer friendship and love to those who day-by-day rejected him. Am I doing THAT in my culture? Am I practicing these two things, living in the tension? Then I'm living like Jesus would.

Anyway Al, your topic was missionary arrogance, and I've seen that a-pleanty. But I know that MY eyes are too fettered to really know what changes are ACTUALLY best for some other culture. So I'm really, um, proud of my humble approach to culture!

(if anybody out there wants to chew me out here, or to respond in any capacity, ask Velky Al, and he has my permission to give you my contact info...)