cross-cultural connections (5)

Download a pdf of this series of posts HERE.

So, it’s been a while since I posted on Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Connections but we were at a CMS event the other night that has spurred me to finish the series off with one last post. And the reason for the post is this: I struggle with the wisdom of many very experienced brothers and sisters that recommends conformity to the status expectations of another culture, making adjustments where possible to give honour as you can.

Elmer writes (p 168):

Keep in mind that if you insist on imposing your cultural values [e.g., gender equality] and even your biblical values on the rest of the world in a way that others perceive as crude or harsh, you will not get a hearing for the gospel… find a way if possible, where you can uphold the cultural values [of status/respect] while bringing your own biblical values to bear on the situation in a sensitive way.

I find this a hard word. I want to do away with gender inequality, I want to break down the caste system and I want to treat the cleaner with all the respect and dignity I would give to my colleagues. Yet the word from Elmer, and from others I respect with years on the mission field, is that certain concessions need to be made when working within the structures of power and authority in other countries.

I don’t want to be ‘crude and harsh’. I want to act ‘in a sensitive way’. But I struggle to know what that will look like. This is just one of those things I don’t think I’ll figure out until I’m in a country where it matters. But it confounds me and it tears at my left-leaning, bleeding heart.


  1. I had friends who came back from a short travelling stint in India, doing a bit of work with the missionaries there. When asked what the biggest problem in India was causing all the poverty and oppression, they answered in unison: “the men”.

    The abuses and inequality is about as horrendous as you can imagine, and dare I say it, unspeakably evil.

    How long must we be polite and pragmatic to unspeakable evil?

    The question goes beyond gender equality as well, obviously

  2. That’s a straw man argument, Geoff.

    No one is suggesting adapting practice to accommodate evil. Christians must never do evil or ‘contextualise’ their ministry to promote it. But that’s very different to this argument.

    Paul’s words in 1Cor 9 regarding the adoption of cultural practices is a strong word, almost as though he wants to show that his example is one of doing everything but evil for the sake of the gospel. Paul even performs temple rituals in Acts 21:26, which confirms his claim that ‘to the Jew I became like a Jew’.

    Someone said to me the other day that the Christians in Egypt obviously aren’t being salt and light to their (Muslim) culture, because a missionary had said his wife had become quite submissive over their time there, as a result of associating with Christian wives, more submissive than we would generally see as ‘normal’ in our society.

    The person I was speaking to thought this was abhorrent, and an example of condoning and even practising evil. But he didn’t recognise that this type of submission is actually a cultural feature. In our Western, Australian context, it’s frankly unacceptable, but things work differently in that culture, and you’d have a difficult time making a case from the New Testament that that way of living is evil, since the weight of emphasis regarding the way women should relate to their husbands speaks of submission.

    It was this person’s inability to see the cultural element of what was going on that led him to criticise the church there.

    Don’t confuse indifference or political correctness in the face of evil (which *is* evil) with the reasoned and reflective adoption of cultural practices that simply aren’t palatable to Westerners.

  3. Hi Ben, I wasn’t actually posing an argument, or actually advocating anything, just raising the complications of the issue and asking a genuine question.

  4. Thanks so much for taking up this as a discussion point guys. It’s really important — and something I’m chewing over with people around College at the moment.

    I wonder if I was the person you were talking with Ben? I can’t remember the conversation but I’ve probably said stuff like that.

    I know I react viscerally when men walking onto the mission field in the Muslim world start talking about not helping out with housework, etc as part of their ‘reasoned and reflective adoption of cultural practices that simply aren’t palatable to Westerners’ (as you put it).

    Maybe I am just way too Western and even liberal (or emerging church), but I feel that there are gospel reasons for not pursuing a form of husband-wife relation with respect to household chores, marriage relationship, etc like I’ve heard suggested.

    1. Thanks for your comments — I think this is a useful conversation to have! I’m looking forward to hearing some reflections on my impassioned ramblings below…

      My problem is that it is often so difficult to see how to distinguish between what is ‘evil’ and what is ‘different’ (a point I learnt how to articulate from Elmer!).

      So, it was good that Christians spoke out against Sati (voluntary or forced immolation of a widow on her husbands’ funeral pyre) in India. We might (I hope) acknowledge that wife beating is ungodly. But it is often the ingrained way in which a culture views women that can have such devastating consequences. Leaving the task of hanging out the laundry only ever to you wife may not be sinful – but it could reflect a profoundly ungodly way of viewing your sisters.

      Often, Christians have been too quick to assume that difference is wrong, and so Western ways have been imposed unnecessarily and unhelpfully on other peoples. But would it be possible to swing the other way – to be so concerned with seeking to be seen to be above reproach that we actually fail to call evil and injustice what it is?

      I get left with a very bitter after-taste when I think that Christians in countries where, for example, women are denied an education are cautious about speaking out because of their proximity, while Christians in countries like Australia don’t speak out because of the distance. Those abroad are rightly concerned about the immanent threat of danger, cries of ‘imperialism’, and maintaining good relationships into which to speak the gospel. Those of us who stay are rightly concerned that because we don’t know the nuance of the (other) local situation that we might speak inappropriately into another culture. But where does that leave us with the command to “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Is 1:17)?

  5. @ Geoff. I didn’t mean to suggest you were attempting to lay out a reasoned argument, but the issue Natalie wrote about was contextualisation of ministry and you asked, “How long must we be polite and pragmatic to unspeakable evil?” which I think conflates elements of culture with evil. I hope that makes sense.

    @ Nat – I think you’re right about the difficulties of discerning these things, Nat. There’s no textbook.

    But I also think that by the gifting of the Spirit, once we have a basic sensitivity to other cultures, we generally know evil when we see it.

    @Swanny – it wasn’t you, mate.

  6. Hi Ben, I was trying (obviously in a somewhat incoherent and convoluted way) to echo Natalie’s sentiment – that it is hard to distingish. I’m very happy to equate certain elements of culture with evil, but I wasn’t aiming to merge every aspect of differing culture with evil (was that the charge?). Most definately not. I was talking about my friends experiences in India directly.

    Nat says it well – But where does that leave us with the command to “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Is 1:17)?
    I actually think this is where Western Christianity has failed considerably. I would also say that it is harder to speak out than be polite. And so, sinful beings as we are, I could imagine at times we’d want to go the easier option in the name of contextualisation rather than call evil evil when we see it.

    Ben, you said:

    But I also think that by the gifting of the Spirit, once we have a basic sensitivity to other cultures, we generally know evil when we see it.

    I’d agree, but I’d also want to add that I’m sure the best of Christians throughout history have been blind to unspeakable evil. I’m sure there is evil and injustice that I am blind to right now.

    Also, I’ve been to a closed country in the ME, and the “workers” there would have differing views of what was culturally sensitive and what was necessary to oppose in order to deomonstrate the victory and difference of the gospel. Some would wear the full hajib, while others would choose to wear no more than a thin scarf that still showed their hard. I don’t know who is right, but the “evil” wasn’t dealt with the same by all.

  7. Thanks, Geoff.

    … but I’d also want to add that I’m sure the best of Christians throughout history have been blind to unspeakable evil.

    Yeah. I wonder what examples there are of this. I guess slavery is one, although it was believers who had it abolished, at least in England.

    Maybe consumerism and materialism are the two great evils of our day, and are both things we’re blind to, effectively?

    Regarding the hijab, it’s curious you italicise ‘evil’ in your last line. Do you think wearing a hijab is evil, or that a culture which prescribes wearing the hijab is evil, at least on that point? I’m not so sure, as I think about it.

    I’m writing my Social Ethics essay on the hijab this year, so I might find some interesting material on it.

  8. Do you think wearing a hijab is evil, or that a culture which prescribes wearing the hijab is evil, at least on that point?

    Neither, I think. But, it seems repressentative of an oppressive culture, or points to an oppressive culture. The “evil” is how women are viewed, which leads to women being put in prison for infertility, or accused of adultery when they were merely innocent victims of rape – which in turn leads to jail.

    So I wouldn’t say wearing hijab is evil, nor a culture that prescribes it. But it seems indicative of much much more, don’t you think?

    Happy to chat about it at college some time in person, your essay sounds really interesting.

  9. So if wearing the hijab isn’t evil, nor a culture that prescribes it, I can’t see a problem with Christian women who are trying to minister in that culture wearing it (at least after thinking about it for 15 minutes, I can’t).

    FYI, my essay is entitled, The Hijab in Public: Some Preliminary Arguments For and Against. It uses the recent (re-) blowup of sentiment about the hijab in France as a way in.

  10. Me neither. But some of the missios would say that because of what it represents deeper, they chose to go with a light scarf instead.

    When I spoke of being polite to evil, I wasn’t saying being polite to the evil of wearing a hijab (as I’ve said I don’t think of it in itself as evil). A better example would be, say, the beating of one’s wife. I think beating your wife is not just a cultural difference, but evil. And in the mission context I would (well, hope that I would) struggle to speak politely to that, even if it was going to cause offence.

    1. Ok — here’s a practical example. What do we say as Christians about this?

      It seems really complicated. It’s a Sudanese woman — not a missionary. There’s no reported religious motive — but the article identifies distinctions between the Christian south and the Muslim north. There’s a suggestion that the arrest is only using the claim of indecency as an excuse to persecute government detractors — yet it’s being perceived by many locals as a gender issue and women are turning out in force to support Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein. Is this a case of failure to submit to authority — or is it injustice in action (even though it’s perpetrated by the law)?

      What do we say? Or do we say nothing?

      And, critically I think, what do we pray — personally and publically as a church? Or do we pray nothing?

    1. Hi Heather – I’m glad you’re finding it helpful, because I feel like I have more questions than when I started!

  11. An interesting discussion! We need to distinguish a number of different situations. What the local church should be doing to promote justice is not always what the missionary should be doing–the latter is not a local. This is not just a matter of legal rights but also of identity. It is of the essence for me that Lubna is a local—a Western woman wearing slacks would be virtually meaningless as a statement.

    Where the missionary is likely to have some authority (by which I mean relational right to a hearing) is in the local church. Even there, it’s intriguing to remember how Paul wrote to Philemon about Onesimus, not addressing slavery as a system but calling on Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ–an attitude striking at the core of the institution. We too seek to persuade people to change by showing the implications of the gospel, which can even be a largely mute process according to 1 Pet 3:1-7. The Jeremiah standing by the temple door to denounce society is not the only way to show a concern for justice.

    What the local church should be doing also depends on context. The question “How long must we be polite and pragmatic to unspeakable evil?” reflects the activism of the ruling culture. It’s a good question if through democracy we share in the authority of the state to punish evildoers, and like the USA have the clout to at least ameliorate human rights abuses. But in many situations it may be that all we can do is pray, show a different way of living, and disciple people so that they turn from their evil. Sometimes that’s enough to get people kicked out of a country, which suggests that it is not ineffective as a strategy.

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