The Culture Gap

This past weekend I just happened to watch two movies which were about the Pacific conflicts in the second world war.  Both movies brought out the point that there was extensive difference between the Japanese and the British/American culture. For example, the Japanese thought their opponents were cowards because they surrendered rather than fighting to the death.  The Allies thought the Japanese were fanatics because they preferred death to surrender.  These assumptions coloured their treatment of each other on the battlefield and in the POW camp. But this misunderstanding arose due to a lack of appreciation of culture.  The Allies weren’t cowards, but they valued life and preferred to live to fight another day.  The Japanese on the other hand, valued honour, and would prefer to die honourably in battle than live with defeat.

We as mission workers live in this culture gap, where it is so easy for two different peoples to believe they understand each other.  We discussed this six years ago in a blog about guilt and shame.  Without sufficient investment in cross-cultural awareness, we can draw conclusions which merely reinforce misunderstanding.  For example, I have heard Christian mission workers complain that the locals are corrupt/stupid/lazy without bothering to investigate why their behaviour may appear like that to us when it may be completely consistent with a local world view.  The poor employee who steals from the till to buy medicine for his sick mother thinks he is doing a good thing in taking care of his mother at the expense of his wealthy employer.  This doesn’t excuse corruption, but it can explain it.

This problem is compounded when we lazily assume that the way we do things is ‘right’ (a western concept), and is biblical, which is easy to do when we read the Bible through the eyes of our own culture.  When we sit with people of another culture and ask “What does this verse say to you?” we may get an answer that surprises or even shocks us.  See for example, our blog on the Parable of the Talents!

This is why we need to spend as much time listening as talking, understanding as explaining, and going to great pains when we teach people the Bible that we don’t teach them our Bible.

Only by listening to our missionary colleagues from all over the world, as well as our host culture, will we begin to break free of the western mindset which blinkers our understanding of other cultures and stops us really hearing our brothers and sisters from other places.

Only by becoming more intentionally inter-culturally aware and engaged will we begin to represent a global kingdom perspective and not a narrow monocultural one which verges on religious imperialism.

Blog post first published on syzygy.org.uk on 18th November 2019.

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash.

The views expressed in this blog post are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the GC network.

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Tim Herbert
Tim Herbert is the founder of Syzygy Missions Support Network. He is a Chartered Secretary who spent five years working as an administrator in southern Africa and has made numerous short-term missions trips to Africa, Asia and South America, including leading summer teams. Syzygy exists to support mission workers. Their mission is to maximise the effectiveness of mission workers and prevent their avoidable departure from their place of service. When mission workers do not have full support, Syzygy steps in to help with strategic leadership, pastoral support, training, debriefing, and resourcing.
Tim Herbert

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