Lord,” Jojo began, “we thank you so much for sending Ron and Linda to us …

While the bamboo trees creaked like doors on rusty hinges, nineteen Filipinos and three foreigners sat around a large open shed, praying. Tonight we were concentrating on one another’s needs. “… for their careful Bible teaching. Their beautiful personal lives. Their warm home. Their enthusiasm and energy in serving you.” Ron and Linda and I were the only foreigners on the staff. “And now, Lord,” Jojo continued, “we beg you to deliver them from tensions …”

I was a little surprised. Tension? In their capable, efficient ministry? Well, yes, I suppose I had seen them tense, when they were weak from hepatitis, tired of wading around dead rats floating through the flooded market, charged full of adrenalin for a dozen meetings crammed into the week ahead and then let down when people forgot to show up for a crucial planning session. Yes, maybe they could relax a little more.

A gecko swiveled down the roofbeam. The prayers murmured on. Then I heard Arturo praying for me.

“… and, our Father, we ask you to deliver her from tension …”

Tension—again! What was this all about? Were we foreigners so much more tense than everybody else?

As a matter of fact—yes. We liked efficiency. So sometimes we got uptight about lagging schedules, while the Filipinos adjusted calmly to a land where natural or political typhoons could demolish any system. As a result, peace characterized pagan Filipinos more than it did many of us missionaries.

This was rather discouraging. Hadn’t we been sent out to teach them a better life? And now we were discovering that here the recipients of our generosity were superior to us. People on the mission field were in some ways more Christ-like than the missionaries.

What an unamerican discovery. After all, don’t we assume (maybe unconsciously) that our culture is superior? We led the struggle toward a democratic form of government. We pioneered in science and technology. We Westerners gave modern medicine to the rest of the world.

And all these great undertakings have been enriched by our Christian heritage. Our democracy began with the belief that “all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Science and technology blossomed in Europe because men believed this world was the creation of an orderly God. Modern health care and education spread to isolated cultures through Western Christians. Doesn’t all this give us some right to see our culture as the best?

This problem of attitude isn’t limited to overseas missionaries. Americans at home face it, too. White Americans may face it when they find their children adopting the speech patterns of their black schoolmates, or when they think that “incompetent” minorities are getting hired ahead of whites. Parents face it when they discover that their children live in a different world, with different tastes, interests, values. Hard-working, traditional church members face it when they encounter seemingly indolent counter-culture Jesus people. In these and similar situations we confront the question: “What does God think about different cultures? Isn’t there really one best life-style if we follow the Bible?”

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Certainly Christianity changes culture. It was a missionary, David Livingstone, who first aroused Englishmen against slavery, for example. It was a Christian, William Wilberforce, who organized a Christian lobby that led to the abolition of slavery in England. It was “evangelical public opinion, working through the English delegate to the Congress of Vienna in 1815, [that] was able to bring about the outlawing of the slave trade by most European states,” according to historian Earl Cairns. In America, Christian abolitionists helped bring an end to slavery.

But, even with the good points brought about in part by the influence of Christian teaching, has Western culture “arrived” at a point where it can look down on cultures that lack a Christian heritage?

The superiority of Western culture was hardly apparent to Africans in the holds of slave ships. Or to the Australian aborigines for whom white settlers scattered poisoned meat around. Or to the Tasmanians, against whom the whites enjoyed regular open hunting seasons. (Nothing is apparent to the Tasmanians now: they are extinct.) The West’s superiority was not evident when Europeans fought a war to introduce opium to China, while China’s pagan rulers fought to keep it out. And it has hardly been evident to the American Indians. Today in all Native American Studies courses at the University of California Berkeley campus, students are taught this description:

The white man is a colonizer who early developed an advanced technology; he is an exploiter of human and natural resources; he has destroyed almost every alien culture he has come in contact with; and he has imposed an iron rule on the remnant of these cultures through his social, political, economic, and religious attitudes.

Right now such things as pollution, inflation, ghettos, rampant crime, U. S. intrigues in foreign countries and the still fresh memories of Watergate make it hard for us to call our culture superior.

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On the other hand, some cultures with little Christian heritage do seem outstanding in some areas. When I looked around at my Filipino neighbors, for example, I saw strong families. Warm hospitality. Lots of time lavished on children. Enduring loyalties. The ability to live graciously on little money. A heritage of economic freedom for women. Creativity in music. Sauces that deliciously extended a little meat to many people. A delight in sharing. Skill in the art of relaxation. Lithe, limber bodies. The ability to enjoy being with a large number of people continuously.

Since every good gift is from above and since all wisdom and knowledge come from Jesus Christ, these beautiful qualities of Philippine culture must be gifts of God. It seems that, just as our Creator delights in a vast variety of colors and smells, just as he has brought millions of unique personalities into being, so he has ordained an amazingly wide spectrum of cultures. He has programmed into man a capacity for cultural variation that enables us to explore our potential in all its complexity, to increase the richness of His world.

The early Christians accepted different cultures. When they preached to Jews, their framework was the law of Moses and the prophets. But when their audience was pagan, they dropped that emphasis and talked instead about how God provides for our physical and spiritual needs, and how God is stronger than idols. Peter learned to accept all peoples, including their food that was repulsive to him. Paul learned to be “all things to all men.” Timothy was circumcised; Titus wasn’t. Both were Paul’s key men. The Epistles show that churches from different cultural backgrounds had different kinds of problems. So when the mother church in Jerusalem set standards, she decided not to ask new Christians in other cultures to conform to her ways, since there was “no difference between us and them” (Acts 15:9).

But in spite of biblical examples, we white American Christians have lagged behind in acknowledging that different life-styles may be equally acceptable to God. We don’t consider ourselves prejudiced. But in fact, we often don’t even recognize the existence of other life-styles until forced to—until dozens of blacks or Jews or Chicanos confront us in the neighborhood or school, or until an overseas trip brings us into contact with incomprehensibly backward natives. We pride ourselves on having Chinese or black or other “ethnic” friends—so long as they’ve adapted to our white American culture. It’s groovy to have friends whose ethnicity extends just far enough to be interesting, to give us a chance to try unusual dishes and exotic music. But if ethnicity extends much further—to different ambitions, political goals, moral values, family patterns, spending habits, language—how many of us can maintain empathy? People who are that different confuse us. So we tend to use them when we need them but otherwise leave them alone. They function as a part of our environment rather than as fellow human beings.

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For example, a Polish sociologist who studied white farmers in the Pacific Northwest found that they tended to think of the main categories of life as (1) people, (2) machinery and other useful things, and (3) scenery. And this sociologist discovered that many farmers unconsciously classed Indians as “scenery” and Chicano migrant laborers as “useful things.” Are we much different?

Recently I did some research on what kinds of stories magazines carry about American Indians. I found that most stories focused on either exotic traits or poverty. When I interviewed Indians about this, they answered vehemently, “Why do magazines always write about us like we’re all drunks? Why do they always say we’re poor?” They have found that to be only the object of an anti-poverty campaign is degrading. After all, people aren’t just problems. Even amid squalor and stabbings, there are family warmth and children’s games and gaiety and dancing and loving sacrifice. The needy still have some pride.

But we white Americans can’t easily envision poor people’s having a valid way of life. To be poor is wrong. It indicates failure. So when we encounter other ethnic groups (who are often poorer), we see mostly their economic problems or a few stereotype traits, rather than their cultural richness. We may even magnify their problems by ignoring their cultures’ redeeming features.

What a loss! Learning to accept people of another ethnic group may be somewhat scary. But it is also invigorating. It adds freshness (and who doesn’t get stale sometimes?). In fact, our ethnic strengths can be mutually complementary. Maybe that’s the way God intended it. The anthropologist Eugene Nida has suggested that even churches from different cultures may balance each other.

A friend of mine spent a summer in the Philippines, sharing his American Christian strengths. In return, Filipino Christians shared theirs. He became newly aware of this on the way home, when, passing through Hawaii, he saw a girl in a bikini and wanted to laugh. He suddenly realized how Philippine Christian girls had taught him the loveliness of modesty.

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Have you ever thought about how the ethnic distinctives of black or Chicano Christians might enrich you?

Finally, what kind of reports do we expect from our missionaries? Exotic thrillers? Accounts of terrible need? Not long ago I read an article in a major Christian magazine about a proud African tribe who kill lions with only a spear, who compose poetry, and who have developed complex socio-economic patterns. But none of this was mentioned in the article. Only their educational and medical backwardness and the eternal mud and dust of their environment appeared. Presumably this was what the American Christian audience wanted to read about missions. But what we should be hearing about is the young church in action—people with a setting as complex as ours, with a heritage as cherished as our own, and with ordinary human problems and victories.

Foreign students find Americans remarkably ignorant of what’s happening in the rest of the world. But Christians should be different. Our missionary concern should have stimulated us to seek not emotional highs but solid contextual information about how our brothers live. For Christians, currency devaluations, revolutions, earthquakes, and talks with Peking should mean something special because of the way these things will affect the brothers we have learned enough about to empathize with. And, as charity begins at home, when did you last give an informed thought to Christ’s Body among the American Indians?

Yes, praise God for our culture. Praise God for our lovely, big, clean, unscarred bodies resulting from plenty of wholesome food and good health care. For our frankness, friendliness, energy, confidence, determination to succeed. For our belief that every man has the right to his own lousy opinion. Praise God for cheap ice cream, hot running water, painless dentistry, and atomic energy.

At the same time, let’s remember that every culture is the lifeway of people made in the image of God, regardless of their standard of living. Most people with whom God has communicated throughout history have lived in cultures far different from ours. Was Noah literate? Did David believe in democracy? Did Mary have indoor plumbing? Yet their lives were as valid as ours. They dominated nature less. Fewer alternative products, customs, and ideas were available to them. But they experienced friendship, love, parenthood, creativity, learning, responsibility, choice, dignity, adventure, and relationship to God. They had as many significant experiences as any modern Western man.

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Sin is present in other cultures. But it’s in ours, too. And so are God’s gifts. So let’s share them. Maybe we have something to teach about hygiene or individual responsibility. Maybe we have something to learn about being delivered from tension. Let’s investigate how to praise God as a community of diversity.

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