Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Onesimus Online

Thursday 21 January 2010

I have a new favourite blog to follow: Onesimus Online, written by William Black, a lecturer at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.

William is originally from North America, but is a strong critic of the arrogance of western theologians in assuming that Europe and North America has all the answers about God. Here’s a great explanation from a recent post about why a western perspective of the Bible isn’t sufficient for Africa

So thorough is the westernization of my African students that they don’t seem to notice that all of their education, all of their theology, all of their assumptions, can be traced to the efforts of well-meaning western missionaries. These missionaries came (and sometimes still come) with an assumed posture of superiority, namely that they are here to ‘help’ these Africans escape their darkness and get saved like us. Salvation too often means getting Africans to accept that our problems are their problems and that our solutions must be their solutions. For example, most Western missionaries assume that Christ has come to save us from our legal problem before a holy God; namely, that our sin makes us guilty before God and deserving of his condemnation and wrath. Christ resolves our problem by becoming our sin on the cross, bearing our punishment and thus freeing us from the penalty of the law. We are no longer under condemnation, but are accepted into fellowship with God, with the end result that we will go to heaven and not to hell.

This is standard fare for Western Evangelicals and their predecessors. And while a solid case may be made from the New Testament that this is indeed an aspect of our salvation, our polemical stance against the perceived ‘works righteousness’ of Roman Catholics has meant that this becomes increasingly, by over-emphasis, the only aspect of our salvation, or certainly the most important, and certainly what is preached from Sunday to Sunday.

The problem is that Africans on their own don’t perceive that their main problem before God is their compromised legal status. So in order to get them to understand ‘the gospel’ – or at least our Western understanding of the gospel – we missionaries must first teach them about God’s law and what sin is and what Christ has done to satisfy God’s law. Once they understand these things, then they are in a position to ‘accept Christ as their personal Savior’ and be forgiven. To this end, evangelists urge congregations to respond to the ‘free’ grace of God in Christ so that their sins may be forgiven and they be reconciled to God.

Again, this sounds so normal to our Western Evangelical ears that we may be immediately suspicious of anyone that seems to have a problem with it. But as mentioned above, most of my African friends don’t first and foremost worry about their legal standing before God. Rather, they are far more concerned about demons which seem to afflict every aspect of their lives, they are concerned about people who manipulate spiritual power for good and ill in other people’s lives, they are concerned about sicknesses and barrenness, for which there seems to be no cure, they are concerned about capricious weather that makes their crops fail and their cattle die and causes them to go hungry, and they are concerned about death. The tremendous irony that I observe is that our Western gospel has come full force into Kenya (and many other African countries) through the ministries of thousands of Western missionaries, resulting in the majority of people here and in a number of other countries professing faith in Christ and testifying to having been born again. And yet this gospel does not touch those aspects of their lives that reflect their deepest needs and most profound concerns. read more

I’m looking forward to keeping up with William’s posts as he critiques western theology and hints at alternative African perspectives.The church in Europe and North America can tend to be extremely mono-cultural in its judgement of what is and isn’t a correct reading of scripture, so it’s good to look outside of our little box occasionally to get a better perspective.

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Changing our Perspective

Monday 24 August 2009

In my job I have the privilege of listening to many people talk about their work around the world with minority language communities (as well as reading from quite a few others online). Recently I’ve realised that increasingly these presentations fall into two categories – those that really excite me, and those that really frustrate me.

I’ve been realising that the difference has nothing to do with what the person presents about, the work they’re doing or the way they go about the work. It doesn’t have anything to do with how successful the work has been, or the impact that has been made.

In fact the difference is much more subtle – so much so that I’m only just starting to put my finger on it. It’s all about the perspective of the person when they talk about the work they’re doing and the community that they’re working with.

The first type of person realises that, in explaining his work with a language community, he is a bridge between you (the audience) and the community. But he doesn’t feel any connection with the community – instead he tries to help you to relate to him. He tells you of the large cultural divide, but he does so in order that you can understand him and the difficulties that he has in his work. He puts you in his shoes.

The second type of person also realises that he is a bridge between you (the listeners) and the community. But unlike the first person he helps you to understand and relate to the community. He tells you of the immense cultural differences, but he does in order to help you to understand and identify with people. He puts you in their shoes.

But I think it goes deeper than just the things we say. The way we talk about people ultimately shows what our perspective is – how we perceive them, and what we believe about them.

The problem for the first person is that he sees things from an ethnocentric perspective. He doesn’t seem to respect the local people, or feel that they are his equals. He has come to help them, not to understand them. He sees many differences, and naturally is impacted most by the frustrations and difficulties. He doesn’t seem to notice however, that his cultural mistakes and blindspots are equally frustrating to his hosts.

He works productively, but always judges the success of his work, not by how the local people perceive him, but by what his friends “back home” think. He sees his value in the work that he can do and the tasks that he can accomplish before he returns home.

The second person views himself from the perspective of the people he is serving amongst. He doesn’t see them as different, but rather sees himself as different. He respects the local people, and is more aware of the cultural offense he may cause to them than the frustrations he feels. He sees cultural differences not as an obstacle to overcome, but as an opportunity to learn, albeit often very difficult lessons, from people who have a vast amount of wisdom.

He works hard, but realises that the real impact that he will make will be in and through the relationships that he forms within the community, not in the tasks that he completes. He sees himself just as one small part of a bigger picture – a picture that has been developing for hundreds of years, and will continue long after he leaves.

In my experience, almost without exception every westerner starts off in the first category. Maybe it’s the way our culture conditions us, or maybe it’s just human nature. But some will gradually have their whole world turned upside-down, to see things from a totally different perspective. For many this takes years, decades or even a lifetime.

Looking back to my 3 years in Tanzania, I can see in myself just about all the characteristics of the first person. I am embarrassed to think back over some of the me-centred things that I have thought and said when talking to people in the UK about “my work”.

Over the last couple of years I’ve had the privilege of listening to a number of people who have humbly come alongside minority language communities as equals, wanting to build genuine relationships and open to learning as much as teaching. I just hope some of their wisdom rubs off on me, and I can take a step back to see the true picture.