Recently Kristi and I were having dinner with about a dozen missionaries. An interesting conversation erupted regarding perspectives on culture. One outspoken person degraded Peace Corp volunteers, pitying them for “being brainwashed to accept the cultural mores of a native group, not seeking to change them but only to respect their culture.” A woman added that as “Christians our role is to change people from the inside out,” presumably leading towards cultural transformation.
As a missionary having served for six years in two central African countries, I would say that the perspective of the Peace Corp volunteer and that of the missionary are helpful but incomplete. There is definitely the need to respect culture. Our ethnocentrism can demand that cultural variances from our own are inherently wrong and need to be uprooted and replaced. Swathes of missionaries over the last 150 years have regrettably equated the gospel with their own culture, thus judging negatively other cultures outright (Hiebert; 1985). That is a real problem. Indeed, each culture has values that need to be honored, preserved, and celebrated. For instance, in Rwanda, the notion of “Impfura” implies self-sacrifice for the sake of others; it implies character. This person will go hungry and not steal. He will look after your children when you die. She will be patient when things aren’t going well. In Congo and across Africa greater emphasis is placed upon people, community and relationships. Concern for family and friends often outweighs concern for self. Community and communal life are central. An African modus operandi for life could be summed up as, “I am because we are” (Kapolyo; 2005); this corporate nature protects individuals from the vicissitudes of life. Our Peace Corp sisters and brothers do well to respect culture and lift up traits such as these. How tragic that many time-honored African cultural values are now being trodden upon by modernism, individualism, and consumer mentalities imported from the West.
Yet to accept all components of culture carte blanche is naïve at best and destructive at worst. Culture can be a palace, but it can also be a prison. Tribalism, in African cultures, can become a destructive form of worship. Joe Kapolyo writes, “So strong is the feeling [of tribal identity] that, if need be, one is prepared to malign, maim and perhaps kill in order to defend such an identity.” The Rwanda Genocide epitomizes the dangers of ethnic and tribal allegiances. In our experience in Congo, tribalism also divides the church. True Christian fellowship across tribal lines can be elusive and at times seemingly impossible. It is one of the most discouraging components of our work. The sin of tribalism is one of the major weaknesses in the African church today. Spiritism and the fear of “spirit beings” or the “living dead” also binds the peoples of Africa. These spirit beings are wrongly believed to be intermediaries between people and God. Even leading church members consult diviners regarding issues of sorcery and witchcraft. The missionary spokeswoman at our table is right; we need to be changed from the inside out by God’s Spirit so that there can be the possibility of needed change in the broader culture where change is indeed demanded.
But how is this done? Unfortunately it isn’t simple. It requires a critical interaction with culture. In the words of missiologist Paul Hiebert, we need “critical contextualization” (Hiebert; 1985). Beliefs and customs should not be accepted or rejected without examination. An individual or church must learn to approach all aspects of life from a biblical perspective. Customs of the past must be examined in the light of biblical understandings and truth. For instance, if one understands the power of Jesus and that He is the one intermediary between people and God, there is no need to fear diviners and witchdoctors and spirit beings. Jesus has become our peace (Romans 5: 1). Moreover, if we truly take the words of the Apostle Paul to heart, that Christ has broken down the walls of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2), we can equally surmise that God has also broken down walls between the Bajila Kasanga and other tribes of the Bena Lulua of the Kasai of Congo. Jesus has indeed become our peace, and His peace brings together all clans, tribes, peoples and tongues.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German who lived under the oppressive shadow of the Third Reich, knew the importance of following Christ with every ounce of one’s being and every part of one’s life. He and other brave souls rejected elements of their culture because of it’s brutal oppression and desire to annihilate Jews and other groups. They resisted the idolatry and barbarism of their time, emphasizing that Christ must be brought into every square inch of the world and culture. Our faith must be free of mere religiosity. One’s faith must be shining and robust and must engage critically with culture (Metaxas; 2010). Indeed, let us who wear the name “Christ follower” and “Christian” critically interact with culture –whether in the US, Africa, or elsewhere. Every culture is a palace and a prison. May we keep the good, reject the bad, and invite Christ to transform us and our culture for His glory. Hallelujah - Amen!
Kapolyo, Joe M. 2005. The Human Condition. Edited by D. Smith, Christian Perspectives through African Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Hiebert, Paul G. 1985. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, A Righteous Gentile vs The Third Reich. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.