I recently spoke in a large Southern Baptist church in New Orleans. The topic, assigned to me by the organizers of the event, was “Dominant, Minority and Kingdom Cultural Lenses.” This is a talk I give frequently, and I address several societal expectations from a white, middle-class perspective, an African-American inner-city perspective and then from Scripture.
Our tendency, sometimes, is to conflate our cultural expectations with kingdom expectations. Although scripture was written in Asian and African contexts, the Reformation happened in Europe. Our Protestant “Talmud” tends to reflect Reformation thinking, which was tried in the crucibles of Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, France, the Netherlands and England. Thus, lenses through which we view Protestant theology tend to be uniquely European.
As I talked about how the differences between the ways white, middle-class people view the world versus my inner city friends, one man in the audience became agitated and hostile. This is not uncommon in my experience. Whenever we challenge the perspectives of others, whether in a counseling session, in the political arena, or in a neighborhood meeting, there exists the very real potential for someone to become angry. This happens whenever our core beliefs are poked or prodded. This man became really angry; in his hostility, he attacked, defended and attempted to show me the error of my message. I was an invited guest.
There is a concept in sociology called “cultural humility.” To fully understand others, we need to be able to step outside of our own personal viewpoints and see things from their perspective. The trouble is, when it comes to cultural lenses, we have a strong tendency to not only believe we are right, but to also believe we are superior. When we view the “other,” suggests Edward Said, it is through our own cultural lenses, and with a condescending perspective toward the other.
Missiologists will be quick to tell us that this can be the “kiss of death” for missional effectiveness in a foreign culture. Living together in a missionary compound, separate from those we want to reach with the gospel, while maintaining our own cultural folkways and even expecting indigenous people to adopt them, has long been a discarded missiological tactic. Yet we have a tendency to do this in our own country, often looking at the “other” as inferior. They are “fatherless,” “lazy,” “dependent on the government for their well-being,” “don’t take care of their things” and so on. Those that approach the world differently from us, whose cultural perspective is remote and difficult to understand, can be objects of our curiosity and sometimes our condescension.
Paul called the Philippians, and I might suggest he would say the same to us, to “humbly consider others better than ourselves” (Phil. 2:3). To fully understand the “other” requires that we understand that their perspective–their view of the world–may be quite different from ours. This also means that we suspend our own cultural expectations, recognizing that they may be steeped in an American Puritan ethic rather than an unadulterated gospel-oriented lens. Today I challenge us to practice “cultural humility” considering others’ cultural perspectives as being at least equal to, if not superior to, our own. As Paul suggests, in humility, consider others better than yourselves.