“It’s not right or wrong; it’s just different.”
My first year overseas, I lived on a ship with an international crew. We visited many countries, but even without stepping on solid ground, we were interacting cross-culturally every minute of every day. The above maxim was drilled into our heads. Though we may not have agreed on everything, we were all Christians, and we could reasonably presume that each of us was walking in the light we had. If we were to bicker about cultural differences, we would accomplish nothing.
One day, a few of us had the opportunity to visit a remote fishing village in the Philippines. It was built in the flood plain of a river. Each house and building was on wooden stilts. They even had elevated boardwalks instead of roads or footpaths. During the rainy season, the village actually sat in the river, water flowing underneath. But it was dry when we were there. We parked at the edge of the dry riverbank and walked to the village.
After our visit, as we were walking back to our van, we happened to pass a 3-year old boy smoking a cigarette. We had been in the Philippines for several weeks – smoking children was a common sight. Five of us glanced away from him, having been drilled on “it’s just different” for so long that it never occurred to us to say or do anything about a toddler with a cigarette. But one of us (not me), swiped the cigarette from his hand and spoke aggressively to his mother about the dangers of letting such a small child smoke.
I am certain that the mother didn’t stop giving the child cigarettes, even if she did understand the tirade from my shipmate. My shipmate was at peace, having done what she believed was right. I wondered if, perhaps, it wasn’t the right thing to do, especially if the woman was clueless as to why a random Brazilian visited her village and yelled at her.
There are certain things between cultures that are not right or wrong, just different. But there are other accepted behaviors and attitudes in all cultures that are absolutely wrong. This is why human ideas of morality will not do – we need the Bible to teach us what is right. As outsiders, how do we approach these things? Is there a point when we can say, “This is wrong?” How or when do we reach that point?
The first and last chapters of our reading in Stronger than Death this week both contain these type of situations. Annalena handled each differently.
It was heartbreaking to read of Annalena bringing a midwife to circumcise the girls she was raising as her own daughters. In this instance, she didn’t appear to struggle with whether the cultural custom was right or wrong, she embraced it as “just different” and went through with it to preserve her daughters’ culture.
Kali, one of Annalena’s Somali daughters, “speculated that Annalena was willing to go to any extreme to maintain her credibility and presence among Somalis.” This is understandable. She wasn’t in a position to criticize Somali customs.
This posture is why Annalena was so successful in treating TB. Rather than trying to bring Somalis into hospitals, to bend themselves to fit into a certain treatment plan, Annalena developed a plan that brought medical treatment into the nomadic Somali way of life. Her service was effective because she didn’t try to change people; all she wanted to do was to love them where they were, just as they were.
Later we learn of Kenyan soldiers massacring the Degodia, raping women, torturing men, murdering who knows how many. This was in 1984, so some years had passed since The Cutting in chapter 5.
“What most infuriated Annalena was that this operation had been planned and enacted by people who called themselves Christians and that Christian leaders in Kenya remained silent…Now that Kenyan Christians were interrogating her, she refused to remain silent and spoke out about nonviolence and the love of Jesus every chance she got.”
Annalena was so outspoken about what had happened that she was forced to leave Kenya in August 1985. She could no longer continue living and working, serving and loving in Wajir. Was she wrong for speaking out now?
What do you do when faced with such dilemmas? When and how do you choose to speak out against wrong behaviors and attitudes cross culturally? Is it ever ok? Let’s talk in the comments. I’d love to see your perspectives on this.
Here’s the reading schedule for the rest of the month:
Feb 18 – chapter 10 – chapter 13
Feb 25 – chapter 14 – epilogue