Right, Wrong or Different? {Book Club}

Right, Wrong or Different?

“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

Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash


  1. Jodie February 10, 2020

    This is a great topic for discussion. Somewhat related is an article I read this week about Bethany no longer supporting international adoptions:


    I was encouraged by this decision, even though our family has been blessed by two internationally adopted sons, because so often adoption is portrayed as “rescuing those poor children over there.” To see the greater need as putting resources into empowering local communities to be able to raise their children, instead of uprooting them with the added trauma of international adoption, is a huge shift.

    1. Rachel Kahindi February 11, 2020

      I saw that news, too! I read something a few years ago that Bethany was putting more emphasis on community based care. This is a natural step. I know it will come as a surprise to many who haven’t seen this side of things and have never thought that there could be a better way. Maybe international adoption is the best option for some kids, it is also damaging for some families, and it is also simply not the best for others. It wasn’t until I started intentionally learning about orphans and vulnerable children in the global south that I realized many children are classified orphans simply because no one can afford to take care of them.

    2. Sarah Hilkemann February 12, 2020

      Thanks for sharing this, Jodie! It’s such an important topic, and you have a unique and wise perspective.

  2. Laura February 11, 2020

    I’d been wanting to read this book, and the book group being this month pushed me to read it NOW. I loved loved loved Annalena’s love for the desert and chocie to love even the hard things and genuine acceptance of the nomadic way of life.
    I try and live my life generally with the ‘it’s not right or wrong, it’s just different’ mindset.However, I’ve found great freedom in learning to say (to myself or carefully chosen others), sometimes, “I don’t know what ‘right/holy/God’s way’ looks like in this context, but I do know that what I’m observing/experiencing is NOT it.”
    I’d say we definitely at times (especially if living in the context) need to speak out! I think responding to wrong behaviors and attitudes cross-culturally sometimes looks like speaking what we know is true from God’s word- whether that be “God doesn’t like sin” or “God desires healthy communication.”
    I think sometimes, like Annalena in the massacre situation, we need to make choices to fight a battle even if we know we won’t win, or know it comes at a cost, and trust that for whatever reason that one was “my” battle where I needed to stick out my neck.

    1. Rachel Kahindi February 11, 2020

      I like your phrasing “what God’s way looks like in this context.” I often find it more appropriate to question things in the church than in the secular world. It comes up naturally in facilitating Bible study groups. People begin to question their own culture: “We do xyz here – what does the Bible say about that?” It also helps to have close relationships with people from the culture who I can safely ask about certain attitudes or customs – people who understand that I’m not trying to condemn them or their culture. I can gently mention my perspective, get the insider perspective, and if any speaking out is to be done, they take responsibility.

  3. Sarah Hilkemann February 12, 2020

    This section was challenging on a number of different levels, but I’m grateful to learn about this part of Annalena’s story! While overseas, I struggled with the tension of right/wrong/different and knowing when to speak up about something. We serve a God of justice and mercy, and standing up for injustice is good. But there were times when I had to really stop and ask, “Am I the one who needs to speak out about this?” I often wondered if I completely understand all the facets, or was looking at a situation from my western worldview. But then there are things that are just not okay, I think like the massacre in this section. I don’t know if Annalena’s response made it worse or not, but someone needed to speak out again the injustice happening. There has to be so much care taken I think, a whole lot of dependence on the Lord for what to do and say, and what not to do or say.

    1. Rachel Kahindi February 16, 2020

      Careful words and dependence on the Lord — totally agree.

  4. Michele February 16, 2020

    I was also taught to observe and ask, “right, wrong or just different,” and I still think this is a good way to go about cross-cultural life. I’ve had areas, where, like Annalena, I have been silent or gone along with things I may not have agreed with to honor the culture, but later taken a stand on as she did with FGM. In general, I still think the ‘be quiet and just observe for at least one year’ rule is a good one. Where I live now there are tons of ex-pats and I see many who were not taught that rule and jump in trying to change things in churches and organizations right off the bat. I agree with the author’s opinion that it takes time to earn the right to speak, going much deeper below the surface of a culture first (p.212 in the kindle version). The longer I live overseas (changing countries a couple of times, as well), the more I see the beauty of the culture of God’s Kingdom, and the more boldness I have to speak up within the Church in all cultures, including my passport culture, about areas where we as believers are following the culture we grew up with or have assimilated to rather than ‘Kingdom Culture’. But even in a Church context, I feel the need to take time to develop relationship. There is so much more to say on this topic. This book and Annalena’s life are so thought-provoking on so many levels!

    1. Phyllis February 16, 2020

      Thought-provoking! Yes, that’s the perfect way to describe this book. My thoughts are running in so many directions that I don’t even know what to write. It’s all so good.

    2. Rachel Kahindi February 16, 2020

      The “just different” perspective is probably the best posture to start in, which I guess is why so many of us are taught that way! Totally agree about the importance of relationship in exhorting other believers to Kingdom Culture.

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