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Becoming Aware of Your Own Culture

Culture is inescapable; we all come from and are immersed in one whether we are aware of it or not.  Many of the videos in this series seek to help by providing instruction on and suggestions for how to become more aware of others’ cultures in order to better respond and care for them.   This is important, and rightly motivated. But what is more difficult is recognizing our own cultural background.  Culture is the lens through which we see the world, others, and even ourselves.  You’ve probably heard that trying to see your own culture is a bit like taking off your glasses to look at them, but the glasses are hard to see accurately when you don’t have them on!  More than once, I’ve searched around the house for my glasses before I realized that I already had them on! It’s also true that I’ve gone through much of my life without realizing that I already had my culture on. 

You may be of European, African, Hispanic or Asian background, and your experiences will likely be different than mine.  I am a white male born in Ohio and work as a staff member for a parachurch organization. These things all shape my values, my interests, and my relationships with others.  As a white person, I am in the majority culture of North America; but I and many other white people struggle with understanding our culture, because we aren’t confronted with it very often.  Unlike many ethnic minorities and those from another country, I don’t wake up each day aware of my culture, wondering if I’ll fit in, or what others will think of me as a white person. It is the privilege of being in the majority.  But if you are not in the cultural majority, you probably think of these things much more often.

I first realized I had a culture when I was 18 years old and a US Navy midshipman on a six week training mission in the Caribbean.  We stopped for three days of rest and relaxation at Port Au Prince, in Haiti; for the first time in my life, when I got off the ship, I realized I didn’t look like most of the people I saw.  I felt like a foreigner, and was unsure of what that meant. I was displaced, uncomfortable, and very aware of my difference. Later, I asked a taxi driver what he thought of Americans –it was a naive question– and he told me, “I hate them.”  I was dumbfounded and could not think of anything to say. I had no idea about the historic relationship of the United States and Haiti. And I realized that I had no idea how my culture had shaped my understanding of the world.

Daniel Hill in his excellent book White Awake tells the story of the first wedding he was asked to officiate.  His friend, whose family was from India, was the groom, and he promised Daniel that the wedding, and particularly the rehearsal dinner, would be a deep dive into Indian culture.  And it was, from the food to the dress to the colorful customs. After the dinner, Daniel approached his friend to tell him how much had enjoyed everything about that wonderful night, and exclaimed to him, “I’m jealous of you.  You have such an amazing culture! It must be such a privilege to be able to reflect that beautiful culture during your wedding weekend.” Daniel paused, and then said, “I wish I had a culture too.”    When Daniel’s friend heard this, he suddenly got serious, placed his hand on Daniel’s shoulder, and looked him straight in the eye.  “Daniel, you may be white, but don’t let that lull you into thinking that you have no culture. White culture is very real. In fact, when white culture comes into contact with other cultures, it almost always wins.  So it would really be a good idea for you to learn about your culture.”   

Daniel and I have both been on a long journey to learn about our culture, our white culture.  It is not an easy subject for us as white people to talk about: in conversations I’ve had, I have sometimes felt defensive, angry, or judged.  But if we are to engage those from other countries who come here to study or teach, we need to know about our own culture, whether it’s Latino, African, Asian, or Middle Eastern; but especially if it is white, so that we will know how to love others well, and, just as importantly, to receive love well from others.  And while it is necessary for each of us, regardless of background, to get to know our own culture, this video will emphasize the journey for white people in North America. I hope that I can speak accurately and helpfully to everyone, but especially for my white sisters and brothers.  

Pause the video for a moment, and consider your own cultural background.  When were you first aware of your culture or ethnicity? How did that awareness make you feel?  If you are in a group, share with each other these stories.

 

Before we offer some suggestions about how to know your own culture better, it is important to understand what our end goals are in international ministry. The primary goal of international work is to help students who choose to go home to be prepared to return as global disciples and leaders.  Let me say that again. The primary goal of international work is to help students who choose to go home to be prepared to return as global disciples and leaders. It is not an exaggeration to say that the heart of world change may rest with the millions currently studying in universities outside their own country. Let me give you an example.  Recently I read an article about a German who became a Christian while studying at American University in Washington DC. He went on to get a PhD in anthropology, and has spent the last year researching and exposing the mass detention of one million ethnic minority people in camps in western China by that country’s leaders.  HIs carefully documented work has forced the Chinese leadership to acknowledge the existence of these camps, exposed this oppression for what it is, and led to a world outcry for the human rights of this minority group–something Jesus cares a great deal about. There are hundreds or even thousands like this German brother currently studying in our universities who could be world changers.  None of us knows how the world might become a different place if we are faithful to share friendship with even one international student! 

We must remember that we are called to help them become world changers in their home culture, not ours.  But the reality is, that their faith will inevitably be influenced and even shaped as they interact with us.  For example, it is common to use English Bibles to share the gospel and to disciple new believers. This likely will not be the language they use at home for these same activities. We also presuppose the importance of individual choice while overlooking the importance of community and even family.  We value independence over mutual submission. But these are cultural preferences, not absolutes. And the point is that we should not, we must not, judge other cultures by our own, since every culture has glorious creativity and beauty, as well as ugly fallenness and sin.   

But this is difficult for us to recognize in our culture, because we all tend to assume that our culture is, well, superior.  Perhaps especially for those of us who are white US Americans. It’s what Daniel Hill’s Indian friend meant when he said that white culture usually wins when it confronts other cultures.  And this includes other international cultures or even other cultures in North America. 

This is not a good basis on which to engage those from around the world.  It never has been, but recent advances in communication technology and international travel mean that international students today are much more aware of North American culture, and are keenly sensitive to relationships that seem unequal in power or are condescending, whether intentionally or not.  It is why our posture toward others must be one of equality and mutuality. International students, whether they are believers or not, have much to teach us. Our ministry should not really be to internationals or even for internationals, but with internationals!  

Let me give you an example from a time before I was working with internationals. I was in a conversation with other staff about how to make a conference we had been running for many years more welcoming to African-American students.  We had worked hard to include changes in the worship, the leadership, and even the food we were offering. A Black staff member on my team said gently to me, “Marc, we appreciate your efforts to help Black students feel welcome, and it has helped.  But what we really want is to be in on the planning from the start. We want to help you.  We want to do this with you.”  Ouch. My best intentions had actually served to undermine trust.  I was acting like his parent rather than his colleague.  

And this image is where the term paternalism comes from; paternalism is doing ministry in ways that do not empower those receiving ministry to reciprocate or learn to grow on their own.   It perpetuates the notion of unequal relationship, as in the example of my Black colleague. The alternative ideal we seek is partnership, which is a relationship of collaboration that involves shared leadership and mutual service.  And it results in better ministry. When I invited my Black colleague into conference planning, empowering him to partner in the necessary changes, the result wasn’t just more Black students attending, but rather that the whole conference was much better for everyone!  

So what does paternalism look like in international student ministry?  It is seen when we are always being the one to serve others, rather than recognizing that we too need to be served.  It looks like exclusively offering hospitality but failing to receive it as well.  We can fail to realize that the greatest gift to give to another person may be the gift of our own need.  So accept the invitation of your international friend when they offer to make you dinner. Better, make dinner together.  Don’t always meet on your own turf, but see how you can be involved in the international’s world. It might be a little uncomfortable, but think about this: Jesus left the comforts of his Father’s side to enter our world, to know us, to be a human who experiences all that we do—and think how deeply that causes us to trust him, to grow deep in our relationship!  Entering another’s world is powerful in its communication of acceptance.

   Another way paternalism looks is in the way we share the gospel.  Understandably, we learned evangelistic phrases and methods that emerge from North American culture and are contextualized for that audience.  For instance, we speak of Jesus dying for our sins so that our guilt may be removed by Jesus paying the penalty for them. This is true but limited; it presupposes a framework of guilt and innocence, and fits itself to a culture of individualism.  However, as other videos in this series point out, most world cultures don’t share these assumptions. Rather than guilt and innocence, they experience honor and shame, or fear and power, as a basic outlook toward the human condition. How would you share the gospel with those from one of these other outlooks?  Moreover, our gospel approach tends to underemphasize the importance of family and community, something other cultures value quite highly.  We need to take time to learn the cultural assumptions embedded in our evangelistic approach, and broaden our understanding of presenting the gospel to our friends in a contextualized manner that respects different cultural assumptions.  Want more ideas on this? The resources listed below this video will help you.

A third way we can be unwittingly paternalistic is in the leadership and planning of our international gatherings or fellowships.  It sounds so right to treat internationals as guests, but this of course fails to honor the gifts and strengths that they too have.  They need to move from guest, to family, to influence if they are to be well prepared as global disciples. If North Americans are always in charge, regardless of our motives, it undermines the international’s own growth and their gifts in leadership.  Further, it models for all the other internationals present that this is an unequal partnership. One African brother said, “You Americans are always telling us that we should go home to our countries with the gospel, but rarely do you give us the experiences of leadership and testings that would help us believe we have gifts for ministry.”  Ouch again! But this is what paternalism does.  

   It can be a challenge when inviting internationals to share their gifts in leadership, or even in becoming a follower of Christ.  Sometimes when we ask a student if they want to receive Christ they will answer Yes so that their American or Canadian friends won’t lose face.  Similarly, when we ask if they would be willing to take a position of leadership, they will say Yes when they really mean No, again to not shame us.  This is a feature of indirect communication; in majority North American culture, we prize directness and clarity.  So how might we do this differently? You could use honor language in your ask: “We would be honored if you would share your gifts by helping us plan, lead, decide…”…whatever.  Second, get advice from a trusted partner from the same country or cultural background and ask them how it would be appropriate to make an ask for leadership or commitment on the part of the international. 

Finally, we may be paternalistic when we are thinking of preparing students for return, if that is what they elect to do. For some, this can actually be a life or death decision, especially if they have come to faith in Jesus while abroad.  As much as we would like students to head home as global disciples and leaders, we cannot assume that return is always their best option. However, if return is their choice, thoughtful preparation is vital to their flourishing, but how we do it can assume that we know more about their home culture than they do.  So in our Bible studies, it is a good idea to often ask: “How would this passage apply in your culture?” In our training, we should invite internationals to help us plan and deliver it. We should strive to empower international students as leaders, and learn when appropriate to defer to them in decision making.  They are fallible, of course, and will not be right all the time, but then neither are we. So we give a lot of freedom for internationals to learn to lead even as it means giving up control. Remember too that there are now more Christians in the Global South and East than in North America and Europe. We do well to listen and heed their voices!

   I am aware that these ideas and examples may challenge many of you; perhaps they even seem discouraging to you when you just want to love on internationals.  But it is actually love that makes this so important! To love is to empower others, even at our own expense. But that is not exactly right either, because in the end it is not our expense but our own growth in self awareness and cultural humility that partnership—not paternalism—offers us.  

Reflection Questions (suggestions)

  1. Where have you experienced (or practiced!) paternalism in your engagement with others?
  2. How have your friendships with internationals reflected mutuality in love and service?  What need have you allowed an international to meet?
  3. What is one area of control you would be willing to release for an international student to flourish in his or her gift or talent?  

List of resources

  1. Katie Rawson, Crossing Cultures with Jesus: Sharing Good News with Sensitivity and Grace. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
  2. Daniel HIll, White Awake: An honest look at what it means to be white. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017.
  3. Sarah Shin, Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017.
  4. Chris Sneller, Honor Restored: Sharing the Gospel in Honor-Shame Cultures, Every International Video and in the accompanying app, GodTools, available on the App Store or Android

 

Becoming Aware of Your Own Culture

Marc

Do you know that your culture affects how you relate to others? Marc shares how being aware of your culture will make you a more effective minister of the gospel. Understanding your own worldview is essential to loving internationals well. 

Do you know that your culture affects how you relate to others? Marc shares how being aware of your culture will make you a more effective minister of the gospel. Understanding your own worldview is essential to loving internationals well. 

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