Friday, March 27, 2009

Culture and Companionship Retreat, 2009

I woke up early yesterday and drove to the Luther Point Bible Camp near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, to participate in the Culture and Companionship Retreat which I mentioned in an earlier post.

The meeting, a gathering of lay Lutherans and clergy, started slightly after 10 in the morning. It is somewhat interesting that I, a Catholic, have grown so used to interacting with American Lutherans that I feel entirely at home in their company. This is as it should be.

The focus of the Retreat was how we might study the Gospel with people of other cultures. We thought hard and shared ideas freely. We found ourselves wading deeper and deeper into a tangled thicket of surprises and dilemmas, as we explored the question of how our cultural backgrounds shape our understanding of Biblical texts, making it impossible to know what any story in the Bible might mean to people of different cultures. As part of this conversation, I shared the story "Did Jesus Christ Ever Kill a Lion?"

The idea of multiple interpretations, so central in contemporary literary theory, applies as well to the Bible. As is the case with all reading and interpretation, the issues that matter to us as we read the Bible, the aspects that attract our attention and those that don't all have something to do with our cultural background and values. Often that background is the defining principle. No one culture can claim ultimate or sole authority to interpret the Biblical texts and impose that interpretation on other cultures. We must have a dialogue, respectful of our cultural differences, and mindful of the need to hear all interpretations and value them. That is an integral part of the concept and ideal of companionship and accompaniment.

We were a gathering of Christians, but we realized that although we all believe in God, every culture deserves the right to interpret the stories, the language, and the concepts of the Bible in ways that are meaningful to them. Fortunately, that recognition is gaining ground around the world, contesting the earlier missionary idea that sought to convert everyone around a single, mostly Eurocentric intepretation. My own spin on this idea is to refer to folklore, which amply demonstrates how the essential message of Creation, of man's subsequent alienation from the Creator, concepts of good and evil, and so on, appear in the indigenous mythology of people all over the world.

We learned a great deal, challenging the very ideas and beliefs that many of us, perhaps most, had hitherto taken for granted. We thereby laid the groundwork for future retreats, by raising so many questions requiring further reflection.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Did Jesus Christ Ever Kill a Lion?

A story is told about a missionary who went to a remote area in Tanzania to proclaim the Gospel among the Maasai, an ethnic group well known as a fierce warrior people. One day the missionary was telling a group of adults the saving activity of Jesus Christ. He explained that Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour and Redeemer of all humankind.

When he finished, a Maasai elder slowly stood up and said to the missionary, "You have spoken well, but I want to learn more about this great person, Jesus Christ. I have three questions about him. First, did he ever kill a lion? Second, how many cows did he have? Third, how many wives and children did he have?"

True story, Tanzania, from African Stories for Preachers and Teachers, compiled by Joseph G. Healey (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2005), 33.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Cultural Issues and Law Enforcement

I enjoy teaching. I have always believed that teaching is my calling. In the last few years, I have discovered the joy of teaching outside the classroom, through participating in community events and giving talks, particularly on cultural issues relating to Africans and Americans.

I speak to various gatherings and individuals, and the circle of my connections is growing all the time. Each invitation to speak gives me a chance to harness my knowledge and direct it to the needs of that particular occasion. Each invitation is a new challenge, which, nevertheless, I always welcome as an opportunity.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Faribault Correctional Facility. I am a member of the board of the Faribault Diversity Coalition, and I regularly talk about the differences between African and American culture. Faribault, like many other cities across the USA, is dealing with an influx of immigrants and refugees from such places as Somalia, Sudan, and Central America. Inevitably, numerous cultural issues crop up.

So, on February 26, I went to the Faribault Correctional Facility. The conference room was full of officers, staff, and other people. I started by outlining my view of the importance of understanding cultural differences, not only in order to broaden our knowledge of other cultures but also for our own survival and success in a world which is becoming increasingly interconnected--the proverbial global village.

I then dwelt on specific cultural issues that relate to law enforcement in a town such as Faribault. As a member of the Faribault Diversity Coalition, I am aware of the cultural issues facing that city. I find it easy to talk about the differences between African and American culture. I simply draw from my book and other writings.

The most interesting challenge, in my view, is how a law enforcement officer should deal with people who, acting in ways that are appropriate from their cultural standpoint, unwittingly end up violating American laws. I stressed the need for education. Newcomers should learn and follow the laws of the customs of the host country. Law enforcement personnel should also study the values of the newcomers, in order to have an accurate view of why they communicate, think, feel, act and behave the way they do. That, I argued, will save everyone from a lot of frustration, bad feelings, stress and other problems.