Monday, August 10, 2009

The Influence of Culture on the Universal Family of God

My biggest concern whenever people discuss culture and race is that it is almost impossible to have a dispassionate discussion of the central issues that cause contention in the first place - because culture is so tied up in individual perceptions of value and self-worth and community. I really like the “culture as a coat” metaphor, but it is very hard for most people to shed a coat when they feel cold or in need of protection. In other words, people feel naked (or even not themselves) when you remove them from their culture (take away their covering/protecting coat), so they cling to that culture passionately - and often irrationally.

I was raised in rural, central Utah; served a mission in Japan; attended college in Massachusetts, with many friends and acquaintances from other countries around the world; taught high school in southern Alabama; currently live in Ohio. I have worked extensively in the rural Midwest and in the eastern inner-cities. I have been exposed to many cultures, both societal and religious. The one thing I have learned from this experience that is most relevant to this post is that is it next to impossible in a group setting to discuss cultural concerns and not be labeled a bigot or homophobic or a hatemonger, no matter how carefully and narrowly you attempt to do so - specifically because the natural (wo)man feels attacked personally whenever “criticism” is directed to culture.

One example from my occupational history: About 10 years ago, the Ohio legislature decided to enforce a mandate that all 4th Grade students demonstrate reading proficiency before being advanced to 5th Grade. The vast majority of politicians and citizens saw this as a simple attempt to make sure that students were being taught as they deserved to be taught - of holding the educational systems in the state accountable for their performance. However, there was a good-sized minority that saw it as a direct racial attack, since the districts that would have been impacted the most severely were the inner-city districts - and the Black students would have been affected disproportionately. This group felt that it was racist to punish the students for what they perceived as the historical inability of the system to provide them the same quality education that the predominantly White, suburban districts were providing their students. The issue became so contentious that it disappeared completely within one year.

My point is not what most might assume. Honestly, as someone who was knee deep in the issue, I could understand both arguments. There was a degree of validity to each. I believed that there were a number of options that could have addressed both sides’ concerns - that could have brought about an acceptable compromise. It didn’t happen for one reason and one reason alone. Each side took a defensive posture to thwart an attack against its culture and educational perspective - so both sides lost in the end.

I think it failed because of the simple natural man issue - one group feeling attacked and the other group dismissing that feeling as ridiculous simply because they didn’t intend their actions to be an attack. In that sense, there was incorrect evaluation going on in each camp. However, each group felt the other was being insensitive and dismissive - and they were correct in that regard to a degree.

What would have happened ideally? I don’t think the “ideal” was possible, and I don’t want to get into that. I also don’t want to turn this into a political discussion of educational funding and administration, so I can’t answer that here in practical terms. However, conceptually, all it would have taken would have been leaders of each group who were willing to set aside cultural differences, really listen to each other in order to understand and look at the central issues from strictly an educational perspective - to quit making accusations about motivation and simply work out the practical issues. The solution might not have been ideal, but it would have been much better than what happened - which in the end was nothing. I wish they would have spent less time trying to convince the other side they were correct and more time simply trying to understand the valid aspects of the other’s perspective. If they had done that, the outcome might not have changed, but at least nobody would have walked away mad; there would have been a level of racial and cultural understanding that had not existed previously - and still doesn't exist nearly 10 years later. That would have been a wonderful accomplishment.

There is a deep and profound Gospel principle in that example for those who have eyes to see.


backandthen said...

I like the coat analogy for culture.

As for myself I see culture differences as a gap. not a mountain that needs to be taken down but a gap we need to cross and to do so we need to biuld bridges. I have come to this realizing that very few are willing to build the bridges.
Some of us have what it takes to fully build it but most of the time we can only partly build it and therefore we need the others accross to build the other end.
and then sometimes it is not enough and we need a little stretch...

Anonymous said...

This is great.I'm a novice at this as I come from a very contentious family,but I do realise that when I'm feeling defensive,I'm not doing the business.

This post really calls us on division,racial or otherwise.I think I love you most when you grapple with the nitty gritty of unity, Ray.I find it both beautiful and useful.

Is it acceptable behaviour to quote from posts,I'm thinking especially from the pulpit?I would always try to paraphrase,but sometimes your case studies don't lend themselves to that.It's difficult to give citations from a blog in church,but I often feel that some of the best material i come across is on online.Would love to know at some point.

I'm going to work harder on problem solving.

Papa D said...

Good thoughts, b&a. You are in a unique situation (compared to most who read my blog) to understand the influence of culture on people - and the Church.

Papa D said...

Anon, Thank you.

Feel free to excerpt and/or quote from ANY post on my blog - with or without attribution. I don't care if people know who said something from one of my posts. If you want to mention me bit don't want to mention the internet, simply call me a friend with whom you talk occasionally.