As I teach Cultural Anthropology and Intercultural Communication to students, missionaries, and missionary candidates, I always stress the interface of the discipline with the Great Commission. Along the pathway of learning about other cultures and worldviews, students learn a lot about their own home culture. I repeatedly remind them to consider the “in-group” they belong to and what it has taught them to think about all of the “out-groups” in the world. In essence, how do they see other people? The scripts your “in-group” taught you to use in everyday life situations subconsciously color all you think, do, and say to others. This is why some believers who are well on their way in many areas of their progressive sanctification can still act like snobs and jerks to others in lower social or economic stations of life, and be totally unaware that they are doing so.
Anthropologists have devised systems for categorizing the cultures of the world. In the same way that we might describe a person as an extrovert or introvert, as a poet or an engineer, or as an optimist or pessimist in order to give another person a general idea of their personality, we can also use terms to describe cultures. Most systems for describing cultures use a series of continua and refer to aspects such as clock-conscious or event conscious, direct or indirect communicators, crisis or non-crisis oriented, etc. Cultures will be placed somewhere along the continuum so that the outsider can understand how the general population tends to be. Of course, individuals in each culture will be more or less in line with each general descriptor. Another anthropologist has described the cultures of the world as linear-actives (Westerners), multi-actives (Hispanics), and reactives (Asians). This author has placed all the cultures of the world along the legs of the triangle formed by these three as they are more or less in between two of the corners. It is a very helpful model for people to see the general “culturality” of other people groups or countries.
Yet, another anthropologist divided the world according to the ways cultures view other people. In this approach, they divide cultures by how those cultures view others. Think of your own experience. You are going on an exotic cruise. Along the way, the ship docks and allows you and the other passengers to go ashore and see the sights, hike the land, and buy your trinkets. How do you view the indigenous nationals of those lands? This system teaches that we tend to view people as landscape, machines, or individuals capable of relationships. Of the three, of course, seeing people as people would be the most Christian. Yet some look upon the nationals, wearing their native dress and going about their culturally appropriate daily activities, as simply part of the landscape– mountains, huts, rickshaws, unintelligible writing on the signs, and people. Others see people as machines; there are waiters to give me what I want to eat, hotel clerks to give me a room with a bed, and store clerks who dispense what I want to buy. Some cultures in the world see people as individuals who have feelings, preferences, values, languages, religions, worldviews . . . and worth. In the business world, the three cultures can be seen easily. Landscape cultures do not see the workers, only the company; the people who work there simply play their part in harmony with the rest. Machine cultures see workers as valuable but only to the degree that they can perform; if a new computer system or technology leaves a 60 year old worker behind, he is expendable, dismissed and a newer model is brought in to do the job. People cultures see the workers more as children in a big family who are to be cared for according to their individual preferences, abilities, and unique contributions. I know, it’s sloppy; but which would be more in line with the New Testament’s ethical teachings?
How do you view (and treat) the people you encounter on a daily basis? Do you see right through them? Is he simply the guy who gives you the cup of coffee and takes your money? Do you view people as personal labor saving devices like a washing machine, car, or computer? Or do you see them as individuals made in the image of God—either born again and striving after sanctification just like you, or as lost as you once were and in desperate need of the gospel?
C.S. Lewis wrote, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Please allow me to use this forum, as public as it is, to apologize and ask your forgiveness for ever treating you as a mere mortal. I also pray that we will grow in Christlikeness to see in each other, not what is, but what can be, and will be. And, I pray that we will be like Paul who confessed, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
I hope that when I see you next, I will see you differently. I pray that I will view you and treat you here, as I will when we meet There, and that my first concern with unknown folks will not be how they treat me, but how I can serve Christ by how I treat them. Grace, mercy, and peace to you.