Saturday, December 25, 2010

the lights of home

On our drive home earlier this week, on the evening of the 21st, our longest day here in the southern hemisphere, we passed through, as usual, the town of Mt. Frere on the N2 highway. It was twilight, and a beautiful, huge--"the biggest I've ever seen"--moon had risen over the hills. To our surprise, the natural light of the moon was not the only light breaking through the gathering darkness; the poles of streetlights were adorned with Christmas-light displays. The sight was amusing for at least two reasons.

First, in a region, the Transkei, in the province of Eastern Cape, known to be South Africa's most corrupt and under-serviced, someone had apparently taken great care to decorate for the festive season. The potholes of Eastern Cape may never be filled; the proposed refurbishing of the Mthatha airport delayed forever; the schools in disarray; the hospitals under-stocked; but the lights, the beautiful lights, will shine for Christmas.

Second, many of the displays themselves seem out-of-place on this, the African continent. What has a sleigh, for example, to do with a land that rarely--and never in December--sees snow? Or Santa, that fat white man from the North who rides his sleigh through it? Or Frosty--the snowman?

There were the religious-themed lights as well. These, certainly, are not confined to climate or geography. And for me, a midwestern boy whose family used to search out the best neighborhood Christmas-light displays in our small Kansas town, the lights of Mt. Frere were, religious or not, a little taste of home.

Merry Christmas!


Thursday, December 23, 2010

what is a Mennonite?

In engaging in conversations over the last several weeks with fellow North Americans living or traveling in southern Africa, I have been struck anew by the reality of a truly global church. Students of mission will have been aware of the global church, if they have not experienced it firsthand, through the writings of such scholars as Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh. Even so, those reminders cannot really prepare North Americans to comprehend the reality of a global church; only direct exposure over time can do that.

One of the evidences of my slowness of mind and heart to understand the global church is the field of images and connotations which come to my mind when I hear the word “Mennonite.” For if I truly understood the reality that the church is global, then my first associations with “Mennonite” would not include, as regards worship, for example, four-part hymnody, tightly-managed orders of service, and rather un-emotive preaching.

I spoke recently with a leader of the Mennonite Church in North America who was traveling on behalf of Mennonite World Conference on a teaching tour throughout the global Mennonite family. He spoke of his conversation with a pastor in a certain country who runs a “megachurch” which worships in a “state-of-the-art” stadium facility, is a “mover and shaker” in the civic arena, including with plans to “reclaim land from the sea” in order to build an alternative “Christian city”, complete with plans to attract a “Disney World” on the land—all under the name “Mennonite”. Though the resume sounds to my “Mennonite” ears more like that of a Charismatic or televangelist, to the people of that country it is that of a “Mennonite”.

The example is but one illustration from the globe that, from a North American perspective, we can no longer take for granted our definition of “Mennonite”. For millions of people across the globe, both insiders and outsiders to the tradition, “Mennonite” does not mean what North Americans with generations-old membership in the tradition take it to mean.

Much, in fact, that has been established in different “Mennonite” traditions may be distasteful one to the other. “Mennonites” from one reality may be more comfortable worshipping with Christians from other denominations whose religious culture seems more like their own. To take one example, I spoke to a North American worker last week who worships with a baptist congregation in Zambia rather than with the local Anabaptist (the broader tradition from which the Mennonites come) church. Yet, if all “Mennonites” have a stake in the name—as we do—we will be concerned about what kind of a witness we are giving for Jesus and the kingdom of God. That means that—in spite of the often vast differences between “Mennonite” cultures—we, as members of the global church, as members one of another—must push beyond our particular, cherished forms of religiosity to find the faith common to all that lies beneath the surface. Such pushing beyond will take commitment, time, and energy, and will entail many setbacks. But if we persevere, if we stay in relationship, if we give and receive counsel from the word of God, we will experience together life’s purest joy—the presence of God in our midst.

Here then is a call to cross the boundaries of human difference, to participate in “mission”, to engage the global church.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christ and culture

Currently we are at a retreat with workers from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In our input sessions, we are reflecting on the meaning of culture, which has brought me to some observations on how the sessions are being conducted.

Our group itself is multicultural; MCC employs Africans in Africa, not merely, as in previous eras, westerners working in Africa. Beyond that, of course, even the North Americans and the Africans within themselves are diverse. That being said, it is still difficult to get away from—even, or especially, when we think we are being sensitive to cultural differences—exacerbating those cultural differences. For example, I have observed that in our comparisons of “Western” and “African” cultures and worldviews, the westerners tend to define as culture for Africans those practices that seem different, exotic, from their own. From there, having accepted the exotic as authentic African cultural practices, the westerners move to try to validate or understand that which they have accepted—perhaps putting a Christian spin on what they believe to be African traditions—and then move to congratulate themselves when they believe they have successfully done so. The problem, however, may be that what the westerners believe is culture for Africa, defined on the basis of difference, is not—in the eyes of the African participants—truly African culture as they recognize it in their own countries of origin. Rather, what the westerners believe to be African culture may, in fact, be a perversion of culture. As a result, the whole process of westerners trying to rationalize certain African cultural practices is misguided from the beginning because what they see as authentic culture may not be culture at all.

The particular example of which I speak is the issue of “sexual cleansing” which we have been prompted to discuss in small groups. Our presenter gave us an explanation of the practice in “Africa” as he understands it—one which was not recognized by the African participants. Briefly, according to the explanation, “sexual cleansing” refers to a man, perhaps the brother of a deceased, sleeping with his widow, in order to “cleanse” the widow of the dead man’s spirit (such a tradition becomes highly problematic in a society ravaged by HIV-AIDS). The white workers, of course, almost all said that this phenomenon was in their host countries. Some of their understandings were based on reports from and conversations with actual Africans—so we are not denying here that “sexual cleansing” does occur in some places on the continent. The bigger question, however, is whether it is valid to see “sexual cleansing” as culture at all—or whether, since it was not recognized by the Africans in our group, as merely a perversion of culture.

I use the word “perversion” here, not to imply that culture should be pristine and unchanging; then the “perversion” would be simply the deviation, irrespective of moral judgments, from an original. No, I use “perversion” to imply that, in a setting where people of ethical concern and commitment sit down to discuss culture together, it is important not to bless as true culture that which is not. For Christians—people of profound ethical concern—it is important to define as true culture only that which conforms to the life of Christ—and not to cause offense to our African brothers and sisters in Christ by defining as their culture that which is spiritually-ethically offensive to them on the basis of their own faith in Christ (The reverse, African Christians assuming that the culture of western Christians is professional wrestling, daytime soap operas, or the support of “holy wars” against Islam, may be equally offensive). In all this, then, there seems to be an implicit sense that, while the west has a culture largely shaped by Christianity (perhaps decreasingly so), African culture in the eyes of the west is still more shaped by its pre-Christian past. In fact, Christianity has, and has had, a major stake in African culture for generations now, so that what anthropologists might claim as true African culture is scarcely recognizable to Africans themselves. At the very least, it seems, Christian Africans do not want to cede their culture to the domain of what is exotic to westerners. They seem to want—as do ethically-minded westerners—a truly humanizing, dignifying definition of culture.

That, it seems to me, is the culture which we all seek, and the culture around which we might rally.