I have recently begun reading the book Participant Observation by James Spradley. I suppose I should have read it years ago… but better late than never. In Chapter One he references Herbert Blumer (1969) and his work Symbolic Interactionism. Three premises of this theory are (in my own wording)
People act towards objects (nouns of any type) based on the meaning these things are given (by us).
These meanings do not come from these objects but are assigned to things based on the social interaction people have with their peers.
Meanings are not static, but can modify as people interact with the objects they encounter.
I have seen this as I have been reading FB posts recently. Often I have wondered if I should stop reading them. I have a melancholic temperament, and a lot of the social media of Christians is quite depressing. However, maybe instead of complaining at the freaky things people share on FB, I should embrace my involvement in terms of Partcipant Observation.
Recently, I was reading a thread on FB that was coming up with stronger and stronger language to speak against former US President Obama, and former presidential candidate H. Clinton. Eventually one conversant described Obama as the Antichrist and Clinton as the “Whore of Babylon.” I hope I don’t need to say that this is a huge abuse of Scripture and Scriptural language, Despite this, the person got quite a few “Likes” for the post. Since most all of the conversants in the thread would consider themselves Christians, and even use the label “Bible-believing,” why would they say or like a statement that was, arguably, a heretical interpretation of Scripture (from a section of the Bible that appears to curse those who do just such abuses to the Word)?
Godwin’s Law states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” While this is commonly applied to arguments, you will notice that Godwin’s Law doesn’t actually specify argument. When a bunch of people get together who share the same beliefs, there is often a tendency to play one-upmanship with each other making more and more radical statements.
For some Christians, Hitler (or other authoritarian abusers and killers) does not describe consummate evil. Rather, Satan, or demons, or the Antichrist would be the substitute for Hitler. The use of the term “whore of Babylon” is clever in that it sexualizes the insult— as seems to be always the temptation when men (or women) want to denigrate a woman. Of course, the “whore of Babylon” is a system and not a person (as, probably, is the Antichrist) but that is not the point. Both terms are symbols.
For the FB discussion… Obama and Clinton represent a challenge to power— legal power, political power, social power. As such, they are seen as a threat to some people. Threats gradually lead towards demonization (or Hitlerization). In the case of Obama and Clinton, it is not so much who they are (they don’t seem to me to be worthy of much applause or castigation— they are just people who are involved in US politics). Rather, for those who see Obama or Clinton as threats to power, they symbolize something bigger. When people attack them, they are attacking what they symbolize.
Of course, one does not have to be in a position of power to fall into this trap (and it IS a trap). Over here, the President of the Philippines occasionally states things that insult or attack the Roman Catholic Church— the largest religious group in the country. Many Evangelicals have applauded this. Why? Again, the Catholic church has considerable power in the country, and as such, there is the temptation to see them as the enemy. (Of course, if they actually were the enemy, then we would have to embrace the teachings of Jesus and love them, not applaud attacks on them.)
But going back to the three premises of Symbolic Interactionism, none of this is inevitable. We connect to things (and people and concepts) based on the meanings we give them. As such, meanings are flexible… they can change. Today, I was in seminary chapel, and the speaker noted how wrong it was for Protestant Christians to applaud the attacks on our Catholic brothers and sisters. We are not without our faults so why express joy when their faults are exposed? And when politicians use religion to divide (and conquer), why do we yield to the temptation of predictability (standing by “our guys” uncritically, and attacking “their guys” uncritically). In the case of the speaker in chapel, he was seeking to work on the 2nd premise of symbolic interactionism. He was seeking to influence his peers so that the Catholic church is no longer given the label of “the enemy” by seminarians. I would like to think that he words will have influence.
Additionally, interacting with people different from ourselves can also help. This is the third premise. I find it valuable to talk to people of other faiths, other denominations, other theological persuasions, other races, and other political and national affiliations. Often, I find there is a lot of common ground. Even when we still disagree strongly on things, the temptation to stereotype them or “Hitlerize” them goes away. Rather, they are simply (in my opinion) “wrong.” More commonly, they are a mixture of right and wrong, good and bad, admirable, and problematic. I find that picking up news from many sources reduces my tendency to embrace certain things as true and other things as fake based on how I feel about a certain subject.
While Symbolic Interactionism is a moutful to say (or type, I suppose), it expresses something of value for Christians.
- We need to recognize the temptation to objectify— see people as symbols or objects, rather than real people. In fact, we do it automatically, but we can at least be aware of this.
- We need to recognize our temptation to confuse our ethics and our aesthetics. We tend to think something is right and good, or dispicable and awful based on group feelings and stereotypical generalizations than on what what is truth. We “bless” our beliefs with Scripture verses, rather than drawing our beliefs from the (uncomfortable) whole of Scripture.
- We can grow as people by interacting positively with those who are unlike us. And if we go in willing to grow and learn, the others might as well,.
And the last is perhaps the most important.
- We can break Godwin’s Law cycle of devolving discussions by challenging the base instincts of our peers— helping them seek out God’s perspective rather than Groupthink.
In the case of the FB thread I was describing earlier, perhaps it would have only taken one person to jump in and note that both Obama and Clinton (regardless of whatever flaws they may have) are God’s creations, worthy of love and concern— and appear to sincerely seek to live out their political life in line with the ethics that their particular Christian denominations hold. As such, they are worthy of a certain amount of admiration even if one does not ultimately agree with them on some issues. I am not sure everyone would suddenly embrace, but perhaps that person could at least have short-circuited the road to the Antichrist and Whore of Babylon.
Okay, so I was watching this guy on TV. He was some sort of talking head type guy on Fox News. (Disclaimer… I have no idea who this guy is. I really don’t watch Fox News. I mean, I live in Asia— so why would I?)
He was telling a story about some town in West Virginia that a few decades ago was ethnically composed almost all of Caucasian Appalachian stock. He noted that now that town was predominantly Hispanic… and how the (aboriginal?) locals struggled with the new situation. He expressed it in terms of people struggling with —- CHANGE. People cannot handle fast CHANGE.
Listening to the guy, the immediate temptation would be to say that he was trying to redefine “xenophobic bigots” as “slow adapters to change” and “racism” as “traditionalism.”
Frankly, I tend to think that this was EXACTLY what he was trying to do. However, I would like to ignore that fairly obvious point, and move on to a better question—
“Why do some people struggle with demographic change?”
My case should be quite similar to people in that town in West Virginia. I was raised in a very insular community. The community when I was young was almost 100% Caucasian, and a majority came from family lines that had gone back at least three or four generations. My community was in the Allegheny foothills, a part of the broader Appalachian system. My best friend when I was young was Native American (Ojibwa), but his was one of only two families in my area that was not “White.” When my father (of Swedish American stock) married my mom (also of Swedish American stock) some in the community were not happy since he had found his wife in Jamestown, ten miles away, rather than “locally.”
That was in 1964. By the time I brought my wife, born and raised 9000 miles away, the community had changed and welcomed her. My wife and I did not marry there, but in Virginia. We had no problem in Virginia in 1993, but if we had tried back in 1964, we would not have been allowed because we were “mixing races.”
Times change. Sometimes change is good and sometimes change seems not so good. I am glad that changes came to the community I was raised in. But my new community is different indeed. I live in a city of over 300,000 people in Southeast Asia. While there are other white Americans here, most are tourists, and I know only a couple of them personally. All of my neighbors are Asian, of one form or another, and almost none of them speak English as a first language (although many speak it quite well).
So why have I been able to adapt to change, and others not. There are perhaps many reasons. For one, I was raised up with Biblical Anthropology. Although in some ways my parents were products of their place and time, they still taught me that all people are God’s creation. No ethnicity is morally superior, or closer to God. I was taught that God judges the heart, and He is much better at that than I would ever be by judging the outside appearance.
But really… I don’t think that is the big problem. I am sure some have been misinformed about God and His relationship to mankind. But I suspect that many have a very clear understanding that we stand as equals before God, and yet still struggle with demographic change and culture shock.
I suspect a lot of it has to do with power. An ethnic group or a religious group that has sort of the alpha position in a society will tend to react (individuals in concert) to any change that may threaten the power position. In some parts of the world, even putting up a religious structure that is of a minority group (a church, mosque, pagoda, temple, whatever) is seen as a challenge to that power. I lived near a community in which there was an unwritten rule that real estate agents were not to show houses in that place to people of other races. If they did, that agent would lose future business. Was that because the community was so extremely racist? Well… maybe. But seen in terms of power, having a family of a different ethnicity or religion in the community is a foothold… and thus an open door to challenging the power of the established order in the future.
This is hardly strange. Embracing power and having fear of losing that power is quite natural. However, as Rose Sayer (played by Katherine Hepburn in the classic movie “African Queen”) stated. “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above.”
Christians should not thirst after such power— Ecclesiastical power, Political power, Economic power… the power to determine norms and taboos. God’s power is with you when you are part of the majority, and when you are a minority of one.
I believe Christians (not just missionaries) would be much more effective in sharing God’s love with others if they focused more on God and others than on their own grasping at earthly power.
Joanne Shetler, a Wycliffe Bible Translator, in her book “And the Word Came with Power,” says on page 108
“Balangaos had always had village elders, older men informally chosen by group consensus to guide them. I usually sought these older people to work with me on translation; their status and their experience were invaluable. In the course of helping with the translation, they ended up with an unusually solid knowledge of the Word of God. They were naturals to become a new kind of elder, elders in the Balangao church. Early on they began teaching others what they’d learned about God from the Scriptures.”
It seems to me that this expresses an ideal way to bring an unreached group to faith.
- Enter a community with the blessing of the elders/leaders.
- Seek help and guidance from the elders.
- Get the elders involved with the ministry— even before they have chosen to follow Christ.
Why is this ideal?
- Entering the community with the blessing of the elders gives one immediate status. When entering a community, any community, people will label those who dwell with them. A great label is “Welcome Guest,” especially if the welcomers are the leaders of the community. Other good labels are teacher or healer. But if one doesn’t have a good and clear label, eventually one will be given less desirable labels like… “foreigner,” “stranger,” “alien,” or perhaps even “troublemaker.”
- Seeking the help and guidance of the elders supports the societal structure. It honors those that the people have already honored. There are times that one has to challenge the leadership…. but certainly not at the beginning. If one reads the book of Nehemiah one finds that Nehemiah strongly challenged the local leaders. However, he did so only years later. Initially, he utilized the local leadership.
- Relatedly, the local leadership knows how to allocate resources and get things done. Getting their blessing is more than symbolic, it is also very tangible.
- Getting the elders involved in ministry sets things up for group conversion. As the elders were trained in the Bible through their translation work, they were slowly made ready to change and follow Christ. Upon their conversion, the community is much more ready to change with them. It reminds me of the conversion of Iceland to Christ, that came after a vote of the clan leaders.
- Translators become experts in Scripture even before they become followers of Christ. Be open to the possibility that God works backwards with some… where they are discipled before they are converted. Adoniram Judson would be another example of one in whom early converts of his were his translators. However, they were translators in his ministry long before they were followers of Christ.
- All of this leads to elders/leaders in the community who are now Christians and also well-trained in the Scriptures. They make ideal church leaders.
Some missionaries like to enter a community seeking out the youth because they are often the most ready to change. (I like to say that in the US, college students rebel by dabbling with agnosticism or atheism. In the Philippines, college students rebel by dabbling with Evangelicalism.) However, ignoring the older generation often leads to divided families. Will divided families happen? Of course, sometimes. But taking the extra time to work with leaders and the older generation can really lead to longer-term community transformation.
The young can minister, but will often have great limitations. I had a friend who was an 18 year old and a pastor of a church. It was an Ibaloi church (Ibaloi being a traditional tribal group that has an elder leadership structure much like the Balangao). Why would an elder-based group have an 18 year old pastor? They liked his musical ability and liked his preaching. But he had no spiritual authority in the church. He did music and talking, but the elders in the church were the spiritual (and administrative) leaders. It would have been must wiser, in all probability, to have had one of the older members serve as the senior pastor, and have the younger as an associate pastor or worship leader.
In Joanne Shetler’s situation things worked out… and that is a blessing. I know some people personally who are the fruit of her ministry there. It seems to me that one should seek this pattern, especially for pioneering work. Sometimes the ideal is not possible, but going for soft targets, ignoring the patriarchs and matriarchs and leaders, may actually hurt growth long-term.
Finally got my book updated. Previously, I was trying to finish the book “Ministry in Diversity” quickly so that it could be used in my Cultural Anthropology class. So I was a bit… sloppy. My son helped me fix a lot of it. We got most of the problems fixed now (HOPEFULLY all of them). Also added another chapter. Chapter 17 is on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD). Additionally, I expanded my chapter on Language a bit. However, because of changing the formatting, it is now about 60 pages shorter, despite having more content. That also reduced the cost a bit. Kindle version will be up soon,
In the first two or three years of our mission work in the Philippines, we would go back to the US for a few weeks to visit friends, families, and churches. And at churches I would be asked to preach. Sometimes, I would choose a Missions topic and sometimes not. When I preached on something else, I would get a bit of a surprised response. Somehow, they just assumed that since I was a missionary, I would preach on the Great Commission, or perhaps give a rousing Missions testimony.
I felt like saying, “I am not defined by my vocation. A baseball player may well know more than sports. A missionary may know more than missions.”
Perhaps it was my stubbornness. but it took me awhile to get this straightened out in my head. Church leadership did not assume that I knew nothing beyond Missions.
In any community, there is Status and Role. So, for example, when a person visits a foreign country…. members of that society look to assign a status to that person. The most likely status given is Tourist. Associated with the status is an associated role. For tourist, the fairly modest requirements is to obey local laws and spend money. Some other possible statuses would be International Student, Missionary, or Diplomat. Each one of these has an associated role. It is often best for that person to help the community in assigning a status, because if he/she does not, the community could assign an undesirable status such as Alien, Stranger, or Enemy.
In cross-cultural work, one must know one’s status, and one’s role. Erik Erickson described the 5th life stage (age 12-19) as Identity versus Role Confusion. Frankly, all of us can struggle with role confusion, and even more so for those of us from societies that place higher value on Individualism.
When I am invited to visit a church, they are commonly assigning me a status as well. I have had a few different statuses given to me:
- Seminary representative
- Pastoral Care “specialist”
- Stewardship expert
The last one is interesting. I am certainly no expert in stewardship. However, Filipino pastors often want visiting preachers to speak on tithing. Many churches in the Philippines have very little giving, and so many pastors serve with starvation wages, or worse. They feel ashamed to talk to their own churches about money, and so ask visiting preachers to take on that role of stewardship expert.
Each one of these drives a different role. To fail to take on the assigned role is, in fact, to fail.
When I went back to the US, I was foolish. I was given the status of visiting missionary. As such, I was simply stupid to act as if that status comes without assigned roles. One must know that status and live up to it.
I think I have learned a few things over the years. I try to find out the status I am given and the role expected of me.