Eschewing Power

Tug of war

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.

Unending Culture Shock

metropolis-8

In our time we have been uprooted from our former homeland, adrift in a mobile and changing society. We are lonely in crowds who seem not to care, pushed to and from by machines to serve and be served, until we too become mechanical and act like machines. We meet the other persons as strangers, but mostly by external contacts passing by or bouncing away as if we were rubber balls.  We… do not know the inner life of other persons, and so we give attention mainly to the external appearances. Estranged from them or used by them, we are empty within ourselves, lost souls for whom no one seems to care. The need has never been so urgent for someone to care. How can a pastor care for his people in such a world?

Paul E. Johnson (“Christian Advocate” entitled “Where We Are Now In Pastoral Care” 23 SEP 1965, page 7).

I used this quote in my two pastoral care blogsites (www.bukallifecare.org, and www.cpspp.orgwww.cpspp.org)

But I would like to look at it from a missiological standpoint as well. The quote sounds a lot like what missionaries go through in terms of culture shock. They are uprooted from their homeland, and become strangers in a strange land. They struggle to fit in but often feel a lonely disconnectedness, unable (at first anyway) to connect with others beyond a superficial level, and feeling like they are tossed around by forces beyond their ability to control or even understand.

But this article wasn’t written about missionaries. It was written about all of us. Because we live in a globalizing (while simultaneously particularizing) culture undergoing rapid, and still accelerating change, we all feel a certain amount of disconnection. This disconnection we don’t always notice because it has become the background base of our reality… a barely noticed incessant neuroticizing hum.

Sometimes, I enjoy visiting my old home in upstate New York. That area has changed so little over the last few decades. It gives me a sense of connection with my past. But in the last couple times that I have been there (in 2012 and 2013) I have felt a certain disquieting feeling as I have noticed the slow build-up of changes that make the place start to feel just a bit “foreign.” This is so unlike my other homes over the years in Virginia Beach, Charlottesville, and now in Baguio City (Philippines). In these places, change is rapid and seeing the place after a few years (or even a few months) almost is like seeing a new place.

Johnson suggests the transitory nature of our lives leads to superficiality. Church should be a place of rich and deep interconnection, but it commonly isn’t. We tend towards the reality described by Lily Tomlin “We are all in this together alone.

Perhaps we need the findings of cross-cultural experiences in missionaries applied to all of us, since many (most?) of us are undergoing an unending, chronic, culture shock– a perpetual dehumanizing cultural uprooting.