Christmas and “The Gift of Garigolli”

This is a follow-on of my previous post on the Golden Rule and how it is affected in cross-cultural situations. If you haven’t yet, you can read the post HERE.

An interesting story that points this out is “The Gift of Garigolli” by Cyril M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl. It can be found in an anthology “Critical Mass,” published in 1977, among other places. It is science fiction, but in doing so it takes to an extreme case a difference of cultures making it (nearly) impossible to apply The Golden Rule, or The Great Commandment, in a way that is teleologically or contextually ethical.

It has been years since I read the story. However, the story is about microscopic aliens that have come to earth for research, I believe. However, part of their protocol is to do more than the National Park Service concept of “Please take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.” In their culture, since they benefited from their hosts, they must leave behind a gift. A good cultural value. The problem was, being microscopic, that were unable to communicate with humans, and could not figure out what these giant creatures (us) would appreciate. The aliens understood that a gift was not really a gift unless it was recognized as a boon to the recipient.  Early attempts were a failure as humans failed to even notice the attempts of gift-giving. Humans were in fact totally unaware that they were sharing space with extraterrestrials.

Eventually, through some experimenting and a bit of dumb luck, the aliens made something that humans recognized as a wonderful thing. The aliens satisfied the requirements of their culture and they were finally able to leave.

It is still under copyright, I am pretty sure, so I can’t point you to a webpage to read it. Too bad, but I don’t want to spoil the story. It also has an interesting second “parable” of sorts regarding a plastics manufacturing executive and how his ethics and aesthetics are driven by economics. I don’t think his perspective is uncommon.

Anyway, it will be Christmas in three days. It is a time of giving and receiving gifts. It is a time to remember God’s great gift to us. It is also a time, I believe, to remember that a gift has failed to be a gift until it is recognizably a blessing to the recipient.

If Jesus born over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, Judea, is a gift for all people, how can we help people understand that it is indeed a gift?

If we are supposed to express God’s love to others, and yet fail to do so in a way that people can recognize and appreciate, have we truly expressed God’s love?


The Golden Rule in Cultural Application

The Golden Rule is the term often used for the command of Jesus in Matthew 7:12:

“Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them.”

This positive form is also balanced by what is sometimes called the Silver Rule that says almost the same thing but from a negative sense. It may not be fair to suggest that one is “gold” and the other “silver.” In fact, one version of Jesus’ command is written in the “silver” format. This is found in Didache 1:3:

“Do not do to others, what you yourself would not want done to you.”

This rule, in both of its forms, provides a valuable guide and benchmark for ethical behavior. It would be, in fact, quite an amazing thing to see Christians (of any flavor) make an honest attempt to live according to this rule.

That being said, the rule is not as simple as it first appears when it comes to cross-cultural applications. Let me give a couple of examples.

Example 1.  I teach in the Philippines and do in fact enjoy it. I get to learn much from my students who come from many different countries— mostly in Asia. But there are some interesting challenges at times. For example, I have a number of students from Myanmar. In Myanmar, teachers are highly respected (a good thing, I think). In an attempt to demonstrate respect to their teachers, they listen very quietly and never ask questions. After all, to ask questions is to suggest that the teacher did a poor job in his/her instruction.

For me, on the other hand, I like students to ask questions. It makes the class more interesting, and gives me an opportunity to learn and grow, along with the students. Additionally, I feel that asking questions is a sign of respect. In their asking, they are showing that they are paying attention, and care about what I am talking about.

Thus, the Golden (and Silver) Rule is challenged a bit. How I want to be treated is quite different than how another may want to be treated.

Example 2.  This is based on an old story that contrasts the Asian and American attitudes regarding hospitality. Consider the figures below (from my book, “Ministry in Diversity,”

The first sketch shows an American staying in a Filipino household.


The second sketch shows a Filipino in an American household.

In both cases, the host is applying the Golden Rule with the guest. However, in both cases, there is a misfire.

These examples are not to suggest that there is an inherent problem with the Rule. However, one does have to take a step inward before going outward. In Example One, both myself as a teacher and one from Myanmar want to be treated with respect. That is the commonality where the Golden Rule applies. However, it must be filtered through culture to identify how such respect would be demonstrated.  In the second example, both hosts desire to be hospitable, and both guests desire to be treated with hospitality. However, how such hospitality is carried out so that it is recognized and appreciated, is again mediated by culture.

These are in no sense the only examples of this. If I ask someone to come to a celebration I am holding, I would like the person to think about it, check his schedule, and then tell me definitively whether he can come or not, when he knows for sure. Because of that, I am tempted to do the same thing. However, in some cultures that is highly insulting. Rather, the proper response is to immediately accept the offer, and then only later, regretfully, back out. Again, the Golden Rule applies (I want to be shown honor, and to express honor) but I must understand how this is demonstrated in that culture.

Can think of some other examples??

Consider an implication of this. One can follow the “letter of the law” by knowing oneself. However, to follow it teleologically and contextually (despite what some Christian Ethics books imply, Deontological Ethics is not the same as Christian Ethics), one must understand the other person as well.