During this time I was also working as a missionary of the Christian church. This fact caused me to have to consider the following question: How do I reconcile the spread of Christianity with the preservation of indigenous cultures?
THE DESTROYER OF CULTURES
Once on a trip to Venezuela, I found myself in a conversation with a young German student at the airport in Caracas as we waited for our out-going flights to go home – he back to Germany and I to Guatemala, where I was living at the time. The country and the people of Venezuela were well known to me, since I had earlier lived there for many years. On this trip, however, I had only returned for a visit.
I had been to Venezuela to conduct a pastor’s training seminar. When I told the young German about my work and that I was doing similar work in several countries at that time, our conversation began to become centered on a theme that I had often had with travelers.
The theme has to do with the effect of Christianity on local cultures. Because of my work in different countries and because of the fact that I often worked with people from indigenous cultures, I was fair game for criticism from other travelers who pop in to a country to visit certain areas in order to get a cultural “experience” and then go back home.
Two Types of Travelers
Actually, I usually appreciated hearing the various perspectives and opinions of these travelers and I usually learned something from what they had to tell me. Gaining such insights from people who have diverse points of view is one of the aspects of my work that I have enjoyed.
Because I generally worked with people at the local level in areas where there were relatively few tourists, the tourists that I did meet in these areas were usually people who were sensitive to cultural issues and appreciated the differences that we have among us as people. This, to me, is much preferable to a second type of traveler that I would meet.
The second type of tourist that I met are the ones who seem only to have as their goal as much “fun” that they can possibly fit into a ten-day vacation. Often this just means they came to these vacation areas mostly for some uninhibited sexual promiscuity and to get drunk. Their time in these foreign countries is without regard as to how their presence and actions might affect the local people.
Thankfully, these types of vacationers usually confine themselves to resort and casino areas. Nevertheless, it is sad to say that their presence in an area or in a country is quite often the impression host country nationals have of the lifestyle of the “Christian” United States.
But this young German, I could tell, was not that sort of traveler. He wondered, along with several others that I have met while on the road, if the message of Christianity was a destroyer of cultures.
“Would it not be better,” the German asked me, “to simply allow the people to follow their own traditions?”
What is Christianity?
This is actually a very fair question and, since I am one who appreciates local customs, one that I have thought about and explored often. In places where I have been and among the people with whom I have worked, I have seen Christianity applied in good ways and bad. Sometimes the Christianity that has been introduced has enhanced the local culture, and sometimes it has had very negative effects upon it. The difference, it seems to me, can be found in the meaning we put to the word “Christianity.”
Just as the word Christianity has often been loosely applied in the past few centuries, our present-day Christianity sometimes does not necessarily have much to do with the teachings of Christ. It has come to be more of a cultural word, such as saying that the culture of the United States is a “Christian” society, when in actuality, we know it is very far from being a way of living that follows the teachings of Jesus Christ.
It has been the unfortunate case that much of the work of historical Christianity has not necessarily been to spread the teachings of Christ. Instead, it has often had more to do with propagating a western culture. This, some equate with Christianity. Whenever this type of influence has occurred, local indigenous cultures are affected negatively. It is a valid criticism to point this out. However, I think it is fair to say that this was more a perspective in the past than it is today, since today the distinctions between Western and Christian are more pronounced.
Nevertheless, even at its worst, this criticism directed at Christianity has never reached the limit with what I see as the greatest present-day destroyer of culture. Today, in perhaps every remote and inaccessible corner of the world, local culture is being destroyed by that which is not even spiritual in nature; at least it is not on the face of it. This destructive force is causing far more ruin than even the most ill-conceived religious effort.
The Religion of Secularism
Although we and the people of other countries often look at the culture of the west as being “Christian,” it is far more accurate to say that ours culture is a “Secular” society. This is probably not shocking to many of you. However, what is important about this is that what we in the United States have done, and often done it much more than propagate a Christian lifestyle in other lands, is to disseminate western Secularism.
Secularism is often seen as separate from religious thought, but is, in fact, a religion onto itself. It is a religion where every individual is free to become his own or her own god. It is a religion of individualism, where the individual decides what is and what is not right.
What I saw as I traveled and what I believe to be true is that western culture is continuing to be propagated. However, this is not a Christian culture, but it is Secular to its core. This is not something that has just begun in the past few decades, but has been happening for most of our western history. It is just that now, in the very recent past, travel has become so common that today this trend is much more evident.
Instead of bringing the best of our values to other societies, too often we have brought to them the worst of our values. It has much to do with the mindset of “traveler type #2,” that I mentioned earlier. This secular perspective of life and existence is what I see as the great destructive force to indigenous culture in the world today.
A detailed discussion of Secularism cannot be accomplished in a couple of paragraphs, so I will have to wait for another time to do that. However, I will say that not everything about the concept of Secularism is negative. There are some things that are beneficial, such as what our constitution calls the unalienable rights of every person: those of life, of liberty, and that everyone should be free to exercise the pursuit of happiness.
Nevertheless, a great part of what our society has brought to other cultures is extremely harmful. It instead brings a destructive nature upon the different cultures of the world. This destruction comes in the form of the teaching of Secularism (at least in its extreme form) that says there is a separation of ones personal life from any thought regarding responsibility toward a Divine Authority.
As I worked among churches and pastors in foreign countries, I considered myself a missionary that helped to bring the message of Christ. Secularism also has as its own “missionaries,” and the message of Secularism has learned to use the tools of its missionaries in a very successful manner. This is another reason that the effects of Secularism are so evident today.
Perhaps the most flagrant of these Secular missionaries most often enters an area by the way of a wire or a cable. As soon as an electric line winds its way up and down the mountains or through a tropical rain forest to bring electricity to a village, one of the first apparatus to be brought into the village is the television. Much (and sometimes even most) of the programming that the people see on these televisions originates from the United States, at least in the countries where I have lived and worked.
As the villagers watch the TV, the first things that they learn about life in the
is that no one really needs to work and that people in United States spend
most of their time getting drunk and in adulterous relationships and then
laughing about it. This confirms what the people of these other countries
already suspect about the foreign tourists that are in the hotels down on the
beach (traveler type #2). These tourists, without even knowing it, have also become
the missionaries of Secularism. America
The Effects of Changing Cultures
Normally, these secular missionaries are not people of deep thought. They are sometimes not even aware of the negative impact that they are having in these more remote places. However, even if they are not aware of it, I find it highly hypocritical for them to point an accusing finger at the teachings of the Bible as being that which brings ruin to indigenous culture. This is an attitude that I simply cannot abide. Their ignorance of the effect that they themselves are having is not an excuse.
What is even more disagreeable to me are those of an elitist cultural anthropological group who want to keep certain peoples in complete isolation so that the anthropologists can go in and “study” the indigenous culture. For this type of person, the native people are treated as if they were the scientist’s own private laboratory animals. These anthropologists do not recognize that this position, apart from being very arrogant, is not practical in our 21st century.
The secular world simply will not permit any indigenous culture to be insulated from the influences of secularism. Eventually, the people in all places will have to deal with the culture of the world. It is true that many of us (myself included) would like to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, but we understand that with world-wide communications and commerce, this simply is not realistic on a large scale.
When anthropologists point an accusing finger at Christianity as bringing destruction to societies, they do not recognize that Secularism will do that long before anything else, simply with the passage of time. And while these self-described “authorities on culture” are often very quick to point out what they see as hypocrisy in the church, they exhibit an attitude that is more than hypocrisy, it is duplicitous deceit.
In the Andean Mountains
The inevitability of the changes that come to cultures was strongly illustrated to me one day when I was asked a question by some Quechuan pastors from high in the mountains of Peru. They themselves and the people of their villages had grown up in what they called a “paperless society,” meaning that they grew up in a society where there was no such thing as paper money, or even money of any kind.
Their culture had been one of each family producing what they needed, or if they were unable to do that, bartering for what they could not produce or make for themselves. They traded a sack of potatoes to a cobbler to make them a pair of shoes, for instance. The leather for the shoes came from someone else who tanned the hides of animals.
But the world does not spare any region. It will eventually come knocking on every door. The people of these villages were now finding themselves in a situation where they needed some money (in paper or coin form) in order to exist in the world. Unfortunately, raising potatoes or corn would not do this. The farmers may be able to barter for something with these crops, but their region, no one would pay them cash for their vegetable produce.
However, the illegal drug dealers had also found their way up to those high mountains. These drug producers not only offered the farmers money to raise crops, but said that they would pay them in cash, even in American dollars. The only condition was that the farmers had to raise the coca plant, which is the raw material from which cocaine is made.
The pastors came to me with their question. The growing of the coca plant was actually something that was generally seen as acceptable in their culture. Historically, they have used coca usually only for its various medicinal benefits. However, now the people were also learning some of the evil consequences that the refined product of cocaine was having in the lives of many people throughout the world.
Being a respectable and honorable people, (and in this case, Christian people) they wanted to have no part in this. Yet, the people of their villages did need money and this was the one and only way that they knew of to obtain it.
“What shall we tell our people to do?” the pastors asked me.
The world of Secularism had come knocking on their doors. The people of these once remote villages had been forced to deal with the culture of secularism, and now they did not know how to do it.
The Outward Culture of Society and the Inward Culture of the Heart
So just what is the relationship of the teachings of Christ (I am drawing a clear distinction between “the teachings of Christ” and what often passes for “Christianity”) to the cultures of the world? Jesus, when he was on the earth, no doubt recognized the many evils of the culture of that day.
Nevertheless, even though he recognized these evils, his ministry was not so much focused on changing the outward aspects of culture as it was to change the hearts of the people of that culture. If the heart is changed, any changes in the outward manifestations of that culture will follow.
The Pharisees were constantly trying to trap Jesus into putting him at odds with the culture of the day. “Teacher,” they said to Jesus one day, “we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth…Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
This was more than just a question of taxes. The Pharisees themselves were opposed to the Roman occupation, but they had also brought with them some Herodians, who were in favor of the Roman rule. The Pharisees had a devious reason for doing this.
The purpose of the Pharisees in their question was to put Jesus into a position where he would have to respond to a question that they thought would inevitably be offensive to one or the other of these factions. The culture of the Jewish people was also undergoing changes, and the Pharisees thought that whatever Jesus would say, there would be someone would who object to his words.
But Jesus would not be drawn into a discussion of one culture opposing another. After pointing out to the Pharisees that it was the image of Caesar that was on the coins, he told them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew -22).
It was not that Jesus avoided the trap of the Pharisees by his shrewd logic. It was only because Jesus realized that the issue was not even merely a cultural one, but rather a spiritual one.
Which Culture do we Seek to Change?
Neither did the Apostle Paul, when in a foreign country, occupy himself with railing against what he saw as the evils of that place – even against evils as overt as idolatry. When he was in Athens, he wrote that he was “greatly distressed” to see a city so full of idols. However, when he had the opportunity to speak to the people of
he did not go on a tirade against this evil, but only said, “I observe that you
are very religious in all respects.” Athens
Paul then mentioned to them that he had seen one altar with the inscription, “To an Unknown God.” He used this inscription to appeal to the fact that, although the people of
religious, they still were seeking to know what was true (Acts ). Athens
Paul knew that religion, in and of itself, can never bring true contentment. In fact, religion usually is opposed to contentment because it is always telling its followers what more they must do to be acceptable to God. Contentment can only come from knowing the truth. “You shall know the truth,” Jesus said, “and the truth shall make you free” (John ).
In One Manner or Another, Change Will Come
I will not say that culture of a society is not changed by coming to know the truth. Indeed, many changes do come. Culture is transformed, just as a man is transformed when he turns to true Christianity by becoming a disciple of Christ. His own personal culture is modified, but it is not because someone came from without and brought the change upon him. Instead, the change originates from within – from the very heart.
“Do not be conformed to the world” Paul says. That is, let not the changes that are taking place in your lives be because you are being altered from without.
“Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Let the changes be internal. When the change comes from within, then whatever needs to change outwardly will follow.
The Delight of Unique Cultures
What is important to see concerning these changes, whether they be in a society or in an individual, is that the distinctiveness of the individual and the personality remain intact. The true uniqueness of the culture is not compromised. The teachings of Christ, far from being an enemy to culture, is its greatest ally.
In fact, the reason that we are all so different and that there is such a variety among cultures actually comes because of the way that God created us. God delights in diversity. It is for this reason that he has made races and cultures so distinct, and it is for this reason his church is likened to a body.
“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired” (I Corinthians -18 NAS).
A True Anthropologist
I spoke disparagingly of some anthropologists a few moments ago, but I believe that it is only a few that actually have this haughty attitude. Most study the human race because in it they find delight in it in much the same way as God does. The main difference is that God is seeking to redeem the races and the cultures, not simply observe them. But it is a mistake to think that God is seeking to destroy all distinctions. It was he who made them unique and with all of their distinctions. God was the first of all anthropologists.
…A destroyer of culture? It is my sincere belief that each culture, by reconciling itself to its Creator will not see their culture destroyed but only see it advanced and refined. This is what I told the young German when I spoke to him at the airport and this is basically what I told the pastors in
It is the Secularists who would have cultures conform to their lifestyle and who are bringing true destruction to the cultures of the world. God is seeking only their best.
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (Paul to the people of
– Acts 17:26-27