It was nearly three years ago that I first arrived in South Asia. I had come to help start Serge’s Freedom Bakery, which would give jobs to women who had been trapped in the sex trade in one of the world’s most notorious red light districts.
Those early days were the easy ones. The city, the culture, the foods, sights, and smells were all foreign, but exciting and fascinating in their newness. After a while, the new shine wore thin.
Though I never lost my love of and fascination with the people and culture surrounding me, I… we… began to witness some less than pleasant aspects of our new home.
In the course of starting a small business, our little Serge team faced corruption, dishonesty, and inefficiency seemingly at every turn. Contractors lied to us. Builders failed to show up for work and fell behind schedule.
Female teammates were groped with impunity by lecherous men on crowded buses, subways, and city streets. Government officials showed up at the bakery’s doorstep demanding bribes or payment for fictitious infractions or licenses.
While we did not become party to the corruption, I was sorely tempted to sin on other ways. My natural first tendency was to react to such obstacles with anger. The second natural tendency, less immediately obvious but certainly more insidious, was to unconsciously file away these negatives experiences in my mental box of characteristics of South Asian people as a whole.
This is, I reckon, a trap of a sin into which cross-cultural missionaries easily fall, if we are not watchful. Far too quickly, one can start to think and speak of a complex and beautiful people group or country in sweeping and judgmental terms.
It’s those kind of sweeping generalities, spoken aloud or tucked away in the dark recesses of the heart, that can breed contempt, anger, or a false sense of superiority disguised as cultural savvy.
These generalities we assign to people are often well-intentioned – an attempt to make sense of a culture and a place that is legitimately and significantly different from our own. We also desire to be seen as a seasoned vet of the South Asian streets, wise to the ways of the world and taking “crap” from nobody. Yet, when we begin to speak of and see homogenous groups rather than individuals made in the image of God, we walk a dangerous road.
James 3:8-9 reads: “[B]ut no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.”
Now, discerning between cultural differences and actual evils can be far more difficult than you might think. I was raised, for example, to believe that showing up late to a meeting conveys disrespect, and that anything short of the unvarnished truth was indefensibly wrong. But bring those notions into cultures in which time is a flexible commodity and polite lies are preferable to inconvenient truths, and you have yourself a recipe for a constant barrage of ethical dilemmas.
On the other hand, cultural difference or not, behaviors like abuse of power or mistreatment of women are wicked by God’s law, not subjective cultural standards. Wisdom, as well as true knowledge and cultural awareness are vital. We must be “wise as serpents,” after all.
Yet also “innocent as doves” – isn’t Jesus reminding us that self-control of the tongue and the mind are equally important.
“Love your neighbor as yourself,” says the Scripture. To live in a loving way toward our neighbors, we must reign in both our tongues and our minds. We must say no to our sinful desires. We do this by daily looking to God’s spirit for renewal.
When we begin to sinfully declare in our thoughts or words that “X people are dishonest,” lumping all into a homogenous mass to be judged equally, we have quit striving to see people as image-bearers and reduced them to caricatures.
Certainly, this goes beyond cross-cultural encounters. Upon my return to America I have witnessed this to an enormous degree between Americans.
For instance, millennials are not all entitled and fragile. Many are hard working, tough, and dedicated individuals with real grit. People calling for political change have a complex variety of reasons for their vote. Many simply feel left behind and left out of their country’s future. And those who march in protest are not all radical socialists. Many are complex human beings who love their country deeply.
When we put people in boxes, we not only vilify them, but we also give up on the Spirit-led life of self-control. But giving into “boxing” people is easier, and that is precisely why it happens so often.
We live in an age when self-control of our thoughts and a renewed appreciation for the complexity of the image bearers around us is in order. It is only when we lean into the grace which only the Holy Spirit can provide that we are even capable of such self-control.
As we wrestle with these matters, I hope you will join me in recognizing the times when your thoughts and words are reducing people to caricatures. In those moments may we be ready and willing to ask God for the Holy Spirit to give us the grace for self-control and a renewed appreciation of people as image-bearers of God.
>> Learn more about Serge’s work in Business for Transformation.