Monday, February 28, 2011

How ethnocentrism hinders love of neighbor (part II) - defense

The second stage in Bennett’s model of intercultural sensitivity is defense.  As someone moves from a lack of awareness of difference (the denial stage, see into more contact with cultural difference, the initial experience and reaction is often negative.  Differences, at this stage, are perceived as threatening to one’s sense of reality and to one’s identity, and a common reaction is to try to preserve the absoluteness of one’s worldview, in the fact of the growing awareness of difference.

Defense is characterized by polarization (“us” vs. “them”), and by a positive stereotyping of one’s own culture and identity, and a negative stereotyping of the other. Bennett refers to the negative view of the other as denigration – negative stereotyping based on race, religion, age, gender, or any other assumed indicator of difference. He refers to the positive sense of self as superiority – positive evaluation of one’s own status, with the idea that everything has evolved and will evolve in our direction (the sense of ourselves as “civilized,” etc.).

Note that defense is the predominant orientation of nation-building and nationalism. And that it deepens in times of conflict between peoples, e.g., the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the conflict between Bosnians, Serbs and Croatians in the former Yugoslavia, between Muslims and Christians post-9/11, etc. (I remember my shock, the first time I returned to the U.S. post-9/11, to see Christmas light decorations in the shape and colors of the American flag, and all the “God bless America” bumper stickers everywhere.)

Note also that at the defense stage, the "knowledge" of the other is shallow and superficial. There is an Arab proverb, "he who is ignorant of something, is its enemy." We can most easily negatively stereotype and believe the worst about others, when we do not know them, when we do not have personal relationship with them. Most of the Americans that I know, that are most suspicious of Muslims and of Islam, do not have friendships, or even basic relationships, with Muslims.

Bennett notes a variation on the polarization of the defense stage, which he refers to as reversal – the denigration of one’s own culture, and assumption of the superiority of a different culture. Although this may look more positive toward another culture than defense normally does, it is “only changing the center of ethnocentrism.” Reversal is common for people who go abroad and begin adapting to another culture, like Peace Corps volunteers. It can also occur for anyone who gets involved with another group of people and takes up “their cause.”

It is probably fairly self-evident why and how being at the defense stage, hinders love of neighbor. Again, love of neighbor requires relationship, building something positive together, coexistence. A sense of one’s own superiority, while denigrating the different other, is a serious roadblock to loving one’s neighbor. Whether it is Israeli Jews thinking of Palestinians as “dirty Arabs,” “terrorists,” etc., or Americans wondering “what’s wrong with those Muslims, that they are always so violent,” the negative stereotyping of others – especially in situations of conflict, in which love of neighbor is most necessary –  makes it hard to move in that direction.

In fact, defense actually embodies hatred of our neighbor, pushing them away, disrespecting and mistreating, etc.  The danger, if we continue on the “downward” slide of defense, is that we will end up at the point of villainization and dehumanization of the other. The end of this ugly road is the possibility of doing anything to the other, including ethnic cleansing and extermination, with no twinge of conscience. And obviously, this is not the road of loving one’s neighbor.

Why did Jesus use the Samaritan as the example of love of neighbor, when asked “who is my neighbor?” He chose the example of the people whom the Jews at that time had the worst relationship with, characterized by superiority, denigration, and avoidance; characterized, in fact, by hatred. And Jesus’ point was that those that they most disliked, are the ones that they must learn to love, if they are to fulfill God’s command to love their neighbor.

We cannot live in a state of feeling threatened by those who are different from us, and fulfill Jesus’ command to love our neighbor. We cannot allow ourselves to dwell in “us” / “them” thinking, where we are always criticizing “those people,” and love our neighbor. We cannot take pride in our own superiority, and denigrate those different others, and love our neighbor. And most obviously, we cannot embrace the demonization and dehumanization of others, and love our neighbor.

If we want to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, we must move beyond the ethnocentric stage of defense.

(Coming next: how minimization hinders love of neighbor)

*For full treatment of Bennett’s model, see
Bennett, Milton J., “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” In Paige, R.M. (Ed). (1993) Education for the Intercultural Experience (2nd ed., p. 21-71). YarmouthME: Intercultural Press.

Bennett, Milton J., “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”  In Wurzel, Jaime S., ed., Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 62-77). NewtonMA: Intercultural Resource Corporation, 2004.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How ethnocentrism hinders love of neighbor (part I) - denial

It is well known that Jesus taught that the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. (And this is not just for Christians – in recent years, several interfaith initiatives between Muslims, Christians and Jews have emphasized that loving God and loving neighbor are common to the three religions.)

The interesting thing about the account in the Gospel of Luke, of course, is that in response to a lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor?,” Jesus tells the famous “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” The story is scandalous, really, because the Jews despised Samaritans and would have nothing to do with them, seeing them as “half-breeds” who had married pagans and developed a bastardized form of Judaism as their religion (with their own place of sacrifice, their own rituals, their own priests, etc.). Jews would not even travel through Samaria, if it were at all possible to avoid it.

In Jesus’ story, a Jewish traveler is attacked by bandits, beaten, robbed, and left to die. Religious Jews come across the man, but pass by without aiding him. The person who does aid him, as Jesus tells it, is a Samaritan. At the end of the story, when Jesus asks his questioner, “so who was the neighbor to the man that was attacked?,” the Jewish listener did not even say “the Samaritan” – he simply replied, “the one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus is telling us that our neighbor is any human being, regardless of whether s/he is part of our ethnic or religious group, regardless of whether our people have anything to do with his/her people, regardless of how we regard them (e.g., as “unclean” or otherwise offensive in some way, or even as having a false religion). Given that we all today – whoever we are, wherever we are – have people that are not part of our group, and that we consider unclean or wrong in some way (including having a false religion), perhaps even as being the enemy of our people; people that we will not associate with, who we tell jokes about, who we think perhaps ought to “go back where they came from,” etc. – it seems that Jesus’ parable is still relevant to us.

That said, I would like to present and discuss a model from Intercultural Studies, which I have found to be very helpful in considering how to relate, as a person of faith, to the “different other” – in other words, our “neighbor.”

The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)

One of the most useful intercultural tools that I’ve come across is Milton Bennett’s “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” (DMIS), which considers the process of growth that people experience as they encounter cultural difference.
In Bennett’s model, people grow from an experience centered in ethnocentrism – seeing and experiencing the world only from the perspective of one’s own people and cultural context – to an experience that he calls ethnorelativism, which involves developing the ability to know one’s own culture and worldview as one among many, and to enter into the world of others, adapt, and live effectively in that other cultural context.

As I consider the challenge of learning to love our neighbor, in a world which increasingly brings all of us into more and more contact with people who are more and more different than our own people, I find myself reflecting on insights from the DMIS to the process of building relationship with the “different other,” i.e., our “neighbor,” whoever that “other” might be.

How Denial hinders loving our neighbor

In Bennett’s model, we must first consider barriers to loving our neighbor. The first phase in the DMIS is denial (ignorance, lack of awareness). We begin by not being aware of (cultural) difference, and avoiding it. The world simply is as we see and experience it. We are “the people” (and any others are beyond our clear vision or understanding). If we are aware of others, they are broadly characterized, e.g., we lump all “Asians” or “Africans” or “Europeans” together, with no real knowledge of any specific characteristics. In other words, we do not know our neighbor.

Denial may be characterized by isolation, simply being out of contact with different others, or by separation, “intentional erection of physical or social barriers to create distance from cultural difference as a means of maintaining a state of denial” (e.g., racial neighborhoods or ghettos). Denial is often accompanied by extreme nationalism (which I would see as a kind of idolatry of one’s own people, as over against the – usually unknown – “other”). The “dangerous underside” of denial, Bennett points out, is the implicit relegation of others to subhuman status (e.g., the Nazi treatment of the Jews).
Good fences do NOT "make good neighbors"
It should be rather obvious that this stage of denial hinders our learning to love our neighbor, because when we live in isolation in our own world, thinking that we are the only real people, and that the world is just as we see it to be, we cannot be living in relationship or harmony with others (at least, not with different others, the “neighbor” of Jesus’ parable). Love involves knowledge. Love involves interaction. Love involves relationship. To love our neighbor, we cannot be content with denial of difference (either isolation or separation).

We cannot stay apart, and follow Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbor. We cannot live as if others do not exist, and love our neighbor. We cannot feed ourselves the myth that we are right, that God is on our side, that we are “the people” and that all others are just vaguely “out there” in the darkness beyond the borders of our world, and love our neighbor.

If we want to follow Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbor, if we as people of (any) faith want to please God in how we relate to others, we must move beyond the ethnocentric stage of denial.

(More to follow…)

* For full treatment of Bennett’s model, see
Bennett, Milton J., “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” In Paige, R.M. (Ed). (1993) Education for the Intercultural Experience (2nd ed., p. 21-71). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Bennett, Milton J., “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”  In Wurzel, Jaime S., ed., Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 62-77). Newton, MA: Intercultural Resource Corporation, 2004.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Are Covey’s 7 Habits universal? - the dangers of "minimization"

As Bennett points out in his “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” (DMIS), the stage of minimizing cultural difference, minimization, is a stage of ethnocentrism, seeing and approaching the world, and different others, from our cultural point of view.

One way in which I discovered the workings of minimization occurred during the years I lived and worked in Egypt.  

I love Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I find them personally helpful, and have used them in training and consulting others. I assumed, when I first began trying to apply them to my own life and others’ lives, that they were “universal” (yes, I know, as an anthropologist I should not have fallen into that trap for even a moment). I was brought up short, however, when I began evaluating the lives of Egyptians around me, with Covey’s habits.

Covey’s second habit is to “Begin with the end in mind,” to beware of begin caught in the trap of activity, being busy but not “effective.” His third habit, following from this, is to “Put first things first.” Once you know what your vision is, you need to make decisions to align your activities with what you are aiming at in life. You should have priorities, and organize your life around them. You should have a “burning ‘yes!’” that allows you to say “no” to other things. You should focus on things which are important but not urgent (things which all too often are neglected), and avoid living your life by the “tyranny of the urgent” (especially, things which are urgent to others). Your big priorities should be reflected in goal-setting and planning, down to the daily level.

As I said, I love Covey’s habits, and find them personally helpful. But I began to reflect on the fact that most of the Egyptians I knew, did not seem to live by these habits. My Egyptian friends seemed always to be busy, running from one thing to the next, burning the candle on both ends. They always seemed to be “juggling” too many things, and “dropping” one or another of the “balls” they were juggling (e.g., friends would routinely miss scheduled appointments or activities because of something that came up, which “interruptions” were often in the form of family obligations). And most of the Egyptians I knew always seemed to say “yes” to everyone and everything that was asked of them, regardless of whether their schedules already seemed to be full. And talk about the “tyranny of the urgent”! From my perspective, the lives of my Egyptian friends definitely seemed to be tyrannized by other people’s urgencies (which, to my pride, I tended to avoid by saying “no” to people – which I have to admit, hurt the depth of my relationship with Egyptians; but that’s another story). I kept thinking, “you need to say ‘no,’ you need to prioritize, you need to get your schedules and activities under control.”
And then one day the thought occurred to me, “what if the ‘Seven habits of highly effective Egyptians’ are different?” One of the things which caused me to ask this question was the reflection that many of my Egyptian friends were leaders (in groups and organizations, etc.). And many of them seemed to be “effective” – e.g., they had an impact on others, and they were doing things which were making a difference in peoples’ lives and in the society.

And then I began reflecting on the fact that Egyptian culture is “collective” (vs. the radical individualism of most western culture); that it is definitely people oriented (rather than the more western task orientation); and that it is event oriented (rather than the western tendency toward time orientation). Thus, for example, Egyptians tend to not be able to “just say ‘no’” to people they are in close relationship with (which is a large number of family and friends and associates, as Egyptians typically have very large social networks); and life takes more time, too, as you don’t just drop something that’s happening for something else you have scheduled, and when a person you have relationship with happens across your path, you don’t do the western thing of “I’m sorry, I have a meeting…” – rather, you allow the interruption to throw you off course, and figure out ways to deal with the impact on the rest of your schedule as you go along.

So what are the “Habits of highly effective Egyptians”? Sorry, I haven’t figured that one out yet. It’s probably for an Egyptian to write, not an outsider. But as I reflected on the fact that effectiveness is defined within a cultural context, I began to look for clues and talk with Egyptians about how they see effectiveness and make decisions, etc., rather than trying to force them into Covey’s mold (or mine). And I learned a lesson about being wary of generalizing and universalizing “principles” and practices, no matter how successful and proven they seem to be in one particular context.  (A corollary is that for an outsider to be anything remotely near “effective” in a different cultural context, s/he must undergo a significant personal adaptation. But that’s another story.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

The challenge of culture "giving way to the Word"

I was in a training on counseling skills recently, with a few others who live and work in a cross-cultural (intercultural) setting. We were all Christians, and the specific counseling skills were related to doing what we think of as “Biblical” counseling.

The trainer, in introducing a case study about the cultural dimension of counseling, made a statement to the effect that of course, ultimately, “culture has to give way to the Word” (i.e., the “word of God,” the Bible). And in the ensuing discussion, one of the participants raised the point that there is a “kingdom culture” (i.e., referring to the values of the “kingdom of heaven” or of God, which Jesus referred to constantly) that we as people of faith in Jesus are all being enculturated into, or that we enter into, which is in some way “supra” cultural.

Here are some of my reflections on these ideas, as an Anthropologist who is a reader of the Bible and a follower of Jesus:

My personal conviction is that the Bible is the Word of God, and as such is an external standard. If it is, as we believe, from God, it is in its essence connected to God himself and to “objective” reality (outside of us).

The problem, though, is in applying the Bible to situations, especially when we are dealing with people in different cultures. The Bible – the word of God – cannot come to us in unmediated form. We are human, limited. We deal in perceptions, apprehensions, understandings, etc. We “process” the world – including God, God's Word, etc. – through our minds, through our language, through our categories of thought, through our understandings of the world, etc., all of which are colored by our humanity. Thus, we can't really talk about “what the Bible says” as much as “what we understand or perceive the Bible to say.”

As human beings, we are cultural by nature. We can't escape our culture. We change and grow, yes, but we change and grow in a cultural way, and in a cultural context. I do not find it very helpful to think of us entering “kingdom culture” or some kind of “supracultural” realm (partly because, for any of us, how we define the “supra” cultural will be colored by our own culture and culture-boundedness).

In my view, the Biblical paradigm is that God's word, and God himself (with the prime example of this being Jesus in the incarnation), enters our (human, sociocultural) context, takes on the “clothing” of our culture / culture-boundedness / our humanity, and transforms everything from within. He changes us, of course, stamps us with his image (which, by the way, we all bear as human beings, but which doesn't stop us from being different from each other in how that image is manifested, and the sociocultural outworkings of our humanity, or of his life, after he comes into our lives and our contexts). Jesus enters our life and walks our road with us. In personality terms, for example, Jesus does not change an INTJ (me) into an ENFP (my wife) – he works within the boundaries (and limitations) of my personality, but allows me to blossom and grow into the fullness of the person he created me to be. And so with culture – he doesn't change a Chinese person into an American, etc., or even a “Muslim” into a “Christian” (though we may seek to bring about these changes), for them to follow Jesus.

I find it more helpful to think of the life of God like a seed, that can be planted into any “soil” and grow up within that soil (this is the best way I've seen of expressing what many in Christian circles refer to as “contextualization,” in the writings of Hiebert, Kraft, and others).

There may be human universals, but they work out differently, in different cultural settings. There is a distinction (biblically) between essence and form. I would say, for example, that the essence of basic "peacemaking" teaching (Matt. 18, etc., on dealing with sin and offense between people) is that to follow Jesus you have to deal with sin and conflict, with relational issues that come up between believers, etc. How you do that, however, can be very different, depending on the cultural context (and even on personality). How you "go to your brother/sister" can look different, in an "indirect" or "hierarchical" culture, vs. a "direct" or "egalitarian" one. Or take basic “relational needs.” You can argue that any people anywhere may need respect, comfort, acceptance, approval, security, etc. – but the way people express or receive any of these needs may differ considerably from one cultural context to another. So we can't just say the Bible says, “accept one another.” We have to learn, for different individuals and in different cultural contexts, how people express and receive acceptance (or not).

We need to recognize our own basic tendency to be ethnocentric. We all are. In a nutshell, we see God and the Bible and the world and ourselves, from our perspective (there's a lot to this, it is rooted in our personality, personal history, culture, etc.). And we tend to project “sameness” or “universality” on other people, from our frame of reference. Thus, if I say to you that “we are all human,” and the principles of leadership that I am teaching are “Biblical and relevant to us all,” what I'm usually giving you is “Biblical principles” that I have come to believe and practice and work out, within my context, and which (of course) I assume to be “universal” because (a) they work for me and mine, and (b) they are “in/from the Bible.”  We need to be very careful of our tendency to be culturally imperialistic, to assume that our practices and principles of following Jesus, teaching the Bible, living in community (church practices, etc.), are simply “from the Bible” and thus “universally applicable.”

My overall conclusion, from 28+ years of living cross-culturally and trying to adapt to and understand cultural difference; from all my study (Ph.D in Anthropology, intercultural training, and reading hundreds of books, etc.); and from coaching and observing all kinds of people from all kinds of nationalities, is that we all are far less competent in dealing with cultural matters than we think we are; we have far less understanding of culture and cultural dynamics, than we think we have; and culture is far more significant (and deserving of respect and attention!) than we realize or admit. 

We need a huge amount of basic humility and caution in relating to people of different cultures, to take care not to be overly confident that we know and understand and have answers. History is full of the disasters brought about by people working with this cultural self-confidence (arrogance). And we Americans are particularly bad about this, both in the secular realm and especially when we are dealing in a context of faith and using the Bible (it gets messy when the eternal, the divine, is wrapped up in the human).

So rather than saying culture must "give way to the Word," I would probably say that the Word has to come in and change our culture; and when we are engaged in relating to people of other cultures, we need to be open to listening to and learning from their reading and application of the Bible. Often, what was obvious to us in our cultural context, will look quite different when we see it through the eyes of culturally different others. And this is to be expected, since the God we believes in is certainly outside of the limitations of our cultural contexts (though he works within each of them).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Can people of different faiths agree on Compassion?

I first noticed the "Charter for Compassion" at the Quaker Meeting House in Ramallah (see

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

I think this is a beautiful document, a necessary and timely project. And I find myself wondering whether conservatives (those who are deeply committed) of the various religions of the world might somehow be against this? Maybe I’m wrong (I hope so). I have the feeling that evangelical Christians, for example, might react against the idea of agreeing and working with those who signed, who represent various Christian and other religious groups (i.e., “how can we work with liberals and people of different religious faiths? What do we have in common?”); and might be suspicious that the language is not their (evangelical) language, and therefore might be a “watering down” or compromising of their convictions.

I find myself wondering, as a follower of Jesus, what he would think of it. Would he embrace these ideas, this document, the principle of joining hands with others (of any religion or none) to work for compassion, for justice, equity and respect? When I put it this way, it seems so obvious. So why would some of us who associate with Jesus by taking the name “Christian,” react negatively to this initiative? 

Why would religious convictions lead some people to initiate and embrace this kind of initiative, and lead others (in the same religions) to be suspicious or reject it?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - Christ on the Indian Road

E. Stanley Jones went to India as an evangelist in the early 20th Century. When he arrived there, and began interacting with Indian Hindus, he began to change, to see them, himself and his role differently. His book, Christ of the Indian Road, presents his journey and his transformation.  I see him as a great example of how to engage, as followers of Jesus and people who want to bear witness to him, to introduce others to him, with those of another culture, another civilization, even another religion.

Here's a taste of where he ended up, in his relationship with India:

“[The Christ of the Indian Road] had caught their imagination.  He seemed so intimately theirs.  He seemed to have come in from the Indian Road and had sat upon the floor with us there in the quietness of that Indian twilight.  In the discussion we talked of India and her need.  I did not talk to them as though India were foreign to me, for it was no longer so.  I was born in the West and love it, but India has become my home; India’s people have become my people; her problems, my problems; her future, my future; and I would like to wear upon my heart her sins if I could lift her to my Savior.  I told them I wanted to be thought of as at least an adopted son of India.”

To know him, to introduce him – this is my task.  There is a beautiful Indian marriage custom that dimly illustrates our task in India, and where it ends.  At the wedding ceremony the women friends of the bride accompany her with music to the home of the bridegroom.  They usher her into the presence of the bridegroom – that is as far as they can go, then they retire and leave her with her husband.  That is our joyous task in Indiato know him, to introduce him, to retire – not necessarily geographically, but to trust India with the Christ and trust Christ with India. We can only go so far – he and India must go the rest of the way.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Perspectives on Muslim-Christian relationship and reconciliation

If you want an interesting perspective on Muslim-Christian relations, deeply relevant to the themes of "faith and culture" and "faith in cultural context," check out these posts by a good Muslim friend of mine, and let me know what you think:

"Reconciliation: The choice of peacemakers"

"360 degrees love"

and "Who needs reconciliation?"

I'll post some of my thoughts another time.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Culture Poem of the Day - "We and They"

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like us, are We
And everyone else is They.
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end up by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!
-- Rudyard Kipling

Culture Quote of the Day - seeking difference

“Difference is not something we need to resolve; it is something we need to seek, so that through astonishment we may stay on the move between different worlds, and in that way become more complete” (Richard Shweder)

Is this possible? Do people naturally seek difference, seek astonishment, seek to engage different worlds, and see this as a path toward greater completeness? My observation is that most of us do not naturally seek this, and in fact, perhaps run from and resist it (engaging difference). 

And I wonder, how does one become the kind of person who seeks the growth that comes from engaging difference?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day

“To establish a more fundamental intercultural understanding, the foreign partner must acquire the host culture language.  Having to express oneself in another language means learning to adopt someone else’s reference frame.  It is doubtful whether one can be bicultural without also being bilingual... Without knowing the language one will miss a lot of the subtleties of a culture and be forced to remain a relative outsider.” (Hofstede)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

“Faith is nothing, if it’s just a label”

Jean Zaru is a Palestinian Christian woman, and an amazing example of living the life of faith “in context,” in a way in which faith is worked out within the limitations of a particular socio-cultural-political-religious context, and also impacts and transforms the context in the process (see her book, Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Christian Woman Speaks).

She is a woman living and leading in a man’s environment. As head of the Friends’ (Quaker) Meeting, she is the only woman who is a leader of a church, in all of Palestine; and she is a co-VP of Sabeel, with Father Elias Chacour.

She is Palestinian, living under but resisting and working against Israeli occupation ("what do you do with problems and inequalities? do you sit and do nothing? faith is nothing if it's just a label - it should lead to resistance - to resist is to be human").

She is a Christian who engages in interfaith relationship, in a predominantly Muslim setting (and acts on the convictions that “All humanity are my brothers and sisters, created in God’s image” and that “The indwelling presence of God is in all people, not just Christians”).

And she is a Quaker, one of the smallest groups of Christians in Palestine, but holds her own with all of the older and larger churches (as mentioned, she is co-VP of Sabeel with Father Elias Chacour, the Archbishop of the largest church in Palestine, the Malekite).

She is living in a context in which women are known in relation – “mother of … (oldest son),” “wife of…,” and now for her, “widow of…”; a context in which women are told not to question, and not to confront men. But her vision, informed by a faith in which all human beings are equal in their creation in the image of God, is for women and men to be “equal partners” in the work, and for young women to be empowered to know their value and equality in the society.  From her perspective, women need to be “liberated from the inside”; in her experience, “no one call tell me I’m not equal – I feel empowered.” Her life demonstrates that she has experienced this liberation and empowerment, and is working on the basis of an inwardly experienced “equality,” regardless of whether others (e.g., the men around her) acknowledge it.

Her family context seems to have given root to her ability to think and act “outside the box” as she has followed her convictions over the years. In a land in which people hold very tightly to their family religious heritage, and may “disown” those who change religious affiliations (even from one Christian group to another), her family is startling different (does one call this “open-minded”? or are there other dynamics at work?).  Her family background is Orthodox, but things began to change with her parents’ generation.  Her parents became Quaker, she has an Uncle who is Baptist, two Uncles who are Anglican, and two Aunts who became Catholic Nuns). As she puts it, her family is (has become) “very ecumenical.” She says that her father and her husband both “empowered” her, encouraging her to follow her passions, and to believe that she could do anything. When her husband was dying, he called the family together and encouraged them to support Jean in continuing to follow her convictions.

She is often the only woman present in Muslim-Christian or Christian-Jewish dialogue. She has repeatedly been asked by men over the years, “why do you bother with all these issues? Go home and take care of your children.” But she carries on, energized by her confidence in her identity and calling.

It is interesting that she challenges the status quo – be it the pressures against women in leadership in public life, or the injustices of the Israeli occupation – but that she also works within the cultural context that she finds herself in. She shared various ways in which, as a woman, she has to act, to comport herself, so as to have a place at the table, an ability to speak and act and influence others. (And many of her male counterparts have said to her something like, “you’re okay, but don’t encourage other women to do this” – words which will go unheeded…)

Jean Zaru is a person who works for peace, and I would say for “culture change,” on many fronts at once: as a woman, she works to change the prevailing culture surrounding the freedom of women to participate fully in various aspects of life outside the home; as a Christian, she is active in interfaith relationships with Muslims; and as a Palestinian, she relentlessly challenges the Israeli occupation of her people.

“Religion,” Jean said, “can be a problem or a potential for transformation,” and "faith is nothing if it's just a label" (and does not lead to action). It is clear that in her case, faith is a powerful force for personal liberation and social change, and for transformational relationship with others.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The challenge of "answering that of God" in a different cultural setting

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” (George Fox, at the Friends Meeting in Ramallah)

I love this quote, which I first came across at the Friends Meeting House in Ramallah.  I admire George Fox and much of what I have heard and read of Quaker teaching. I appreciate the spirit of this quote, and would have to say that from all I’ve seen, in Palestine and elsewhere, Quakers seem to do a good job of connecting well with people in other cultural contexts. Part of it, I think, must be the humble spirit that seems to characterize Quakers – those who enter into another context as learners always get along better than those who rush in thinking they know what’s going on and what they have to offer to people in the new place. Part of it, I think, is the Quaker conviction that “that of God” is in everyone, and can resonate with “that of God” in us (this is particularly helpful, I think, in relationships between people of different religions, where there is a natural tendency to deny that the different others have anything of God in them). And part of it may be what seems to be the Quaker default of listening rather than speaking – listening until one has a sense of God speaking, being careful not to speak too quickly or out of one’s own inclinations. (I think it’s fairly obvious that for most of us, in going into a different cultural setting, we will be better off if we listen more and speak less.)

With all of this said, I want to question whether it is sufficient, in going abroad, to simply seek to live one’s life (as a pattern, example), and to “answer that of God”? I think that it’s a safer starting point than thinking one can enter into another setting and begin leading, teaching, or changing people. But I would suggest that it is only a starting point, not a place from which to have the most full and positive intercultural experience.

For the most positive experience of another culture, of people who are different than we are, we need to actively seek to enter into that cultural context as a learner, embracing the fact that these others – while sharing a common humanity – are different than ourselves; accepting the difference, that is, and then adapting to it.  (See Bennett’s “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity,” in which the ethnocentric stages of DenialDefenseMinimization are followed by stages of AcceptanceAdaptationIntegration.)

The nature of cultural difference is such that one person’s “example,” i.e., their way of living out their relationship with God (their faith, their religion), does not readily translate into another cultural context, is not readily interpretable or understandable. Modesty, for example, arguably an inner reality in a person’s attitude toward self, God and others, is worked out very differently in different cultural contexts. And therefore, one may be truly modest in one’s own context, but not be seen as an example of modesty by others in a different context (we experienced this when we moved from the U.S. to live among Arab Muslims). Ways of showing hospitality, ways of showing respect and honor, and on and on, differ significantly from culture to culture.

To truly, ultimately be a positive (rather than negative) "example" to those of another culture, we must learn to translate the inner reality of our lives into the outward expressions of the different cultural setting. And this will be different from setting to setting.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Recognizing common humanity, working for human rights

Question: why would a group of Israeli Jews devote their lives to monitoring human rights abuses by the Israeli government / IDF against Palestinians? Why would they do this, when their work is unpopular with the Israeli government and people, when they are sometimes attacked as being “anti-Israel” (traitors to the national cause), to the extent that the Israeli government has now launched an “investigation” of them and other such groups (a thinly veiled harassment, an attempt to get them to “back off”)?

Answer: it must be what they profess, that they believe in human dignity, that God created all people in His image, and that it is their responsibility as Jewish Israelis to be a voice of conscience to their society. And because they believe in Israel, and want it to be the kind of state that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and of the teachings of Judaism, would call them to as a nation.

The people who work at B’tselem ( are another group of my “peace heroes,” and they also represent to me a great example of how faith can lead people to a positive relationship with the "different other," rather than a negative one. (B’tselem means “in his image,” from the Genesis account of the creation of mankind.)

They see themselves holding up a mirror to Israeli society, for the sake of improving the society. They believe strongly that settlements and other actions depriving Palestinians of their human rights are not in Israel’s best interests.

And so, in spite of their unpopularity, in spite of government harassment, and in spite of the fact that “people don’t want to hear about it,” they carry on, day after day, in their work for humanity and for peace.

If only the faith of more people in the world, would lead us to recognize the shared humanity of all people - regardless of religion, nationality, ethnicity, etc. - and to work so diligently for the rights of others.

Culture Quote of the Day

"If you just be yourself, you'll get along fine with people from any culture" (anonymous)

Do people really believe this?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day (chicken & buffalo)

"To those who say culture doesn't matter and we're all the same, I say: A chicken and a buffalo are essentially the same thing too, aren't they? Both have tails and walk on land, and neither one runs backward very well. They're also about the same size if viewed from a certain perspective." (Brooks Peterson, "Cultural Intelligence")

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

I have seen this attributed to Anais Nin. I have heard it quoted in the film Anna and the King, which to me is a beautiful film illustrating the process of someone growing from being ethnocentric (seeing and evaluating the world from their own cultural perspective, and discounting other perspectives) to being what Bennett (in his “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”) calls ethnorelative (or what one might call ethnosensitive), realizing that one’s cultural perspective is one among many in the world.

Counter-cultural: working for peace when they kill your son

[Note: for the time being, I am continuing to post reflections from a recent trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories, which I am posting on When I finish this series, the postings for the two sites will diverge again.]

One of my peace heroes is Robi Damelin of the Parents Circle ( I first heard her speak in June 2010, and then again a couple of weeks ago. You can find her story in the excellent film “Encounter Point” ( I will briefly highlight her story and some of her key points, as I understand them and as they speak to me.

Robi is from South Africa, and from the beginning of her time in Israel she and her family were peace activists. It came time for her sons to serve in the army, which was a conflict for them as a family. On the one hand, they did not want to be part of the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. On the other hand, they want to build a better Israel, and thought, “we can be different – we can be soldiers who treat the Palestinian people with compassion and respect, as human beings.” And so they served.

And one day, her son David was assassinated by a Palestinian sniper at a checkpoint. And she suffered the awful grief and dying that belongs to a parent who loses a child.

She talks about being faced with a choice, a decision – “Do you seek revenge, or do you try to stop other families from experiencing the pain? What path will you go down, and what will happen to you, based on what you choose?” She got involved in the Parents Circle, and began taking steps to try to stop the violence, to stop other families from experiencing the pain she now must live with.

Robi talks of her struggle to come to grips with how to relate to the man who killed her son. How it took her months to be able to speak his name. How she decided to write him a letter in prison (which he responded to viciously, in a total rejection of her overture to relationship). How recently she has written him a second letter.

She talks about how she used to speak of “forgiveness,” but that she now feels that she doesn’t really know what the word means. “How can I forgive this?” (She mentions having recently heard a definition of “forgiveness” as “giving up your just right to revenge.”) She prefers to talk about “understanding” (the other person, what they did, why, what his pain is, etc.). One of our group offered a definition of forgiveness which included God, and she asked, “but what about nonreligious people? Do you have to be a spiritual person to want to forgive?”

She talks about trying to help Israel become “a democracy that can be an example to the rest of the world.” There are terrible problems in Israel like domestic violence and road rage, because “you can’t occupy another people without it changing your moral fiber and character.”

One of the major issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that both sides have a victim mentality.  For Robi, the act of writing the first letter to the killer of her son, was “giving up being a victim,” and that was important for her because “being a victim destroys your life.”

In the midst of the conflict, one of the things they (the Parents Circle) try to do is to bring people together, to build relationships (my understanding is that they were the only group involving both Palestinians and Israelis that kept meeting the whole time of the second Intifada). A key problem, she says, is that “we do not know each other.” People need to meet, and listen to each other’s narratives, learn each other’s history (and each other’s version of their shared history); need to move from sympathy (where they share the same pain) to empathy, truly entering the world of the other, understanding them. We need to reclaim an understanding of each other’s humanity – we so often lose our humanity through fear.

Some other statements she made, in sharing her story with us:
  • “The worst enemy of the Palestinians is the fear of the Jews” (i.e., the fear that Jewish people have, of the Palestinians, for their safety, etc.)
  • “Checkpoints create more hatred than safety”
  • “It does not help anyone [for you outsiders] to be pro Palestinian or pro Israeli. If you can’t be part of the solution, just leave us alone! Don’t create new problems and divisions” (e.g., creating a pro Palestinian or pro Israeli group or movement in the U.S.)
  • “It’s not a religious conflict, and sometimes religion gets in the way of solving conflict”

In talking about interreligious dialogue and relations, learning to stand together and work together, she made a comment, “It doesn’t matter what you believe in – it matters who you are.”

One of the things I find myself looking for, whenever I visit Israel or the Occupied Territories, is any source of hope. Robi is from South Africa, and was involved in anti-Apartheid activities when she was younger. Having been out of South Africa for some time, and recently returned, she sees what has happened in South Africa as a “miracle.” And the last words I remember this self-professed “not very spiritual” woman speaking are, “we need a miracle.” If it could happen in South Africa, why not in Palestine?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The witness of Yad Vashem - how we treat the different other

For me, the consideration of culture, of human social life, normally includes questions of "self" and "other," and how they relate (questions which Miroslav Volf considers in Exclusion and Embrace). And how (and why) people build barriers between themselves and others, and how in certain situations those relationships become characterized by hostility and dehumanization (the depths of the "polarization" / "defense" reaction to difference, in the middle of Bennett's "ethnocentrism" in the DMIS). With that as context, I share a reflection on Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

I hesitate to write about my experience of Yad Vashem. To me it as a sacred place, a place that bears witness to an almost incomprehensible experience of suffering by one group of people at the hands of others. I feel, when I walk through the memorial, that I am walking among the wounded souls of a people. I ask God, whenever I visit, to touch my soul with the anguish of the Jewish people, reflected in the pictures and quotations, in the art and the exhibits. And I ask God to show me what this means for me as a fellow human being of those whose suffering is represented in this place.

The memorial is full of powerful images and striking quotations, many which scar one’s emotions, and others which lift one’s spirits.

“slay them not [the Jews]…scatter them abroad” (Augustine)

“where books are burned, human beings are also destined to be burned” (Heinrich Heine)

“the personification of the devil, as the symbol of all evil, assumes the living shape of the Jew” (Hitler)

“a country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates” (Kurt Tucholsky)

The exhibits bear witness to a feeling and perception of Christian ambivalence toward Jews and Judaism, and traces the attitudes and events in Hitler and Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jewish people:
The concept of German vs. Jewish “blood”
The so-called “Jewish question” and “Jewish problem”
The policy of Aryanization and discrimination
Anti-Jewish racial laws
Economic boycott
Stripping of civil rights
Forced registration and wearing patches
Vandalizing and expropriating of Jewish businesses
Flight, creating a refugee problem (no one wanted them)
The destruction of a whole Jewish way life
Experience of terror, jail, humiliation, abuse
The burning of synagogues
Confiscation of homes, real estate, factories, businesses, artistic and cultural treasures
The creation of ghettoes – incarceration behind fences and walls, large numbers of people being restricted to small sections of a city (as an interim measure to eventual total removal)
Resettlement, deportation
The final step in dehumanization and demonization of a people – the “final solution” – total annihilation, with gas chambers, and plans to murder 11,000,000 Jewish people

And the fact that (for the most part) fellow citizens and other nations did not notice, did not care, did not take action, or in some cases, acted as accomplices, directly persecuting Jews or taking advantage of their suffering and loss.

It is too much to take in.

“the world is divided [for Jews] into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter” (Chaim Weizman, 1937)

“all of us, dying here amidst the icy artic indifference of the nations, are forgotten by the world and by life” (Avraham Levite, Auschwitz, 1945)

And after the war, the fact that most Western countries did not want, would not accept, Jewish refugees.

There is a small bright spot in the witness of Yad Vashem, the testimony to those called “the righteous among the nations,” non-Jews who saved Jewish lives, people it says were (are) “a model of heroism, humane and moral behavior, and the preservation of the sanctity of human life.”

“God created all of us in the same image…everyone has the right to live” (Mary Szul, Poland)

“I do not know what a Jew is, we only know what human beings are” (Pastor Andre Trocme)

"I know that when I stand before God on Judgment day, I shall not be asked the question posed to Cain -where were you when your brother's blood was crying out to God?" (Imre Bathory, Hungary)

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
(Martin Niemöller, a German pastor and theologian)

And the reflections after the war, after the Holocaust, of a world lost:
“an entire Jewish world that existed and was destroyed”

“their dear ones had been murdered, their culture crushed, their homes ravaged, and they had been torn from their childhood places of origin – persons without a homeland, categorized as ‘displaced persons’”

“all is imprisoned within the cell of memory” (Itamar Yaoz-Kest)

“my people is no more” (Yitzhak Katznelson)

And praised. Auschwitz. Be. Majdanek. The Lord. Treblinka. And praised. Buchenwald. Be. Mauthausen. The Lord. Belzec. And praised. Sobibor. Be. Chelmno. The Lord. Ponary. And praised. Theresienstadt. Be. Warsaw. The Lord. Vilna. And praised. Skarzysko. Be. Bergen-Belsen. The Lord. Janow. And praised. Dora. Be. Neuengamme. The Lord. Pustkow. And praised… Amen.
(an excerpt from the book The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart)

How does one internalize such a witness? How does one answer the question that was ringing in my head as I tried to comprehend such large scale inhumanity, “how should we then live?”

I ask God to help me to understand, to give me sympathy for, the suffering of the Jewish people. And not to contribute to it. And Yad Vashem helps me to understand, in a small way, the importance of the nation of Israel to the Jewish people - having a place, a home of their own, a refuge. And the mentality that I think I see, of fear, acting like a cornered, threatened animal, striking out because of the spectre of being struck again, of annihilation as a people. I ask God to help me understand.

I can’t help but think – visiting Bethlehem and Ramallah and Hebron and Jerusalem – of the current experience of the Palestinian people, their suffering, their loss. And to think of the words I have heard so often (including from Jewish Israelis), of the tragedy of the abused becoming the abuser, the victim becoming the victimizer.

And I wonder what the lesson of the Holocaust and of Yad Vashem should be to us, all of us? Can Yad Vashem be a witness for peace?

Is the message, “never again will we (the Jewish people) allow this to happen to us”?  Or should it be, “never again will we (all people) allow this to happen to any human beings, and never – by God’s grace – will we (any of us) be the perpetrators of dehumanization and villianization of other human beings”?

May God allow us to internalize the witness of the many Muslims, Jews and Christians I have met in Israel and the Occupied Territories whose message is that we must treat every human being we meet as our brother, our sister, our friend, ourselves with a different language or religion or ethnicity, and that we must stand and work for societies, and a world, where every human being is treated with respect and dignity, their rights and humanity protected.

This, to me, is the message of Yad Vashem.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day

“Who knows one culture, knows no culture.  We come to self knowledge on the boundary.” (David Augsburger)

Again, the key to growth from ethnocentrism to a positive, sensitive experience of cultural difference, is becoming culturally self-aware. It is in self-awareness that we come to know others as they are. 

Culture Quote of the Day

“the first step in multicultural living is hospitality” - Conde-Frazier, A Many Colored Kingdom

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Conversations between Christians and Muslims: Jesus, witness and "conversion"

I have recently been part of a fascinating email interchange among a group of people which includes both Christians and Muslims. We have been talking about the issue of conversion, and the fact that within most Muslim contexts, Muslims are not free to change their religion. I would like to pick up on a particular strand of thought that for me has central connection to the issue of faith in context. To quote from our email discussion, from the views of one of the participants:

… several of you… have pointed out that “conversion” is the real issue… No one wants to feel targeted for conversion by another. Here are [some further] thoughts on this....

1. Jesus came full of grace and truth according to the gospel of John (chapter one verse fourteen).  We need both grace (love, compassion, understanding) and truth (integrity with who we are, freedom, directness).  I try to live this way (in the context of this discussion) by saying something like “my religious heritage is Christian, but I’m working at believing in and following Jesus Christ. You are free to believe whatever you like about God and his messengers and books, but I’ve found there to be something very special in Jesus that I think you’d miss if you didn’t explore.”  That feels both graceful and truthful to who I am and who the person is I’m talking to.  
2.  We’re going back and forth in the discussion as to how we use the word “conversion.”  If conversion means – as most think it does – to change your religious identity, then we have problems.  I imagine most of us on this list agree that it’s not about changing your religious identity (although that itself is a hugely controversial topic).  But if by “conversion” we mean that God wants to change (convert) our hearts from the inside out – I think we’re open to that.  Right?  So it’s not that we’re “against conversion” - I need to be converted every day...
Therefore, in a perfect world, we might like the freedom in each country to convert from one religion to the next if someone so desires – we don’t have that and we don’t like to see that happen. What we DO want to see happen in our lives and in the lives of all 6.8 billion people on earth, is a true conversion to God by his spirit.  All of us on this list think Jesus has something to do with that. A classic Evangelical position is that it is by the death and resurrection of Jesus that this sort of conversion is made possible.  Our Muslim friends on this list (and many others among them) would agree that there is something special and unique about Jesus the Christ and that he shouldn’t be ignored.  

And my response:
As an Anthropologist who follows (seeks to follow) Jesus, one perspective I have on the issue of conversion is that we as human beings live in community with others (generally, who are "our people," who are like us). We grow up within a community, learn the culture and ways of life, internalize the "worldview" of that particular people, etc. We are all, naturally, "ethnocentric" - i.e., we see everything from the vantage point of our particular people; and we don't realize that there are other ways of "being human."

All of us tend to think that other people will be better, more fully human, if they become like us. We may not say this out loud, but we act as if it is true. The only way we know of being human, or of being "Christian" or "Muslim" or whatever, is to be like us. And so, if we share our faith, we tend to do it by trying to draw people into our community (and this can be with the best of intentions). But as we all know, most Muslims don't want to become Christians, or vice versa (and you can insert most peoples, most religions - E. Stanley Jones, when he went to India to evangelize the Hindus, found their response to be, "we don't want your religion, we have our own; we don't want your civilization, we have our own," etc. - this had a great impact on how he ended up sharing his faith there, as related in Christ of the Indian Road.)  In fact, Christians do this to each other, too - Protestants try to get Catholics or Orthodox to be Protestant, evangelicals try to get everyone to be evangelical, etc. And again, people don’t appreciate this attempt to change what is (in the deepest sense) their culture, their way of being.

It can be very different though, if rather than trying to get people to become like us, to become part of our community, we acknowledge the fact that they are and have a right to be who they are, part of a different community, and share (mutually, both ways) what we have found to be significant (e.g., in our following of Jesus, our faith in God, our religion) that they can take into their lives in their context, if they so desire.

Another way I think about this is that no one has to become like others to follow Jesus. No one has to follow Jesus, in the way that I do (in fact, that would be impossible, because my following of Jesus is inextricably bound up in my total sociocultural identity – it is only possible to follow Jesus in a specific context). Jesus, rather, enters into any and all human contexts, and walks our roads with us (this became Jones' message in India, that Jesus would "walk the Indian road" with people there). And what it might look like for Muslims to follow Jesus, in their context, could be very different from what it looks like for “Christians” (or any others) to follow him in theirs.
(With Christian groups I often ask, “Do Muslims have to “become ‘Christian’” to follow Jesus?” to which I argue, no, they don’t. What it might mean or look like for Muslims to follow Jesus in their own sociocultural context, is a matter for further discussion.)

Thus, as the author of the above email advocates, conversion is not about changing religion; conversion is about God changing our hearts, so that we can live out his life in the particular sociocultural context in which we find ourselves. And that, to me, is what faith in context (or contextual living) is all about.
In addition to the above, one of the things that makes this discussion and process hard (between Christians and Muslims, or Christians and anybody) is that many of us have come to a personal conviction and experience of Jesus as the source of life (in his own teaching, he said he is the bread of life, the way, the truth and the life, the resurrection and the life, etc.). With that conviction, our call is to bear witness to Jesus as the giver of life. And given our makeup as cultural human beings, that tends to get translated into an invitation to "become Christian," because it is in our context as Christians (for the most part) that we have come to know Jesus as the giver of life. So I want to say, while everyone is free to think what they want of Jesus, and responsible to respond to him (or not) out of their will and choice, we who know him also have an obligation to bear witness to what we have found in him (but need to learn to do so in a way that is good rather than bad “news” to people – this taking off on the fact that the word gospel means “good news”). And I would also maintain that knowing Jesus as the giver of life has nothing to do with being "Christian" (i.e., Muslims or anyone else can know Jesus as the giver of life, within their context).