Thursday, March 24, 2011

What’s Wrong with Ethnocentrism?

To return once more to the topic of ethnocentrism (i.e., seeing and experiencing and interacting with the world from the perspective of your own culture / your own frame of reference, without an understanding of the different cultures of others, or the ability to enter into their frame of reference and experience), I would like to ask whether ethnocentrism is compatible with faith, and if not, what’s wrong with it?

Here are some of the characteristics of ethnocentrism, with reference to the stages of Bennett’s “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”*:

  • lack of awareness of cultural difference
  • lack of interest in cultural difference
  • inability to distinguish cultural difference (e.g., thinking of “Africans” or “Asians” or even “foreigners” as a broad category without internal differentiation)
  • isolation or intentional separation from different others
  • lack of understanding of cultural difference or others who are different
  • a negative experience of difference, and reaction against it – feeling threatened by difference
  • one’s own culture experienced as the only viable one
  • polarization (“us” / “them”)
  • generalizing and positively stereotyping one’s own people and culture
  • generalizing and negatively stereotyping other peoples and cultures
  • prejudice, denigration, possibly animosity, toward those who are different
  • in the extreme, dehumanizing and/or demonizing others
  • trivializing difference, acting as if people are basically the same (i.e., as if others are basically the same as ourselves)
  • thus, not relating to others as they truly are, in their uniqueness or fullness
  • lack of cultural self-awareness
  • generalizing from one’s own experience, principles, practices, to others – assuming that what “works for us” is universal, relevant and applicable anywhere and everywhere and to everyone
  • those in a dominant or majority group not being aware of how racial minorities experience race relations, men not being aware of how women experience gender issues, etc.
  • assuming we have “the answers” for everyone, not being aware that the questions that others are asking, may be different than our questions
In sum, ethnocentrism is a form of self-centeredness, on a group and cultural level. It ranges from ignorance through defensiveness to a somewhat benign assumption of similarity, but in all cases, one cannot know and relate to others as they are, from any point on the spectrum of ethnocentrism.

There are many reasons why someone might decide that it would be best not to stay in an ethnocentric state.

From a faith perspective, I would argue that ethnocentrism, while “natural” to people, is not compatible with living according to the example and teachings of Jesus.

Take Jesus’ central teachings, to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” and to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As a starting point, it would seem that these commands would necessitate having an interest in knowing others and relating to them. And both “loving” and “doing unto others” would seem to clearly imply not looking down on them, negatively stereotyping, being biased against, or despising them. Thus, it seems obvious from the beginning that the “denial” and “defense” stages of ethnocentrism do not square with Jesus’ teaching.

To go deeper, in the broader context of the teachings of the New Testament one might define love as encompassing many other relational teachings, e.g., the exhortations to accept one another and to honor one another. To take just those two, it would seem obvious that a depth of accepting and honoring another person requires knowing that person as they are. The more fully I know someone, the more deeply I will be able to (learn to) accept or honor them. And this would be true of the “do unto others” command, which is really a way of summarizing what it means to love someone – what I want of others is that they understand me as I am, and accept and otherwise relate to me as I am, not according to an inadequate or distorted image of me.

It doesn’t take much empathy to imagine that for a person of color, having a white person treat you as if you are the same as them, without any understanding of your personal or group experience of discrimination, etc., is not loving (or even tolerable); or for a woman, to have men blithely proclaim that “we have no problem with gender issues here,” without ever listening to your experience or perspective on the matter, falls short of a positive or even acceptable relationship (to say the least). And anyone who has been on the receiving end of some other person or group coming in with the (“universal”) answers to what they perceive to be your need or problem, knows how obnoxious that approach is. Therefore, “minimization” also falls short of relating well to other people, and thus, to living according to the teachings and example of Jesus.

Ethnocentrism, in one way or another, in one form or another, is at the heart of many of the problems which exist between groups of people in the world today (and throughout history). It seems clear to me, as a follower of Jesus, that living up to the ideals and standards of our faith should lead us to reject, and seek to identify and grow beyond, ethnocentrism in all of its manifestations.

Coming soon: Beyond Ethnocentrism…

* For more details on each of these stages, see:

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.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Do we support freedom of religion and nonestablishment of religion out of convenience, or on principle?

In response to my post about whether Tunisians will embrace a secular constitution or not, a friend wrote and asked whether I thought that the process of Christians embracing freedom of religion and separation of “church” and “state” was just motivated by convenience (things would “work better”), or whether such a commitment is actually rooted in Christian teaching?

My conviction is that the teachings of the Bible and the example of Jesus inherently support freedom of religion and nonestablishment (especially, not using establishment of religion to persecute others who differ in belief or practice, whether other Christians, or people of other religions or none).

I would point to the fact that the Bible teaches that God has given men and women the responsibility and the freedom to respond to him (or not), and that we are not to judge others, but to leave judgment to God; and that Jesus taught that his “kingdom” was not a political kingdom (e.g., a political alternative to Roman rule), but was of a different nature, meant to work (as leaven, in one of his parables) within existing social structures (of any kind).

It is my understanding from reading Christian history, that there has been a progression both in thinking about how to best live together in society with others of different faith (Christian and other), from a practical standpoint, and in (re)thinking about Biblical perspectives  on the relationship of “church” and “state,” on a level of foundational principles. I don’t know of anyone advocating that Biblical teaching would encourage Christians to seek to return to an establishment of religion or an abolishing of freedom of religion (though there are those calling for a return to America as a “Christian nation,” and there is what I see as a natural tendency for any group of people to want to have their own beliefs and practices and social standing, protected from or by the government – i.e., a group self-centeredness, which might lead Christians to act as if they did not think that the Bible’s teaching would lead us to stand up for freedom of religion for all people, not just for ourselves).

Jesus taught that we should “love our neighbor as ourselves,” and that we should “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” Both of these teachings, I would argue, should lead us as followers of Jesus (or “Christians,” if you will) to stand for freedom of religion for all, and for nonestablishment of religion for all, for the sake of us all.

My question, then, to followers of other religious teachings would be: am I right in thinking that your faith would lead you to stand for the same freedom for all, and disestablishment of the religion of one particular group, for the sake of equal rights for all?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Can Christianity be Reconciled with Feminism: Further Thoughts

I have been thinking quite a bit about this question of reconciling feminism with Christianity, and decided to write up some further thoughts.

First, about “feminism.” Of course, this term may cover a wide range of phenomena, so to discuss the question in depth would necessitate specifying what exactly one means by feminism. 

My conviction as a follower of Jesus is that his teaching to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, plus Paul’s teaching that “there is in Christ no male or female,” plus the statement at the beginning of Genesis that male and female are created in the image of God, would clearly indicate that men and women have equal value in the sight of God, and should be treated accordingly. My conviction is that Jesus’ teachings should lead us to actively work for human and civil rights for all people, and certainly for women. And that we should decry all mistreatment of women, in history and today, and do our best to put an end to it.

Or as my daughter recently put it, feminism might be defined as meaning that women are human. Full stop.

More can be built on this core, of course, but as I understand both feminism and the teachings of Jesus and the Bible, they are compatible; in fact, feminism defined in this way is an essential element of Christian faith. This is to say that it is not relative, i.e., that it is not okay (though it has happened throughout history), to conceive of a “Christianity” in which women are considered to be of less value than men, can be treated as possessions or sex objects, etc.

I also want to say more about “Christianity.” The heart of things, as I read the Bible, is relationship with God through Jesus – i.e., faith in God, through Jesus, and a life that consists of living out that faith, living according to his teachings. That faith, however, must be lived out in a specific human context – a sociocultural, religious, political, historical context. (This is what some of us refer to as “contextualization” – living out faith in a particular context.)

Those who follow Jesus, and who are generally known as “Christians” (note that there is a range of variation as to what those who self-identify as Christians, mean by that identification, and also a range as to what others take the name to mean), live out their faith in various ways, and differ in their beliefs, convictions, practices, etc. In many respects, those beliefs and practices reflect the sociocultural context in which they find themselves. And of course there are different churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and many variations within those), with different interpretations, beliefs, practices, rituals, and other outworkings of their faith.

One might call all of that, “Christianity”; and one might argue about what is “true” Christianity and what is not, and talk about extrabiblical practices, folk religion, etc. And one cannot always or easily draw boundaries between what is “religious” and what is not (when trying to pin down what exactly is meant by “Christianity”).

It is also worth noting, from an anthropological perspective, that feminism has many more complex variations than simply the view that women are human; that feminism itself, in those more complex outworkings, is a cultural phenomena (and not an absolute, outside of culture set of values or truths); and that having a high view of women does not necessitate being “feminist” (depending on how it is defined in detail). In other words, it is possible to be a true and faithful follower of Jesus, but not be a “feminist” as some people define the term. Being a “feminist” is a possible but not necessary component of being a “Christian” (depending on how that feminism is defined – and again, I am not talking about mistreatment of women, but of culturally different ways of defining the relationship between men and women, their roles, etc.)

I would maintain, for example (as an anthropologist and as a Christian), that it is not against the view that women are human, to believe that there are different roles for men and women in the church. And it is not an essential outworking of the view that women are human (conversely), to say that women should be able to be pastors. Either view and practice could be an outworking of a commitment to treating women as human; i.e., there can be different cultural expressions of being Christian (based on different interpretation of relevant biblical passages) that are compatible with feminism defined as “women are human.” (And there could be outworkings of being Christian, or outworkings of feminism, that are not compatible with each other, with the possibility that incompatibility lies either with the understanding of being Christian being off center to the Gospel, or with the definition of feminism being off center to the Gospel).

At the end of the day, then, I suppose the answer to the question must be, it depends on what you mean by “Christianity,” and it depends on what you mean by “feminism.” And people who claim to be Christian, and people who claim to be feminist, and those who claim to be both, disagree on the essence of those categories. And so the discussion goes on… And this process of definition and expression (both of Christian faith and of feminism) is at the heart of the relationship between faith and culture.


P.S. If you are "Christian" or "feminist" or both, I would appreciate your thoughts on this. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Can Christianity and feminism be reconciled?

A friend recently posted something which caught my attention:

A couple days ago someone told me and my classmates that he thought it pretty much impossible to reconcile Christianity and feminism. He said some people believe they do, but “I think it’s amazing what some people can believe.” To my ears that is like saying one cannot reconcile living in a patriarchal society with being a feminist, or one cannot reconcile being a philanthropist with being an atheist. To be honest, I go back and forth on how I identify myself in relation to faith. If by “Christianity” one means the “Christianity” that makes the news for wanting to burn Korans and blow up women’s health clinics, or the Christianity that says women should be subordinate to men, then no way, no how, nah-uh can one be a Christian and a feminist. But since the people who introduced me to feminism are all self-identified Christians who have had to honestly and painfully come to terms and redefine the terms of their faith, I have to with all due respect level at such an over-generalized accusation, “How...would you know?”  (for the full article see

I agree with Kohleun that our answer has a lot to do with how we think about "Christianity." My perspective and conviction, as a person who "believes in" Jesus (i.e., embraces him and seeks to follow his teaching), is that he did not bring the (or a) "religion" of "Christianity." People who have followed him, through history, have constructed "Christianity" from Biblical and extrabiblical texts (as they have sought to work out the implications of his teachings). 

So in response to the implied question, can Christianity be reconciled with feminism, I would reply:

1) Yes, one can read the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the Bible in a way that is consistent with feminism - i.e., one can construct a "Christianity" that is feminist. This is, in fact, being done by many people. Implied in this, of course, is that what has in various times and places gone under the name of "Christianity," is not necessarily absolute, or final, or consistent with what others (in other times and places) would see as accurately reflecting the teachings of Jesus. (You can note views on race and slavery, and even views of how people should relate to their government - i.e., whether they should revolt against perceived unjust leaders - as other examples of a different reading of the Biblical texts leading to different views of what "Christianity" should be all about.)

2) For me, it's more helpful to stop talking about "Christianity," and focus more on the idea of what it means to be true to Jesus (if you want you may refer to that as "being 'Christian'," but that tends to lead to the confusion that what we're talking about is "Christianity," i.e., a religion). The question I would therefore pose is, can one love and embrace and follow Jesus and his teachings, and be a feminist? And to that, I would say the answer would almost certainly have to be a resounding "yes," whether others who follow Jesus, in any time or place, would agree or not. Because Jesus seems to be remarkably resilient, able to walk with people in our diverse contexts and convictions, bringing his light and life to bear in and through us as we are.

(Please note: I have not defined "feminism" here, which would of course be necessary for a deeper and more adequate consideration of the question at hand. And it is another question, worth asking, whether Jesus would actually lead us in the direction of feminism. If we are talking about valuing women as much as men, as equally created in God's image, and all that follows from that,I would again argue that not only would the teachings of Jesus be consistent with feminism; he would actively lead us in this direction.)

Carry on, Kohleun, and Karith, and everyone else out there who is wrestling with understanding how to be be true to yourself, to humanity, and to Jesus, in this complicated (and messed up) world we live in.

(P.S. This does not mean that I believe that there is no truth. But clearly, our understanding of the truth seems to be continuously developing through history. Another way of saying what is above is that the problem isn't with "Christianity," it's with our human understanding of what exactly "Christianity" - by which, here, I mean, rightly understanding and living by the teachings of Jesus - means.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

How should we treat the icons of others?


a breaker or destroyer of imagesespecially those set up forreligious veneration.
a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition.
1590–1600; Medieval Latin īconoclastēs  < Medieval Greek eikonoklástēs


I was visiting my daughter in Oxford yesterday, and we had an interesting discussion (we always do). I thought somehow of some of the discussions which get going on my Facebook page, in response to links that I post or statements I make (usually around issues having to do with perceptions of Muslims or Palestinians, Muslim-Christian relations, or various social issues). I was thinking that my posts tend to stir up some controversy, or to receive a negative reaction or response. And I was thinking how I think of myself as challenging conventional ways of looking at certain people or certain issues.

I recalled my Anthropology and Linguistics profs in University, and how they used to talk about being perceived as somewhat disruptive by other faculty members or by some in the administration. And I remember learning the word "iconoclast," as they expressed an aspect of their role or functioning at the University. And I thought, I have grown into the image of those "iconoclastic" profs I studied under; I have become an iconoclast.

I mentioned all of this to my daughter, and true to form, she challenged my thinking. She said that if in the original meaning an "iconoclast" was one who destroyed icons (i.e., peoples' sacred symbols), and in broader usage it "a person who attacks cherished beliefs..., etc.," then she doesn't see how that is a positive role. Rather, she said, we should be challenging (not destroying) "icons," i.e., cherished beliefs or perspectives, ethnocentric notions, traditions, ignorance, etc.; and our own beliefs are also open to challenge. The point, in other words (in my words), should be to shake us all from our parochial, ethnocentric views of life, of the world, of others, to challenge us all to see things from other perspectives, and to related to people as they are, not according to our stereoptyical (and inadequate) images of them.

And I realized, talking with her, that I do not aspire to be an iconoclast. I do not want to destroy peoples' ethnocentric worldviews, but to challenge them in a way that might lead to them being expanded. One of the problems, in fact, in the world today, is that people of different positions, perspectives, and religions, do want to destroy the "icons" (the values, beliefs, images, symbols, etc.) of those who are different than themselves, those with whom they disagree.

A fundamental question is, do we want to be people who destroy, or who build? I would suggest that to resist and seek to destroy the icons of others, is rooted in ethnocentrism; to move toward a positive relationship with different others is to move toward ethnorelativism, understanding and engaging with different others (and their worldviews), even when those others are ethnocentric, etc. (and even when they fight against your perspectives).

I came aware from our discussion realizing that I need to keep focusing on seeking to understand and relate to others, even when I find myself frustrated by them, engage in their world, and seek to find ways (within a framework of understanding) to challenge "icons," and to work toward building understanding, appreciation, relationship, etc.

Is there a word for that?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why do we fight over differences of belief?

Why do we push away, or attack, or push out, others who differ in belief from us?

Christena Cleveland wrote an excellent piece about a recent book by Rob Bell and subsequent division and fighting of “pro” and “anti” camps of other Christians (see

She writes,
In my work with churches, I find that most Christians agree that we should unite across ethnic, linguistic and socio-economic lines. Few people have a problem with this idea (at least in theory). However, Christians bristle at the suggestion of unity across theological divisions. Armed with the belief that our perspective is entirely right, we easily come up with reasons why other perspectives aren’t valuable and why dissenting voices should be extinguished.
Our tendency to do this was on spectacular display last week when Christians heard wind of Rob Bell’s controversial new book and swiftly sided with either Rob Bell or his critics. A humble appreciation for different perspectives was conspicuously absent from the conversation. Rather than giving serious, respectful thought to the viewpoint with which we disagreed, we dug our heels even deeper into the ground of our pre-existing theological beliefs, unwilling to consider other ideas. An event that should have triggered respectful conversation across theological lines led to divisions that are even more dogmatic and deaf than before! It was both predictable and sad.
The metaphor of the body of Christ preaches the need to value different perspectives – to be ideologically interdependent. Hans Boersma, the J.I. Packer Professor of theology at Regent College, agrees, writing “The idea of direct and complete access to [truth] is an arrogant illusion that violates the multifaceted integrity of the created world” (Boersma, Violence, Hospitality and the Cross). We need each other’s perspectives.  So why are we so stubbornly opposed to the idea that we might learn something from another theological viewpoint?

In answer to the question, the author suggests two main reasons – that we hate ambiguity (we have a need for cognitive closure), and that we hate “black sheep.”

On the second point, I see an anthropological reality (and would point to Miroslav Volf's excellent book, Exclusion and Embrace) - it has to do with the creation of group identity, and with in-group (“us”) / out-group (“them”) dynamics. We define our group with certain boundaries (in the case of evangelicals, those boundaries tend to be marked by specific beliefs), and build walls, and push away (or out) anyone who blurs the line, or who claims to be “in” but doesn't respect our boundary markers or in-group characteristics. The wall-building phenomena is particularly evident these days between Christians and Muslims. It's sad, though, that the dynamic is also strongly at work within Christian circles, in what seems to be an ongoing effort by some to “purge” the group of those who don't fit in (and it seems to me, sadly, that evangelicals are the worst).

Personally, I think evangelicals err in defining Christian faith cognitively more than relationally, affectively or behaviorally. In my reading of the New Testament, Jesus teaches the centrality of relationship, with himself and with others. He teaches that he saves us - through relationship, and clearly indicated by our emotional (affective) and behavioral response to him (e.g., do we love him, obey him, follow him, cling to him, “feed” on him, etc.). And Jesus also taught that our relationship to him creates relationship with all others who love him and are in relationship with him (and also with all other human beings). The second great commandment, according to Jesus, is to “love our neighbor as ourselves”; and don't forget that he illustrated the nature of loving neighbor with the example of a Samaritan, someone who the Jews despised as racial/ethnic bastards and having a distorted and false religion. If his followers are to love even those who they naturally despise, how much more should they love others who are following Jesus?

It seems that we are failing to love, and to me, this is an almost total failure of our faith in Jesus, given the centrality of the love command.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Should Tunisia adapt a “secular” constitution? (thoughts in the wake of the "Jasmine Revolution")

Let me start with my conclusion: it's up to the Tunisian people. I have no interest in telling the Tunisian people what they should do (that would seem a bit contrary to the principles of self-determination, democracy, etc.). I find this issue a very interesting one, however, and share these thoughts out of my personal interest, and as someone who lived in Tunisia in the past, who loves Tunisia, and who taught American history and religion in America here to Tunisian students.

Tunisia's constitution, which has been in effect since independence in 1956, has said that Tunisia is a state whose language is Arabic and whose religion is Islam. I say “has said,” because the constitution has just been suspended after the Jasmine Revolution. There will be elections for a council that will write a new constitution.
One of the questions which is being debated is whether the new constitution should establish Islam as the state religion, or whether Tunisia should be a “secular” state, with a separation of religion and politics, and equal rights and freedoms given to all people, whatever their faith (Tunisia has a small number of Jewish citizens, a few B'hai, some Christians, and a few others, e.g., those who consider themselves atheists; but the vast majority of the Tunisian people are Muslim of one kind or another).
"The Tunisian people = Muslim + Christian + Jew"
I was in a long and interesting discussion recently with some Tunisian friends about this matter. I wish I could spend more time here, and hear what others are thinking.

Here are some of my thoughts:

On the one hand, I think it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, for a decision to be made to adapt a secular constitution, due to the fact that the vast majority of Tunisians are Muslim and think of Tunisia as a Muslim country, and, I think, in reaction to the previous regimes stifling and opposing religion.

Tunisia has in effect been “secular,” in an unofficial though negative way (without freedom of religion or protection of anyone's rights). The Bourghiba and then Ben Ali governments had a stranglehold on religion, nationalizing the religious establishments, taking control of the mosques, and going so far as to shut the mosques except at the prayer times (the pattern would normally be for the mosques to be open all the time, for people to pray, read, have study groups, etc.). There has not been freedom of religion (nor of expression) in Tunisia, in recent decades.

I'm afraid that an officially "secular" constitution would be interpreted by many Tunisians as meaning an adoption of atheism (I've heard people voice this), and be seen as a further step against religion. Of course, in the true meaning of secular, the government is not atheistic, and it is not implied that the people are atheists, but simply that no religion is officially established and supported by the government. The perception of the Tunisian people on this matter is an important one that needs to be addressed, in any discussion of a secular constitution.

A key question for the Tunisian people to consider, then, is whether a secular constitution would be a step forward (a favorable development) for Muslims and for Islam in Tunisia, or a step backward?

It's fairly clear that a secular constitution, and true freedom of religion, of conscience, of practice, would benefit non-Muslims in Tunisia, or Muslims who for whatever reason decided not to follow Islam, or even to change religion.

It's my opinion that it could also be a step forward for Muslims as a whole, in a couple of respects:
  1. If everyone now were given freedom of conscience and of religion (with the normal boundaries in a secular state, that the activities do not represent a real threat to the state or to others in the state), all Muslims would benefit. Devout, practicing Muslims would be free to practice as they like. They would be free to call others to such practice. But they would not be free to force anyone to practice Islam in a certain way, which would be a benefit for everyone who is Muslim but who doesn't want to pray or to fast Ramadan or whatever. It seems to me that this could be a way of applying the Qur'anic verse, "la ikraha fid-din" ("there is no compulsion in religion," 2:255).

  2. I would also argue, with the history of religion in America as an example, that in the long run, the health of religion in Tunisia would be strengthened more with a (healthy, true) secular constitution than with an establishment of Islam.

    Through most of the long history of Christianity, there was establishment of religion. And one of the things which unfortunately always accompanied this establishment was whatever Christian group had power, persecuting the other Christian groups (the Inquisition as a particularly brutal example). Even in the American colonies at the beginning (i.e., for nearly 200 years), there was establishment of religion and mistreatment of whatever Christian groups were not established (with the exception of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania – Baptists and Quakers were the two Christian groups which strongly opposed establishment of religion on principle, from the beginning). It took until the time of writing the Constitution for the people to come to the point of realizing that to establish a state in which they could all live together in freedom and peace, they must separate “church” and “state.” Thus they adapted the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, forbidding any establishment of religion, and guaranteeing freedom of conscience.

    Note that for a long time, the official position of the Catholic church was against this separation (i.e., they were for establishment of religion). Thus the problem Kennedy faced in the 1960 election, with people asking, if Kennedy is elected, who will he listen to, the American people or the Pope? But American Catholic leaders, long before the Vatican, began advocating an embrace of separation of church and state, on the grounds that the church itself was more healthy having to “compete” in the “free marketplace of ideas.” That is, without government support, the Church – any Church – has to make itself relevant to the people, cannot in any way force compliance. (And all churches, all people, are protected against any church or religious group oppressing them.)
I would make an argument that a separation of religion and politics in Tunisia would not only be better for every individual, in giving them the right of choice, the freedom of conscience, to believe and practice what they are convinced of; I would argue that it would also be for the health of religion and religious faith and religious people, in allowing and making them to stand on their own feet. And again, it would be a big step forward from the past 55 years of lack of true religious freedom for anyone.

The big question is, can this move be seen as a positive move by Muslims, rather than as another attack on them and on the state of Islam in Tunisia by the nonreligious Tunisians? And this is rooted in the question, can Muslims interpret the Qur'an as supporting separation, or is the only interpretation of Islamic teaching the medieval one, that Islam should be established?

It took Christians something like 1500 years to get free of the conviction, rooted in Constantine's establishment of Christianity as the state religion, that establishment was God's will. I would argue, and my impression is that most Christians around the world would agree, that the Church (every church) has been healthier since being set free from the support and the control of the state.

These are heady days in Tunisia, with people talking about the evils of dictatorship and the desire for freedom and democracy. When it comes to freedom of conscience and freedom of religious practice, what will Tunisians decide? This is an historic moment, and I will continue to watch the unfolding of events with great interest.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Things I love about Tunisian culture

I am in the midst of a visit to Tunisia, my first visit in over 11 years, after living here a long time ago. People are full of the euphoria of the revolution (Ben Ali being forced out of power by a peaceful uprising of the people, just recently), and hopeful about the future. They are talking about how awful the dictatorial Ben Ali regime was, and how they want and will now insist on freedom and democracy; how they are not going to allow anyone to do that to them again. I am going about searching for and reconnecting with old friends, and catching up. And I've found myself thinking a lot about some of the things I love about Tunisian culture.

I love...

The strong commitment to relationship and friendship, and some of the ways that works out. (Several of) my Tunisian friends insisted on hosting me; the ones I stayed with insisted on picking me up at the airport (I would gladly and could easily have caught a taxi); did not complain when I get hung up there for 2 hours, but were only glad and welcoming when I come out. They took me into their home and treated me like a long-lost family member (after 11 years away), giving me one of their rooms (my friend the father gladly sleeping out on the couch because of the arrangement - I tried to convince him to let me sleep on the couch, but he wouldn't hear of it), insisting that I take one of their cars for getting around (or driving me themselves), giving me one of their cell phones to use (I was going to buy a SIM card for my phone) and being ready to do anything for me at any time night or day, with pleasure. I try to argue with them, but to no avail. When they say, “ad-dar, darik” (our home is your home), they mean it. Seriously, they put me to shame.

I love how the relationships stay strong despite the years and despite the absence and even despite little contact. Being back with them, it's almost as if no time went by. I love how when I contacted the family of a friend, and made a plan to meet him at his parents' house after work one day, not only he showed up, but two of his brothers (who came out of their way to see me), and their mother. And how they all said over and over how much they miss us, and how they always talk about us. And it was so wonderful to be reconnected, and to feel so special.

I love how when it turned out that that friend is now married and has two kids, he of course insisted on taking me to his house to meet them, and his wife welcomed me warmly as if I were her brother-in-law or another member of the family. They insisted I eat with them (though I told him I had a dinner engagement - I ate twice that night!), and that I stay overnight (several friends insisted on this) - "we won't let you go," they always say. And I really didn't want to be let go of...

I love how people keep telling me, “you are part of our family - you are our brother” - and they mean it. I have no doubt, if I became homeless, I could show up in Tunisia and my friends would take me in as if I were part of their family. Maybe I shouldn't say “as if” - I feel that I really am part of their families.

I love how people greet, all the asking “how are you?” and “how is your family?” (member by member), and “you're fine?” (labaas?) - all the concern it shows. And how all my friends here ask about everyone in my family, where they are and what they're doing, and about my mother and father and brothers and their families, too (my parents and brothers all visited while we were living here). And with interest and concern.

I love how when you show up at someone's house, and all you want to do is see them and catch up, they insist on feeding you (and I love Tunisian food!). In fact, any time, even when you haven't been gone for long, if you show up, they feed you (good food, too!). And they bring you coffee or tea, and other things, without asking (and without letting you refuse). And they insist on taking care of you because you are in their country, and that includes paying for you when you go somewhere (no "going Dutch" here!). All part of comprehensive relational caring.

I love how couples and families will sit together and talk with you, men and women and young people together (vs. in some parts of this region, where women and men don't sit together, don't hardly mix at all), and it's “normal” (“c'est normale”). I love that women are treated with respect.

I love how relational (vs. task and time oriented) Tunisians are, how they'll interrupt what they're doing to chat or have a cup of coffee when you show up.

I love the event-oriented, time flexibility of Tunisians, going with the flow, letting events with people run their course, not being uptight about exactly what time I show up somewhere (I apologize about running late, but they aren't on that wavelength - so I can relax and just enjoy time with people, and let what happens, happen).

I love the generosity, the hospitality, how deeply people give. Going with two of my former students, for example. Trying to pay for the taxi, for lunch, but to no avail (I really wanted to). Buying something (shopping for my wife), being a bit short on cash, my student (now my friend) "loaning" me what I was short, but when I went to pay her back, it was refused (spontaneously - it's just the "what's mine is yours, there's nothing between us" heart and mindset of Tunisians). And many of the friends I've visited, just spontaneously giving me something of theirs to take back to my wife. (And on a larger scale, I've heard so many reports these days of the spontaneous generosity of Tunisians down at the Libyan border, providing food and supplies and help to the refugees pouring out of Libya.)

I love the Tunisian dialect, so different from Egyptian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and other dialects; the first dialect I learned, with the "sweat and blood" of thousands of hours of invested time. I love the unique local expressions, and the way they mix in French (riggel amorik, etc.).

I love how open-minded Tunisians are, how aware of the world, how tolerant, how non-parochial.

And I suppose, more than anything, I love how they all make me feel so special, so welcome, so loved.

I'm glad we moved here 28 years ago, and that we spent 12 years of our lives here, and that we've been able to come back, and still have so many friends with so many shared memories. I look forward to more to come.

God bless Tunisia and the Tunisian people.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Does Bennett understand the Golden Rule?

In my previous post on the third stage of ethnocentrism, minimization, in Bennett's "Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity," I briefly mentioned that Bennett sees the "Golden Rule" as somehow characterizing this phase (see (He goes on to say that what he calls the "Platinum Rule" is characteristic of moving into the ethnorelative stages of acceptance and adaptation, learning to "do unto others as they would have you do unto them" - but that's a discussion for a future post.)

The way Bennett discusses the "Golden Rule" may be problematic for people who are used to thinking of Jesus' words as a pinnacle of ethical teaching; and I suppose that some might on that basis reject Bennett as not knowing what he is talking about, if he would suppose that living by Jesus' "Golden Rule" is only a stepping stone toward a deeper and more positive way of relating to others.

Thus I raise the question, does Bennett understand the "Golden Rule"?

To quote Jesus' words,

"Therefore, whatever you want people to do for you, do the same for them, because this summarizes the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

I would argue that Bennett does not rightly characterize the essence of Jesus' teaching here. He does rightly point out that often (and in the stage of minimization in dealing with culturally different others), we ere by doing to others as if they were us, and thus falling short of treating them in the most fully loving way.

But Jesus' intent, I believe, is that our "doing to others as we want them to do for us" would imply, that we understand them and thus do to them as they want us to do to them - for this is what we would all want, is it not? I want people to understand me, to know me, to show me respect in the way that is meaningful to me, etc. And thus, to follow Jesus' teaching, I should seek to relate to others in the depth of knowing them as they are (and not projecting myself onto them, assuming that they are like me).

Thus, although I think Bennett misrepresents the heart of the Golden Rule, I believe his model (the DMIS) and teaching stands, and in fact resonates with, I would even say is built upon, the teaching of Jesus (though I don't think Bennett ever actually refers to Jesus).

My point here is that one can hold to Jesus' teaching as the pinnacle of ethical teaching, and embrace Bennett's model. For me, at least, they are compatible. And to "do unto others as I would have them do unto me" is to be led in the direction of ethnorelativism, growing in understanding and accepting others as they are.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day

"Intercultural sensitivity is not natural" (Milton Bennett)

And what about making a life of living in other cultural settings and interacting with people of other cultural backgrounds?

How ethnocentrism hinders love of neighbor(part III) - minimizing difference

Ethnocentrism, stage three: Minimization

The third stage in Bennett’s model of intercultural sensitivity (the DMIS)* is minimization, about which he comments, “The last attempt to preserve the centrality of one’s own worldview involves an effort to bury difference under the weight of cultural similarities.”

Minimization is the most “tricky” of the stages of ethnocentrism, and perhaps the most difficult, even dangerous, in that it is hard to recognize, it seems on the surface to be positive and nice, and it is possible to function at what seems a good level of interaction with people of other cultures, at this phase.

In minimization, people move beyond the polarization of the defense stage (see, to a more positive experience of cultural difference. At this stage, cultural difference is overtly acknowledged while not being negatively evaluated. Rather, difference is trivialized by being subsumed under perceived similarity.

“In minimization, human similarity seems more profound than cultural difference, and so we can stand on the common ground of our shared humanity and put aside our differences.”

Minimization is alluring, because of its perceived sensitivity. Bennett is fond of pointing out that people in minimization tend to think of themselves as living by the “Golden Rule,” to “do unto others as you want them to do unto you” (what could be more loving than that?) – but then he points out the limitations of that approach in relating to different others.
Is the "Golden Rule" enough when we're dealing with significant cultural difference?

One characteristic of people who are in the minimization stage of dealing with difference is that they have a tendency to think they can just "be themselves" when they travel or enter a different cultural setting, and things will be fine.

Minimization is certainly more pleasant to experience than defense. It is the difference between having a taxi driver ask me to get out of his taxi, in the Middle East, upon hearing that I am an American, versus a taxi driver saying, “that’s okay, it doesn’t matter what your nationality is – we’re all ‘children of Adam’.”

The problem with minimization, though, and why it belongs as a stage of ethnocentrism, is that when I treat people who are culturally different than I am, as if they were not, I am treating them as if they were me, part of my culture. When I “do unto others as I would have them to do unto me,” I fall short of treating them as the unique (and different than me) people that they are.

This is especially problematic with people who are part of a majority or dominant group (in a society or in an organization). Those in the dominant group tend to project their own culture on others, and not see (or experience) significant difference that exists. It has become axiomatic for me that if you want to know how race relations are in a group, you have to ask someone in the minority, not in the dominant group (who will tend to think that “we have no problem with that here”). If you want to know how things are in the area of gender issues, you have to ask women, not men. If you want to know how cultural sensitivity is going in a multicultural group, again, you have to ask those from one of the minority cultures represented.

In the individual realm, we might see minimization in an example of the so-called “love languages.” If I try to love my wife the way that I like her to show love to me, it generally doesn’t work out that well, because she isn’t me. In another realm, if I try to show someone respect by acting in the way that I like others to show me respect, again, it doesn’t tend to hit home for them. Or in yet another area, for me as a strong T (thinker) on the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) to relate well to a friend who is a strong F (feeler), I cannot assume that we are the same (which ends up with me thinking of him as a T, the way that is natural to me).

Bennett talks about two different kinds of minimization, one centered on what he calls physical universalism, and another on what he calls transcendent universalism. The former emphasizes physical needs, e.g., that “all people must eat, procreate, and die.” The latter “suggests that all human beings, whether they know it or not, are products of some single transcendent principle, law, or imperative,” which may be described in religious, economic, political, psychological or other terms. In all cases, cultural differences are ignored, subsumed under dynamics or realities which supposedly trump or neutralize the cultural dimension.

It is easy to find examples of minimization at work, when you know what to look for. They include the confidence with which a group of people leave their own cultural or national context, certain that they have “universal principles” that will work for anyone, anywhere – whether those principles and practices be in leadership, church organization and life, economic development, education, government, politics, or any other area. Americans are obviously adept at this. But the reaction of the rest of the world to those who go abroad with this confidence, is one indication that the values, principles, practices, etc., are not as universal as their proponents assume.

One of the problems with minimization is that people seem sensitive and nice, and can go a long way acting on the assumption of similarity. But the limits of minimization are significant. Think, for example, of the long history of failed aid and development projects. Or consider the reaction of the Arab and Muslim world to the U.S. attempt to export democracy, American style (most Americans still don’t “get” that anyone would have a problem with that). I discovered the limits of minimization when I tried to evaluate Egyptian friends by Covey’s 7 Habits (see, or when I attended a Maxwell conference on leadership at an Egyptian church, and tried to imagine what a group of Egyptian leaders were learning from presenters who were parochially American in their language and their examples (had they ever travelled abroad?).

So how does minimization hinder love of neighbor?

Are we all the same?
Minimization is a better place to be than denial or defense, in moving toward love of neighbor. In minimization, there is what I would think of as a semblance of love of neighbor, at least on the surface of things.  Attempting to “do unto others as I would have them do unto me” is a noble goal, but if we are ethnocentric, we will not be able to fulfill this, because we will be treating them as if they were the same as us. Jesus’ command to love can be seen to be worked out in various ways that the Bible instructs people to relate to one another – e.g., to honor or respect one another, to accept one another, to comfort one another, etc. It can be easily shown, however, that the way people prefer to be shown honor, or acceptance, or comfort, differs significantly from person to person (and even more so, from culture to culture). Thus, to treat others as if they were the same as ourselves, is not to (fully) love them.

When we minimize difference, we cannot really know people as they are, and we cannot therefore attain the depth of genuine relationship that is necessary to truly love others. Beyond that, if we interact with different others according to some kind of transcendent universalism, we are probably guilty of trying to fit them into our mold (with the extreme, as Bennett points out, being “aggressive conversion activities”). For us to love our neighbor as they are, not as we would like them to be (i.e., like us), there has to be a level of understanding of and respect for difference, that is not found at the stage of minimization.

And whenever there is “baggage” in the history between groups, or tension, or open conflict, minimization definitely does not work well. Imagine trying to practice love of neighbor between women and men, whites and blacks, Muslims and Christians, or Palestinians and Israelis – on the assumption that the similarities are greater than the differences, that we’re “all basically the same.”

We cannot minimize cultural difference, and love our neighbor. We cannot project ourselves on others, treat others as if they were us, and love our neighbor. We cannot arrogantly assume that what “works” for us, is right for others around us, and that they should do things “our way,” and be loving our neighbor.

We cannot stay in minimization, and truly, deeply love our neighbor. We must go deeper, we must press on to a different way of experiencing difference, which Bennett refers to as ethnorelativism.

(To be continued...)

*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.