Friday, November 17, 2006

What Happens When Counter-Culture Goes Cross-Culture?

I have been struggling with a dilemma that has been increasing ever since I got here. It vexes me. The dilemma has to do with how involved I get in Liberian cultural issues—especially those I think are unhealthy.

On the one hand, as a Christian, I know I am supposed to critique and even challenge the surrounding culture. The great leaders of my faith from Abraham to Moses to the prophets, on to Paul, Augustine, the Desert Fathers, Francis of Assisi, all the way to modern leaders like Teresa of Calcutta or Martin Luther King spent their lives testing, confronting and even defying convention. They lived and died speaking out for culturally unpopular issues like justice, holiness, faith, and self sacrificing love. Jesus Himself blasted those involved with the worldly poisoning of the truth of God.

On the other hand, I am a visitor in a foreign land. Everything I have been taught, told, and believe says to be slow to speak regarding areas of Liberian culture that seem unjust or unloving or in some way wrong to me. Respecting the culture and avoiding ethnocentric reactions are at the core of effective international development work.

So now I have been in Liberia sixteen months. In the beginning, keeping my mouth shut was easy. When I saw something that seemed morally or spiritually suspect, I could avoid speaking up on the basis of “cultural sensitivity.” I liked the arrangement. It kept me from sticking my foot in my mouth and making a fool of myself. It also kept me from getting involved, which is always nice for an underachiever. Lately, I’m getting nudged from several sources—Liberian, American, from outside my head and inside—to speak up more, to get more involved, to “be more prophetic” in my work with Liberians. At Mother Patern College, from the folks of our new Foster Town Community Development Association, from my neighbors, I hear that I have shown the requisite respect for Liberian culture. Now it may be time to challenge certain aspects of it.

It makes me nervous. I enjoyed the honeymoon. What will being a prophetic American Christian in West Africa look like? I do not want to make the mistake of saying too much, of sounding like another American blabbing like he owns the place. But now I can no longer use that concern to justify silence. It is time to be willing to speak, and I am afraid of saying too much or the wrong thing.

Not that there is anything specific on my mind. It is not like I have a sense I am supposed to tell so-and-so that I think he’s being bad, or stand up at some meeting and rail against a particular injustice. I’m just supposed to be open to speak up more. I’m supposed to pay attention, and He will do the nudging at the right moment. And trusting anyone else’s nudging, even His, really makes me nervous.

Anyway, while I ponder my next steps, here a few shots around town.