One of the things that Lara and I have struggled with a lot living in a new culture here in Kenya is discerning Transcendent Truth. By Transcendent Truth I mean that truth which is the same for all of us regardless of our context or culture. Living in a new culture one is continually confronted with different ways of doing things; in fact, whole new ways of looking at life. Adapting to the new culture entails a constant process of evaluating these differences to determine the best way to go about life. We believe that when living in a culture other than one's own it is best to yield to the host culture in most cases. For instance, Kenyan men almost always wear long pants. In a warm climate such as we live in I would much prefer to wear shorts. But I yield to Kenyan culture and wear long pants most of the time. But are there situations where submitting to the host culture is not appropriate? What are the situations when there is a Transcendent Truth (a right way of doing things or thinking) that we should appeal to?
This question confronted me in an unexpected way when I was conducting training in camp ministry through African Christian Camping. Along with some other Westerners and my Kenyan colleagues, I was in charge of facilitating some experiential team building activities. We sought to build relationships among the participants while at the same time teaching them how to do the same for youth in their camps. Very early it became apparent that this group of Africans (mostly Kenyan but some from surrounding countries) was quite competitive. I would venture to say that they were more competitive than most American groups I have worked with. I haven't interacted with enough Kenyans to determine if this is true generally.
We started out with activities whose purpose is to learn each others' names and break down barriers to meaningful relationships. Even though these activities are intentionally designed to have a minimum of competition, this group made everything competitive. The small groups they were divided into strove against each other in the simplest of tasks. This striving included a great deal of teasing other participants. Often it was harmless and good natured. However, at times there were demeaning comments made about other groups' intelligence or abilities. One group in particular did a lot of one upping the others and what we would label in the U.S. trash talking.
I, along with the other facilitators, didn't head this negative trend off early enough. We didn't recognize how the activities we had planned would play out in this particular culture (not necessarily Kenyan culture, possibly only in this subset). When I did express surprise at the level of teasing/trash talking going on the usual response was, "Oh, that's just part of our culture." My thought at the time was, "This doesn't seem positive, but I guess if it is a part of their culture they must not be taking offense. I guess it's okay."
Of course the trash talking continued and escalated. One of the other facilitators, noticing the trend, stopped in the midst of the activities and gave a little speech about the purpose of team building. He asked what was more important, being the first group to finish a task, or how we interact with each other as we did it and whether we followed the rules. Despite his admonishment the trash talking continued. When the facilitators talked about it at the end of the first day, we decided to reassign groups to split up some of the more competitive members. This took the edge off the competition for a bit, but it kept going.
I decided to facilitate an activity that points to the need to find solutions where everyone can win rather than winning at the expense of others. For many of the participants this had the intended effect. They realized how cutthroat they had been in their competitiveness and saw the need for change. However, some were oblivious.
Later, the participants were assigned the task of designing their own team building activity and facilitating it for the rest of the participants. One group came up with an activity that involved a clever play on words that could be used to help those involved see their need to see things from multiple points of view and consider other perspectives. The activity was good, but the facilitation was not. When most of the participants did not catch the twist, several of the group members who were facilitating laughed at them. They taunted them for not making the paradigm shift. Many of the participants kicked themselves and laughed it off. But others looked as if they had been slapped in the face. The debrief of the activity was mostly silent, with averted eyes and shuffling feet.
All of the Western facilitators were shocked at the level of trash talking. I felt compelled to say something to the group. Later in the day, when I had the stage, I said that I had noticed a propensity toward competition with a negative tone. I said that it wasn't there with the whole group, only certain individuals. I explained that in my view there is nothing wrong with competition, but we must be careful with how we treat each other. My confrontation of the group precipitated a spirited discussion among the Western and Kenyan leaders of the training during the debrief of the day as well as many more afterwards.
The question in all of this is: What is the Transcendent Truth? I made a mistake in the way that I dealt with the problem I saw. Kenya is a shame culture in which the kind of public confrontation that I engaged in is taboo. So I violated my own principle and failed to yield to the Kenyan method of dealing with issues. How to deal with confrontation in a shame culture is the subject of another blog. Rather, I am looking at the issue of building up versus tearing down.
Over and over I was told that teasing is just a part of Kenyan culture. Based on my observations that this opinion seemed to be much more prevalent in the males and in certain segments of the group, there is room to question this assertion. However, even if we go with the assumption that teasing in part of Kenyan culture, does that make it right? Certainly, the Westerners were more taken aback by it than the Kenyans. It is possible that we were just seeing this interaction through our Western lenses and imposing our cultural values upon the situation. Undoubtedly I have done this in many other areas and will likely do so again. Given my own struggles with tearing people down, it is possible that I was projecting my own issues onto this group.
In seems that whenever Transcendent Truth is sought after we must look to God's Word. Although it often not easy to determine, God has given us Truth that transcends time and place. Ephesians 4:29 tells us "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." Was the competition and teasing that went on wholesome? Did the trash talking build others up? Many Kenyans have been conditioned by their cultural context to accept the truth that trash talking is normative. However, if we look at the verse above and the body of Scripture it seems apparent that the Transcendent Truth is that our speech should always build others up rather than tear them down.
The same process must be applied to all aspects of our culture. Here Americans are known for their strong work ethic. That is a cultural value which stands the test of Scripture. On the other hand, the individualism and materialism that often accompany it do not. We cannot be excused our individualism because "it is just a part of our culture." We must seek the Holy Spirit's guidance to discern if the way we do things is cultural or God-honoring. Sometimes the way I do things is a product of my culture, but it also is honoring to God. At other times I see a particular way of doing things as the right way simply because of my cultural conditioning, but it is not pleasing to God. Immersion in a new culture naturally brings us to examine different ways of doing things and seeing what works and what does not. It should also cause us to analyze our own culture with the same critical eyes. Ultimately, we must seek to be conditioned by the culture of the Kingdom of God. We must seek to adopt aspects of the cultures of earth only as they conform to this heavenly culture. We are called to live and teach this Kingdom culture as transcending Kenyan culture, American culture or whatever culture we inhabit.