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Crossing the cultural divide

Rev David J Hawke explores cross-cultural mission in the 21st century by looking to historical figures and how they humbly and respectfully interacted with those yet to hear the gospel message.

Our world view affects us in the same way our autonomous body functions work: silently and unnoticeably. Defining our world view is hard. It is not until we encounter other world views that we begin to feel the force of our own. Our world view affects us in the same way our DNA affects us. It produces patterns of thinking and defines what we think is normal.

Early missionaries in Papua New Guinea preached the gospel to one tribe only to be shocked and dismayed that after their successful presentation it emerged that in the eyes of their audience Judas emerged as the hero. Your worldview interprets your data.

Our culture shapes our world view. We often do not recognise the strength of our own culture, but we are very quick to notice where other cultures are different from ours. Our natural tendency is to consider anything different to our culture as inferior, or even wrong.

The real truth is our culture is neither better nor more valid than any other culture. Missionaries once talked about taking the gospel to the “savages”. They invalidated the culture they were taking the gospel to before they got a chance to love and understand it. Much missionary work was focused on a transfer of culture. Not much thought was given to separating the gospel from culture. Missionaries thought they had succeeded when they saw the people they encountered dressed in a suit and holding a Bible big enough to choke a donkey.

We need to appreciate and validate every culture. God is colourful and diverse, and every culture helps to display the fullness of his being, his beauty and his creativity. Can we preach the gospel without taking our culture? We are not ministers of our culture but ministers of the gospel. That raises the question, how much of the gospel do we interpret through our culture?

As we commit to walking in covenant with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters the questions of culture and gospel have been on my mind. How do we approach another culture? Well, if the Apostle Paul’s example is one to copy, I think the answer is … very humbly and respectfully.

The day Saint Paul walked into Athens must have been scintillating. New smells would have wafted across his pathway. Different food would have been on the menu. Different accents and languages would have reverberated in his ears. Fashions and clothing would have set him apart. Then there were the various religions and customs. Walking from Piraeus, the port in the Bay of Phaleron on the Mediterranean, into downtown Athens, Paul would have compared his world with the Greek world he had just arrived in. How did this land of philosophers and thinkers compare to his own well-organised Roman run home country? Oops, there go those thoughts driven by our world view straight away. Within minutes Paul has faced the temptation to label them as less organised.

Thankfully, Paul was much more careful than that. History tells us that the road from the port where he landed to the hill of the Areopagites was covered, (“glutted” one report says), with gods from all parts of the Greek Empire. Paul could not help but be stirred in his heart. In fact, Luke writes that Paul was “greatly distressed to see the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). He was so against idolatry and here in Athens the Greeks had made an art form out of collecting gods. How did Paul deal with this strong emotion?

We know that Christianity had formed a bridgehead in Greece by the time Paul arrived on this mission trip. Acts 17:17 talks of Christian Jews and God faring Greeks. But by and large, this was a pagan country. Paul was not afraid to respectfully debate his views and he got the attention of the Epicureans and the Stoic philosophers. But the crunch came when he climbed Mars Hill and spoke to a meeting of the Areopagus.

Instead of letting his emotion loose of these non-believers Paul spoke with great respect. “I see that in every way you are very religious,” he so beautifully begins. What an embracing opening statement. There is no judgment or condemnation in his words. These are respectful words from the heart of a man wooing the lost to Christ.

As Paul had climbed Mars Hill we can imagine him stopping and leaning on an altar to catch a breath. Looking at the inscription he reads, “Agnosto Theo”. He ponders; “to the Unknown God”. His mind goes back over the history he has learned. He recalls the plague that hit this very city 600 years before. Thousands died. History (Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of Eminent Philosophers Volume 1) records that a “thousand dirges” rose into the night, night after night. The Greeks prayed to each of their gods, but no healing came. Finally, one of their respected women prompted the elders to invite Epimenides, a wise man who lived in Knossos, a city of distant Sicily, to help solve their theological dilemma. This ancient “sage” was known for his wisdom.

Epimenides agreed to come and help. His wisdom was profound. He addressed the elders on Mars Hill and applied his mind to their problem. “If you have prayed to every god you know, then there must be the one you do not know. It is him we must appease.”

He asked for equal numbers of black and white sheep to be gathered on Mars Hill and for them to be constrained without food until the morning. In the morning he asked for the sheep to be released. Any sheep that lay down and did not eat was to be held for sacrifice. No normal sheep would walk out hungry on good pasture and not eat. That was entirely unnatural. But numbers of them did. Already the people could see that something very special was happening.

He then asked the stonemasons to build an altar where each of the resting sheep had lain. When they had completed their task, the stonemasons asked Epimenides what name they were to inscribe on the altars. To whom should they dedicate these altars? What was this god’s name? Again, the wisdom of Epimenides was manifest. He pointed out that had they known the name of the god, they would have already prayed to him. They also had to be careful not to offend this god by calling him a name he did not like. So Epimenides encouraged them. He advised that they had to assume that this god was unknown to them but that he would be kind enough to answer their prayer and honour their sacrifice. And if he was kind enough to answer their prayers, he would also be kind enough to overlook the fact that they did not know his name.

So, they dedicated all the altars to The Unknown God, “Agnosto Theo”. That evening they sacrificed the sheep. To their amazement, the plague ceased. Death left their city. The Unknown God had been merciful. He had healed their land. For six centuries Athenians walked past those altars dedicated to an Unknown God with thanks and wonder in their hearts. Deep in their souls was an unspoken prayer, “Will we ever know you, oh Unknown God?”

As Paul catches his breath it dawns on him that he knows this God. This same God who centuries before had revealed himself as a loving and healing God to the Athenians. It must have been a wonderful thought for Paul. The same God that knocked him off his horse and revealed himself to him in such a special way had also shown his love to these Athenians centuries ago. Now Paul has a message. He is not taking his culture. He is honouring and respecting another culture’s history, and not only honouring their history and culture, but he is also honouring God.

Paul does not have to pretend that he has some new message. He just has to share one thing. It is the missing piece. It is the key to their lock. It does not destroy their culture but honours it. It does not discount their ancient history. It explains it. His message is not preeminent nor overbearing. No, it is humble and helpful. It is the one piece of information this culture has been waiting for. They own this information. They receive it as if it is theirs. Of course, Paul and those who followed him had more work to do, and not everyone embraced his message, but what a lesson in cross-cultural missiology.

Paul simply makes the Unknown God, “their” Unknown God, known.

Our First Peoples have many rich treasures in their culture which if we took the time to investigate we would be amazed us at how much God has already revealed himself to them. Do you think God could help himself? He is the self revealing one. Of course, he has been loving and revealing himself to the First Peoples and what we have to realise is, he has been doing that for centuries before missionaries arrived on this continent.

I love the story of Bruce Olsen. At 18-years-old, his pastor told him he was far too young to set out to meet the Motilone Indians in the Amazon jungle. Bruce felt so compelled by God that he went anyway. It is a long story, but his wisdom was so much like Paul’s. For six years he lived with the Motilone. He ate their food, wore their clothes (or lack thereof), slept in their longhouses in hand made hammocks, and became proficient in their language. He hunted and made weapons with the men.

He even got the witch doctor on side. He watched as the witchdoctor gave out potions for pain and toothache. Instead of trying to replace the witchdoctor he taught him how to administer Panadol and aspirin. Soon the respect for the witchdoctor skyrocketed and the friendship between Bruce and the witch doctor did the same.

Six years went by. Bruce had no success at converting these animistic Motilone Indians. One day he was travelling through the jungle with another young Indian. Off the track, they heard screaming. It was pitiful and sounded like someone was getting killed. Quickly they diverted off the track to find the source of the screams. They emerged into an area where they found two men. One was up a tree and was screaming into the sky. The other had dug a hole at the bottom of the tree and was screaming down the hole. This was no murder scene and it puzzled Bruce. He asked his friend what these men were doing? “They are calling out for God,” his friend replied matter-of-factly.

Shocked, Bruce responded, “But I have been here for six years telling you where God is.”

“You are not THE ONE” responded his friend in an almost offhanded way. Bruce could have become angry, but he listened. “Tell me why am I not THE ONE?” he asked.

“THE ONE will tell us in the banana leaves,” replied his friend.

Many missionaries have come across these seemingly frustrating, and somewhat superstitious sounding, tribal beliefs and discounted them but thankfully Bruce kept pressing in.

“How will THE ONE show you in the banana leaves?” he asked.

His friend pulled out his machete, climbed up a nearby banana palm and cut all the leaves off the top. Then he cut off the next 250mm of the palm trunk and scurried down with it in his hand. He brought it back to Bruce, laid it on the ground, and with one slash of his machete, he split that piece of trunk longitudinally. Bruce watched as it fanned open. All the tightly bound shoots spread open. He looked and wondered. “Lord, what is this all about,” he quietly prayed.

As he pondered, the word “Bible” came into his heart. He looked at the spread-out banana trunk on the ground in front of him and with excitement, he reached into his backpack, grabbed his bible, lay it on the ground and let it fall open just as the split banana palm had. Immediately the two men who had been screaming recognised it. That was what they had been waiting for since time immemorial. Both of them lunged at the bible and before Bruce could stop them each one had pulled a page from his bible and put it in his mouth.

Bruce explained that the fine markings on the pages were messages from God. He read them some of those messages. The men went back to their village and 30000 Motilone Indians were baptised in a period a few months. That Motilone Indian culture already had the story. It just needed a final piece of information to reveal the mystery of God.

Our Indigenous brothers and sisters have those stories. Their culture is rich and blessed. Our job is to find those places where the gospel and their culture intersect. All cultures have demonic and evil aspects for sure. God is not found there but be careful how you judge. Be very careful. Listen, learn, watch and ask. Enjoy their stories, go with them to their dream time. Find out how God has spoken. Listen to their hearts. You may have a piece of information that might answer their long-held prayers, but do not think your message is the first time God ever spoke.

I believe we are going to still learn much from our First Peoples. What a beautiful privilege. And let us be preservers of their culture, their art, their dances, their stories and traditions. It will enrich us more than we can imagine. Let us study as humble students the wonderful things our Indigenous brothers and sisters culture can reveal to us.

Rev David J Hawke

Rev David J Hawke is the minister at Beaudesert and Canungra Uniting Churches and has spent much of the last 30 years working among First Peoples and indigenous people around the world.

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