My friend Charles Chadri was talking about the Italian missionaries who brought Christianity to Uganda where he grew up.
On the one hand, he is grateful that they brought the good news of God’s love in Christ to his people. He is a faithful Catholic to this day and a member of St. Edmund in Oak Park. When he and I talk about issues debated in society, he often sees them through the lens of his faith.
On the other hand, he is very critical of how the missionaries did great harm to the culture they encountered in Uganda when they arrived. Taking dancing, for example. Charles told me that when the missionaries arrived, they told their converts that African dancing was sinful. Charles said that if you mentioned in confession that you had participated in a dance, the priest would make you do a penance of two weeks “volunteer” labor in the church.
Charles shakes his head when he says, “Now the Catholic Church is incorporating dance and drumming in the Mass at times.”
His story, in my opinion, illustrates a problem we all should be dealing with. On the one hand, we have to be able to see life through the lens our culture gives us. Just in order to function and survive. Whether we like the fact that capitalism is based on a survival of the fittest attitude, we’d better learn how to function in that system or we’re in big trouble. Same with learning English. Like it or not, English is the lingua franca at this point in history, and no matter how much you want to hand on to your cultural heritage, you have to learn English. I’m amazed at how many people in Southeast Asia come up to me and want to practice English. When I was in Hanoi a couple years ago, to my surprise perfect strangers would approach me on the street and say, “Hello. How are you. You from America? Have nice day.” At a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand there is an area set aside called “Monk Chat” where the monks studying in the university will engage in conversation with the Westerners who are visiting the temple.
On the other hand, if you are a Christian, you will see reality through the lens of another culture called the Kingdom of God. What we see through lens is very different than what we see through the secular culture’s lens. So, we who are trying to walk where Jesus walks have to be bi-focal, i.e. we have to understand how the culture views reality and be able to function in that reality but at the same time see the same phenomena through the lens of faith. It’s not an easy task.
That lesson needs to be learned by politicians. Mitch McConnell last night said that Pres. Obama won’t view the world differently now that the Republicans control both houses and added that neither will he. What so many of us are frustrated with is the inability of many politicians to try to see reality from their “opponents'” point of view.
Same with men and women and those whose gender identity doesn’t fit either category. Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. We can hold that reality against each other or we can approach each other with the attitude that folks living on Venus might see so things that Martians are blind to.
We can be stubborn, dig in our heels and declare “my way or the highway” or we can acknowledge that the guy we see as our opponent might actually be an ally. The Italian missionaries failed on that point. After Vatican II the Catholic Church has made significant changes in their willingness to respect different cultures.
The challenge seems to be—learn how to honor your own identity and at the same time be willing to learn from and get along with people who are different.