Homo sum humani a me nihil alienum puto – this is a Latin saying (dating back to 160 BCE) that roughly means “I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me.” It is a motto advocating for respecting people and cultures that are different from our own.
It is a nice saying, but it is really hard to put into practice. What I found in my own journey and in the journeys of others is that respecting people is often a lot easier than respecting differences in culture. The differences in culture that I personally found most difficult to accept were differences in values. Values touch upon issues of faith, upon issues of what is right and what is wrong. What I and my colleagues often failed to realize was that my understanding of what was right and wrong was not just based on Scripture, it was also deeply based on my first culture. This means that figuring out what is right and wrong in another culture is not as easy as it seems.
For example, when my wife and I initially went overseas one of the significant issues we, along with all the other workers, faced among those who professed faith in the host culture was tension in the husband-wife relationship. It seemed like the relationship was very patriarchal, with the husband expecting to be served and the wife’s place was to serve.
Though we expats did not feel like we were the perfect spouses, we had attended marriage seminars and read the most up-to-date books on the topic. So, we all felt fairly confident in providing teaching on the family and on how to build a healthy husband-wife relationship.
Unfortunately, we were completely unaware of how our applications of the universal truth and clear command “husbands, love your wives” were culturally shaped. We felt that husbands should help out with the housework, bring special gifts to the wife, and even watch the kids so the wife could have time alone. But applying the command in these ways undermined the ways people organized and managed themselves within the extended family system. The applications also set the family up for ridicule, not respect, within their communities.
I remember the men trying to explain this to us whenever we taught on the subject; but, none of us heeded their comments. We felt completely confident in our applications because the applications were totally appropriate for our first cultural context and they were universally accepted by everyone we respected – that is, everyone in our first culture.
I didn’t have the ears to hear the men’s objections until years later. Then, when I finally had experienced life from the inside of their culture I finally came to realize how foolish our applications had been.
This is why we emphasize language and culture learning. Cultural competence only comes after a significant amount of cultural exposure. Only after seeing how and why people organize themselves, how the host community feels about everything, and how they evaluate various behaviors can we begin to understand how biblical truth can be applied in our host’s setting. Even then we have to be constantly checking with trusted members of the host community to see if our perceptions of the culture are accurate and our applications are relevant. Acquiring cultural competence takes time and humility, but it is totally worth the effort. 🙂