Like any journey to a significantly different culture, our trip to Uganda provided us with fresh (though cracked) lenses through which to see aspects of the American mindset. The lens is fresh because it’s tinted with an African shade that enables us to see American culture from a new perspective. And the lens is cracked because African culture is no less sinful than American culture — only in different ways.
What are some of the observable, stereotypical differences? Of course, there are always the functional differences. In Uganda, most people eat the normal staple diet — bananas, potatoes, rice, beans, greens, pineapple, and the occasional meat. In Southern California where I live, people eat whatever they want, both at restaurants and at home — Mexican, Indian, Oriental, or classic American. Travel in Uganda is much slower and it generally takes much more human effort to get where you’re going. In America most people spend money on gasoline and in Africa most people spend energy on walking. Economically, everyone is much poorer in Uganda. Many people in Uganda work for a month to earn a few hours of the average U.S. minimum wage (and there’s no such thing as minimum wage in Uganda). The current exchange rate is less than 1,700 shillings to the dollar. Many families can’t afford to send their children to school, and the education level of the average Ugandan is paltry by American standards (remember that we’re not talking about intelligence but education — there’s a big difference). These are some of the practical differences.
But there are also moral, spiritual, value-oriented and people-oriented differences. For instance, until a few weeks ago, adultery was a crime in Uganda. In America, adultery is glorified. In Uganda, it’s not uncommon for parents to discipline their children in ways that we would think of as harsh and a bit violent. Meanwhile, some in California are attempting to pass a law against any form of spanking. In Uganda, HIV/AIDS is a serious and widespread problem, even though the country is hailed as a success story among African nations in terms of HIV/AIDS prevention. In America, sexual promiscuity is rampant but since we’re more hygienic and educated and self-protective and knowledgeable about “safe sex” (there’s an earthly phrase that will be turned on its head at the judgment), we are not as quickly devastated by our sin. In terms of money and material success, it seems that both Americans and Ugandans are into it. The difference is that most Americans have it and most Africans don’t. But the lust seems to be similar. American greediness worships what it has. African greediness lusts after what it doesn’t have. It’s easy to spiritualize poverty and castigate wealth, but God looks at the heart. It’s true that God cares for the poor and calls foolish those who store up their treasures on earth, but poverty does not equal righteousness and there are a few whose earthly treasure is what it should be — a matter of Christian stewardship, a reservoir for kingdom generosity, and a fading reminder of the unfading treasure they have in God.
So there are both functional and value-centered differences between Africa and America. Because of this, comparing the two cultures obviously leads to some profitable lessons that I’ve tried to bring home with me. Some favor Africa and some favor America. For instance: (1) American busyness is not all it’s cracked up to be. However, African aimlessness is no more praiseworthy. (2) Uganda has taught me that I should be grateful for American honesty. You might not define American culture as “honest” (and neither would I if we’re talking absolutes), but go to a place like Uganda or Egypt or the shops of the Old City in Jerusalem and you’ll begin to recognize that Americans value economic honesty and integrity more than a number of other societies. At the same time, our divorce rate is ridiculously high, which means there’s a lot of vow-breaking, among other things. (3) In the social realm, it’s pretty clear that the initially-good American quest for every possible form of equality has gone to foolish extremes. Ugandan culture exposes some of those foolish pursuits because Africa still maintains some social distinctions that are important. But it’s also nice to be back in a place where prices aren’t doubled because of the color of my skin (I realize that if my skin were a different color, I would face different issues in America, but that’s a whole nother conversation).
So have I gained some new insights from these (and other) cultural comparisons? In a small way, yes. But for the most part, not really. What I’ve learned comes from a different place, and pierces much deeper.
You might think that after being in Uganda, I’ve returned to the States with a very jaded perspective on American culture (especially materialism, which seems to be the default punching bag for most American Christians returning from a third-world country). A few people have responded to my post-Uganda ruminations with the phrase “culture shock.” But that’s not what’s going on (at least not mainly). I knew that the American value system is darkly materialistic before I ever drove past the mud-brick huts lining the road between Kampala and Jinja. How? The Bible. I knew that busyness is a potential idol for believers living in Southern California before I ever experienced three weeks of the slow-moving African mindset. How? Scriptural priorities. It didn’t surprise me that aspects of my American culture were being challenged. I’m used to that, because the Bible sharply confronts my way of living every day and forcefully directs me to the upside-down alternative of Jesus’ way.
So where does this leave me? Can I learn anything from traveling from a familiar country to a foreign one? Yes, I can, and yes, I have. Can I be challenged and stretched by having my own cultural attitudes exposed by those of another? Absolutely. But the lessons I’ve brought home with me will be warped according to the twistedness of the African plumb line.
Here’s the point, and I can’t even begin to tell you how important this is to grasp if you really want to honor the Lord both in your culture and others: The kingdom has its own culture, and the King calls every one of His people to step out of their own cultures and embrace the values of this radical way of living.
Christ’s culture confronts the sin-tainted values of every culture of every people in the world. From Babel to Babylon, from Rome to Romania, from America to Africa, the Bible stares down every injustice, every perversion, every hypocrisy, and every half-righteousness that can be found among the nations of the earth. The Assyrians were cruel, the Egyptians were oppressive, and Cretans were “liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12), but “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This means that cultural comparison may be a legitimate weapon in God’s sanctificational arsenal, but it’s pretty blunt compared to the piercing blade of the two-edged sword called the Word of God (Hebrews 4:12). I need the surgery of the Spirit, not the band-aid of a 3.5-week African journey.
There’s a problem with a Christian who is only confronted about the heinousness of American values when he goes on a summer missions trip. What’s the problem? The problem is that he doesn’t recognize that the words of Jesus provide daily culture shock for the one who has ears to hear. What’s happened to us as American believers if an African village shocks us more than a crucified Savior? Frankly, the four words “take up your cross” hack through the bonds of my cultural enslavement far more violently than a few weeks in another country. We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) and foreigners in every culture on earth (Hebrews 11:13-16; 1 Peter 2:11). This means that I shouldn’t fit in either in Africa or America. Hotel Triangle wasn’t my home, but neither is Santa Clarita. I want my Americanism gored open by the jagged edge of Jesus’ life and ministry, not just pricked by the pin of cultural comparisons.
Oh, for the church in America to understand that Christ is our culture! Want to cross a culture? Knock on your neighbor’s door. Want to experience culture shock? Watch TV for awhile and then read your Bible. Want to see a collision between value systems? Pray for the poor for thirty minutes while walking around the mall at the Valencia Town Center. You will find that Jesus turns most cultural values on their heads, mainly because those values are informed by perspectives that are at best tainted and at worst saturated with sin while His perspective is fueled by the majestic beauty of divine holiness and the perfect will of His Father.
The culture of the kingdom is radically different than any society on earth, and if you live as a part of this culture, you will be radically different — different than the average African and the average American.
Christian culture decries envy and war-mongering and political posturing and corner-cutting and white lies and abortion and backbiting and every form of idolatry from worshiping the moon to worshiping at the mirror. It has shades of socialism when it comes to sharing (Acts 2:44-45), but carries capitalistic overtones when it comes to working (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Kingdom culture admires humility and abhors pride. Everyone has a place in the kingdom because everyone has a God-given gift. Others-centeredness replaces MySpace, God replaces the American Idol, and humbled citizens of heaven replace the proud-to-be-an-American.
The culture of the kingdom defines success as brokenness, mourning, meekness, mercy, purity, peacemaking, and suffering for the sake of righteousness, and all because you hunger and thirst for the ways of God (Matthew 5:3-12). Our culture is one in which enemies are loved, orphans are cared for, possessions are shared, leaders are respected, submission is enjoyed, worldliness is despised, sin is confronted, and sinners are restored. When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, prayer is relentless, radical is normal, hope is pervasive, God is feared, life is worship, and Christ is all. That’s what the country of the King looks like.
Its citizens prize their citizenship, love their countrymen, and treasure their inheritance. Their history is a cycle of sin and forgiveness, but they are secure because there was a dark and glorious day when redemption was accomplished and applied. They have one hero whose story is passed down from one generation to the next, and they know that the plans of their King will not be thwarted. This is kingdom culture.
If you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, you are not white or black or American or African or handicapped or whole. You are not mainly an athlete or an engineer or a mother or a teacher or a teenager or a student or a minister. You are a Christian. The life and death of Jesus defines your culture, and your call is to go shock the world with it. Because that kind of culture shock is what God uses to save His creatures and spread His glory.
Ten days ago I set foot on American soil and quickly experienced a bit of reverse culture shock. But this should be nothing compared to the daily feelings of spiritual confrontation and astonishment that I feel as I walk as light in a dark place. I refuse to respond to my Uganda trip by trying to be more African and less American. I want to be more Christian.