Normal Christian folk are increasingly face to face with people of other faiths, especially Muslims but also with Hindus, Buddhists and others.
This thought struck me as I was traveling recently through North America.
I watched Somali women line up for childcare outside a center in Seattle. Syrians were picnicking in a park in Langley, British Columbia, Canada.
I stopped into the Los Angeles area with its incredible mix of nations from all over the world.
Even my Tennessee and Carolinas stops were punctuated with stories and conversations about Iraqi and Rwandan neighbors and English as a Second Language classes for refugees.
It was good for me because I stopped watching news media and listened to people.
It struck me that real people are daily presented with opportunities for witness to the nations that, a generation ago, were available only to “missionaries.”
The “mission field” has moved into our back yard. I love that! It’s God’s people (all of them or any who care to) living on mission in normal day-to-day relationships.
Given that wonderful reality, I wanted to suggest some guidelines for relating cross-culturally in ways that reflect the beauty and grace of Christ’s gospel.
I make no claim to be an expert. I’m on the journey, just like you, trying to work this out in my place. I’ll share three suggestions here and three more in a column tomorrow.
First, let’s engage with real people face to face.
The brutal truth is that most of what we know of other cultures and faiths is mediated through the media. The great thing is that we can now hear their stories directly from them.
I was dumbfounded recently when a friend in the U.S. commented that he had heard that “they” are busing Islamic militants from Lebanon back into Syria.
Because I live in Lebanon and because I know Syrian refugees here, I knew the comment reflected a media bias diametrically opposed to on-the-ground realities.
My friend’s comment missed the human tragedy of the event and the fact that these Syrian families are, once again, being exploited by powerbrokers in the region.
Embracing face-to-face engagement will mean we adopt an innate skepticism of media outlets and their spin on news events. While I am thankful for a free press, I also realize that the press deals in the outrageous because it sells.
The most inflammatory events get the most airtime and the spin is often directed to a demographic predisposed to fear-mongering, partisanship or both.
Getting away from our screens and into face-to-face conversations will help restore a realistic understanding of the world’s peoples. We will see that we share more than we ever dreamed by virtue of our common humanity.
Second, let’s ask questions that arise from a holistic respect of human experience.
I realize that many well-meaning Christians will be concerned to present a gospel witness to those of other faiths and worldviews.
I am becoming convinced that this predilection is usually counterproductive if it is not grounded in a holistic respect of the human experience of the person we encounter. What do I mean?
When the “angel of the LORD” encountered a fugitive slave woman in the desert (see Genesis 16), he opened the dialogue by calling her name, “Hagar, servant of Sarai.” He then asked two questions: “Where have you come from and where are you going?”
The questions opened two horizons for Hagar: her history and her future or her past story and her future dreams.
Engaging with real people with a sincere desire to know them as persons frames the relationship in dignity and honor.
Our first instinct must not be to “give” something. It must be to recognize the innate gift of God given to every human being who is made in the divine image.
This person is worthy of honor. She has a story that has made her who she is today. He is pursuing aspirations and dreams that reflect something of the image of God.
We all desire to be treated with dignity, don’t we?
Third, let’s establish reciprocity and mutuality in the relationship.
Jesus has an encounter with an immoral woman from the despised people group of his day (see John 4). His first move is to ask her to give him something he cannot provide for himself: “Give me something to drink.”
She notices he has nothing to draw with and the well is deep, but she also notices that this Jewish man is speaking to her, a Samaritan woman. Such things were not done.
Jesus breaks all the social rules of engagement but he also allows himself to receive from this woman, presumably before they continue their conversation – quite an amazing lesson from the designer of human personality.
We are cursed with privilege, at least many of us are. I am speaking of monetary, educational and social privilege – things we may have worked for, but are nevertheless a result of opportunities given us largely because of where we were born or the family that raised us.
Jesus could receive hospitality in Bethany because he had no place to lay his head.
The question haunts me: Is there anything I can receive here in Lebanon from the Somali woman, the Eritrean maid, the Egyptian gas station attendant? Anything? If I can’t, then I have yet to understand the imprint of God’s image stamped in human beings.
True relationships are reciprocal. We give and receive and probably give most by receiving. So, let’s put away our wallets and ask a Syrian how to make hummus or have him explain the complex history of his amazing country. Receive.
Mike Kuhn is a professor at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. He has lived in Middle Eastern countries for 25 years and previously served as pastor of a church in the United States. A longer version of this article first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog and is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series. Part two is available here.