Cultural Anthropology: It’s Time to Dig In (Kwasi Kena)

One of the joys of traveling is discovering the prevailing cultural idioms used by people. In the United States we often use the term “dig in”. Like many cultural idioms, context determines meaning. Dig in could mean “to start eating food with enthusiasm”, or “pressing hard into something else”. In combat, it could refer to soldiers “digging in, as in digging trenches awaiting attack”, or it could mean “preparing yourself for a difficult situation”.

In the cultural contexts of ministry class I teach, we learn to become Christian cultural anthropologists; trained observers who learn to discover important things about culture. Before we begin to look at others, however, we must look at ourselves. We liken the practice of cultural self-examination to going on an “anthropological dig”.

My Lens: One of Many

Cultural anthropologists learn to look for cues that provide insights into what a people group deems as a virtue or taboo. Cues may include cultural idioms. Such idioms reveal core values that manifest as behaviors, attitudes, and practices. If you listened to conversations in your church context, what cultural idioms would you discover? One recurring term I hear is “truth”, more specifically, the notion of “The Truth” mentioned with regard to preaching the word of God.

The old illustration of the four blind men and the elephant reminds us that while your truth may feel like a rope (the elephant’s tail), another person’s truth may feel like a tree trunk (the elephant’s leg). Our perspective, social location, experience, etc. become the lens through which we see and order the world. This lens colors the truth to which we subscribe.

In Christianity and Culture, Christian anthropologist, Charles Kraft (2005) speaks of “truth discernment” in terms of reality. There is a capitalized “R” and lowercase “r” symbolizing reality. The capital “R” represents reality (or Truth) that only God knows. The lowercase “r” represents our finite understanding of reality (or truth). The task of the Christian anthropologist is to first recognize that his or her notion of truth and reality is limited. The next task is recognizing that others may have ideas of truth and reality that are just as valid and believable as you believe yours is…you touched the elephant’s tail, they touched the elephants tusk.

Examine Your Internal Judge

Jesus reminds us to do a similar thing in the context of judging others. Matthew’s gospel records Jesus saying, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3 ESV). This verse reminds us that there is some “pre-work” we need to do before embarking on cross-cultural ministry.

Sue and Sue (1990) in their book Counseling the Culturally Different: Theory & Practice Second Edition, provide some tips for counselors that may be helpful for our consideration as Christian leaders faced with the challenges of how best to conduct multi-ethnic ministry in the twenty-first century.

Here are a few tips to help guide the pre-work necessary for the would-be leader of a multi-cultural ministry:

1. Move from being culturally unaware to being aware and sensitive to [your] own cultural heritage and to valuing and respecting differences.

2. [Be] aware of [your] own values and biases, and how they may affect [ethnically different persons].

3. [Be] comfortable with differences that exist between [yourself] and [others] in terms of race and beliefs.

4. [Be] sensitive to circumstances (personal biases, stage of ethnic identity, sociopolitical influences, etc.) that may dictate [when multi-ethnic ministry is beyond your skillset].

5. Acknowledge and [be] aware of [your] own racist attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. [Racism is commonly defined as “prejudice plus power”. If a person of any race uses his or her position of power to deny or offer lesser resources or services to another person based on color prejudice; that is a racist act. This could also involve not giving someone the benefit of the doubt or the presumption of innocence due to a prejudiced mindset devoid of reference to specific facts.]

6. Possess specific knowledge and information about the particular group you are working with.

7. Have a good understanding of the sociopolitical system’s operation in the United States with respect to its treatment of [ethnic] minorities.

8. Have a clear and explicit knowledge and understanding of the generic characteristics of multi-ethnic and cross-cultural ministry.

9. [Be] aware of institutional barriers [church and societal] that prevent or discourage minorities from access to resources.

10. [Be] aware of your helping style, recognize the limitations you possess and anticipate the impact you have on the culturally different person (p 169-171).

This is the type of pre-work that prepares a person for cross cultural ministry. Is God calling you to cross cultural ministry? Then dig in…