Please, Please Mess with Culture

© 2017 Robert Osburn

Should outsiders try to change others’ cultural practices? 

Academic anthropologists have long boomed a resounding “No!”  And not a few Christians have swayed along to the beat of a cultural relativism that preserves cultural practices in the name of liberation from Western colonialism and cultural superiority.

A well-meaning letter writer in the most recent (January/February 2017) issue of Christianity Today affirmed anthropological orthodoxy when he celebrated the fact that missionaries to the Northeastern Indian state of Manipur “did not mess with the culture.” Having traveled to Manipur six times over the past seven years to advise and work with one of our Wilberforce Academy mentees there, Thangboi Haokip, I have one message to the letter writer:  What you celebrate, I lament.  Manipur is in deep trouble, and its reputation as a “Christian” state (whether true or not) has, tragically, sullied the Gospel while energizing Hindu fanatics in the ruling party who no doubt delight over Christianity’s public failure in a state graced with natural beauty.

These are the facts on the ground in 2017: Ethnicity, whipped into a violent cocktail of sociopolitical unrest and inequitable economic development, relentlessly magnifies almost every social tragedy in a state (the size of New Jersey) where: 1) At least 35 violent insurgent groups threaten daily life, 2) Corruption is embedded in every single fabric of the society, and 3) There are almost no productive enterprises other than rice culture.  This means that almost every consumer good in Manipur is shipped in from outside the state. When there are no blockades (see below), delivery trucks leave empty on their return to the Indian states where those goods are produced.  Almost every church (except for a very few institutions like the Laymen’s Evangelical Fellowship church in the capital city of Imphal) is denominated by tribal and sub-tribal identities.

And now Manipur is in an especially vigorous death spiral, epitomized by a crushing nearly three-month economic blockade that is causing no end of heartache and struggle and which is ready to ignite a tribal war between Nagas (largely, if nominally, Christian) and Meiteis (who are nominally Hindu, by and large). 

In no way does my gloom diminish the luster of the great British missionary to Manipur, William Pettigrew (1869-1943), revered throughout the state of 2.8 million people.  On my most recent trip (November 2016), I thrilled to meet a 97 year-old man who, having heard Pettigrew preach the Gospel in the late 1920s, is a still-vibrant Christian witness with the vigor of a 70 year-old. But I must challenge the letter writer’s assertion that Pettigrew and missionary colleagues never challenged traditional culture.  For one thing, Pettigrew celebrated intertribal marriages (a taboo in traditional societies), and wrote in 1932 that he was happy to help “lessen the slavery to old customs and habits” among Manipuris.

What is the argument for Christian influence (“messing with”) on culture? First, Jesus’ great discipleship mandate in Matthew 28:19-20 declared that His disciples must be taught everything He commanded.  That means that when traditional culture, including headhunting, idol worship, bribery, sexual immorality, oppression, etc., contradicts Gospel ethics, Christian disciples must teach alternatives that undermine traditional practices.  William Carey did this (100 years before Pettigrew came to India in 1894) when, among many other initiatives, he fought the practice of burning widows alive (sati) whose husbands had died.  Haokip (our mentee) often reminds me that the Gospel has yet to accomplish a major transformation in the hearts of Manipuri Christians.

Beside Jesus’ command to influence culture as a function of Christian discipleship, the second argument for “messing with culture” is that cultures around the world are being influenced negatively by Western culture, whether we like it or not.  Cell phones, cameras, and Western pop culture (I have spent almost sleepless nights listening to the throbbing Western drumbeats at hotel parties in Imphal) are ubiquitous in Manipur.  Manipuri newspapers cull garbage about Western celebrities acting out, and gleefully print the stories.  The letter writer and I agree that Western forms of worship and dress have no place in Manipuri life, but I fear he completely misses the profoundly negatively ways that Westerners mess with Manipuri culture every single day.  

A third reason there must be intentional Gospel challenges to traditional culture is because the Gospel is intended to promote human flourishing by focusing our hearts and minds on the God who loves us (Luke 4:18-19).  Westerners should fall to their knees daily with gratitude to God. Over the past 2000 years, the Gospel of the Kingdom has (except for the past half century of secularist opposition) steadily undermined ancient practices: misogyny (mistreating and subjugating females), slavery, witchcraft, sexual infidelity, and a thousand other destructive culture practices that were once endemic in Europe and America. Societies most influenced by historic Protestantism especially, and, to a lesser extent, Roman Catholicism, have greater economic vitality, greater political freedoms, and less corruption than most other parts of the world.  This is not an achievement of the Enlightenment; this trajectory owes itself to the Gospel’s bias for human flourishing.

To summarize: “Messing with culture” is a mandate of Christian discipleship, rooted in a Gospel that promotes human flourishing when cultural idols are transformed into love for God. By failing to interject Gospel values in traditional societies, we consign them to the relentless tide of popular Western cultural products seeping into every nook and cranny of those societies.

To those who still insist that we must not try to change destructive cultural practices in the name of the Gospel, first read (if you dare) Mark Ritchie’s stunning narrative of tribal life: The Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman’s Story (2000).  Embedded in this memorable page-turner (based on real live interviews translated into a first-person narrative) is a plea by a former shaman, now a Christian, for believers to bring the Gospel that liberates tribalists from their enormous fear of spirits.  Another message from the former shaman: Anthropologists have mistreated us in many ways, especially in their insistence that our tragic, destructive culture not be changed. 

If still not convinced that the Gospel messes with culture, consider, for example, female circumcision, brutal surgeries on female genitalia that are designed to destroy young women’s capacities to enjoy sex in marriage.  Is it just, in the name of cultural respect and relativism, to leave young women, including immigrants to Western countries, subject to this barbaric practice that flourishes in much of eastern Africa?

While many cultural practices can be heartily affirmed (such as the musicality of Northeast Indian tribal cultures), the Gospel clearly judges many other practices and seeks their transformation so that human beings and their societies can flourish.

Please, please, for the sake of my Manipuri friends (and others around the world), start messing with culture.  Whole societies are desperately in need of the cultural transformation that only the Gospel can bring.