Sunday, October 30, 2011

America and American Culture

I recently read these words, written by Eugene Peterson in his book The Pastor, which express very well my own feelings:

"I love being an American. I love this place in which I have been placed--its language, its history, its energy. But I don't love 'the American way,' its culture and values. I don't love the rampant consumerism that treats God as a product to be marketed. I don't love the dehumanizing ways that turn men, women and children into impersonal roles and causes and statistics. I don't love the competitive spirit that treats others as rivals and even as enemies.  The cultural conditions in which I am immersed require, at least for me, a kind of fierce vigilance to guard my vocation from these cultural pollutants so dangerously toxic to persons who want to follow Jesus in the way the he is Jesus."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why I Don't Like Traveling

I don't like travel, especially travel involving airplanes. When I was younger, I thought travel seemed really exotic and imagined that a life spent traveling would be really great. Now, after many years of life and work that involved a fair amount of air travel, I no longer think that. I still enjoy visiting new places and getting to know new cultures. What I really like is to be in a place long enough to establish some relationships, so that my connection becomes personal. But I dislike the process of moving from one place to another. I don't like security procedures at airports. I don't like tiny airplane seats. I don't like arriving or departing in the wee hours of the morning.

Most of all, I dislike the person I become when traveling. Airline travel brings out the worst side in me. I become impatient, anxious and my focus shifts totally to myself and those traveling with me (most often my family)--with whom I often become impatient as well. Instead of being compassionate, gracious, and looking out for others, I think of myself and how I can get what I want before someone else gets it. Everything becomes a competition: will I get my space in the overhead bin before someone else fills it? Will I get off the plane fast enough so I don't have to wait as long? Can I get into that line faster than the next person so I can be through security faster? And I worry even more than usual. What if we are delayed? What if security takes so long that we miss our connection? I don't like myself when I travel.

Looking around most airports, I don't think I'm alone in this pattern of behaviour. But that doesn't excuse it. I cannot control how others behave, but I can choose how I will respond to each situation. I want to improve in this area, but it seems like a big mountain to climb. I can take it one step at a time. I can look at those traveling with or around me and try to see them with eyes of compassion, thinking about how I can help rather than how I can get what I want. I can look at people as individuals with needs, feelings and concerns rather than as obstacles to my agenda. Of course that means setting my agenda aside and letting my heavenly Father direct me as I travel, inviting him to help me see the opportunities he places along my journey. I know this would be a much healthier way to travel. Now I need to take the first step.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Thoughts on the movement to "Occupy Wall Street"

A lot has been written and spoken about the various “Occupy” movements that have sprung up first in the United States and then in other parts of the world. These protestors intrigue me. Part of me is drawn to them, while part of me is repulsed by them. I laugh at the irony of Americans protesting because they are economically disadvantaged, while all but the most disadvantaged Americans are still better off than most of the world's people. They speak of being part of the 99% when in fact on a global scale we as a nation are definitely part of the 1%. The protestors organize and promote their message using tools and means utterly unavailable to the masses of the world's poor. I also find that their lack of common message dilutes their impact. Others have noted this, some viewing it as a strength of the movement. But in the end, how much change can they affect if they don't even have a united goal?

Despite these misgivings and criticisms, I am still drawn to these protestors. I resonate with their cry against the system of capitalism that has developed in this country during my lifetime. I am not inherently anti-capitalist, as some would argue. (Nor would I accept the argument that being anti-capitalist makes me anti-American, as has also been implied.) But I definitely see serious problems in the current national and global economic structure. As I read in a recent article, this structure creates an “un-economy:” unfair, unsustainable and unstable, not to mention that it makes people unhappy (well, except for those who clearly benefit from it—and I would debate that even they are finding true happiness through the accumulation of wealth.) A system that fosters the accumulation of large amounts of wealth by a small elite cannot bring about a healthy society.

I was reminded this week of the revolutions that rocked the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Why did the Russian revolution occur in 1917? There were many factors, but the fact that the tsar and a small elite of the Russian nation had vast wealth (I've seen a small portion of it during my years in Russia and it was amazing) while the majority of the population lived in abject poverty certainly was a key element. I recognize that most Americans are far from that level of abject poverty. But our current system certainly works to assure that the wealthy continue to accumulate wealth while the majority struggle to improve their lives. I don't think the occupy movement will result in anything as drastic as a revolution, but it serves as a useful wake up call that things must change before they reach such a dire point.

I am most distressed by the opposition, even antagonism, that so many of my fellow believers express toward these protest movements. I think that many of my friends and acquaintances have substituted the American capitalistic dream for the message of the Gospel. They view these protestors as disrupting a healthy, stable society and reject them and their message because of this. (Often they forget as well that the right to protest is a fundamental right enshrined in the very Constitution they so adamantly support.) But the Scriptures are full of verses indicating God's passion for justice and his rejection of greed and the misuse of money and power. God calls us to care for those whom society has injured or destroyed. In some cases we can do this within the existing structure of society. But what if that very structure is causing more and more injury and destruction? Do we not as believers need to raise our voice in protest as well and call for changes that will bring greater justice, compassion and mercy? I've not heard any of my acquaintances go so far as to embrace the slogan “greed is good.” But neither have I heard enough of them speaking against it.

I'm not yet to the point where I am ready to go pitch my tent with the local occupiers. But my heart and mind are sympathetically listening to them and I am asking myself what I can do to build a more balanced, just, wholesome society, one in which God's shalom can be realized.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Whose work?

To what extent, if any, does there exist women's work and men's work? Although I imagine most people understand the question clearly, let me express it differently. Is there work that inherently should be done by women as opposed to work that should be done by men? Or as followers of Jesus Christ are we called to offer a different model, a model of mutual servanthood?

I raise the question because of a recent conversation with a friend of mine. She is a single mom raising a teenage son. She works hard both in and outside the home to provide for herself and her son. But when she asks him to do household tasks, he often responds that these are “women's work” and she should do them. They live in a non-Western culture where gender roles are much more distinct and strong than they are now in the West, so his response is acceptable within the cultural norms, although she has done her best to raise him to a different standard. But his response ignores the fact that his mother by necessity must perform many tasks that would culturally be “men's work” and that she is weary and exhausted, while he spends his time hanging out with his friends. (There are also issues here of respecting one's parents, but that is a different topic.)

When I hear stories like this I become angry. I become angry because of a mindset that continues to perpetuate gender inequality even now in the twenty-first century. I simply do not believe that there are roles, or work, that belong by their very nature to women or men. (I make exception for child-birth, which biologically cannot happen naturally any other way. But even in this the husband can take a more active role than he has traditionally and continues to take in many cultures around the world.) I acknowledge that some work may be more suited to a man or woman due to the nature of the tasks required and the physical characteristics of men and women. But I object to saying that any particular work or role should be done or belongs to men or women. I know many women who are physically stronger than I and therefore more suited to tasks that might be considered “men's work.” At the same time men are also capable of performing work that traditionally has been assigned to women. I don't see any valid basis to argue for an inflexibility delineation of tasks into the categories of men's or women's.

Thankfully in Western cultures we have progressed far in this area (which is not to say that we do not still have room for improvement) But many cultures around the world lag far behind. Unfortunately many people I know who go to work in these cultures do not want to confront this issue because they feel it is a matter of cultural preference. I recognize that it is culturally defined, but I also assert that it can be cultural redefined and offering an alternative example can be a powerful way to begin that process. But we must be willing to risk ridicule and rejection along the way. While living overseas I once was sweeping the sidewalk outside our gate. Our neighbor, another foreigner who had lived longer in that culture, informed me that I was “shaming” my wife by doing work that culturally she was expected to do. Why should it be shameful for a husband to help his wife with the burdens of daily life? And why should I care if others think that way?

I also find it unfortunate that believers often lag behind in this area. Thinking again of people I know who serve cross-culturally, I am disappointed that they do not more actively challenge their local friends and converts in this area. Perhaps it does not seem to them to be a core issue of Christian life. But is that the case? Christ came to transform society, not to simply save souls out of it. What a powerful example we could offer if we as believers modeled not a gender-based division of labor, but rather mutual servanthood. Instead of refusing to do a task because it might bring shame or would be considered the work of the other gender (and most often it seems men have the problem with performing “women's work”), couldn't we offer a powerful model of servanthood by looking for opportunities to serve our brothers or sisters at the point of their need? If a sister (woman) needs help cleaning or cooking, or in any other task, why can we brothers (men) not step up and offer to carry that burden? (Again, women seem to be quicker and more willing to offer this service to men, but the same question could be asked of them.)

The same friend of whom I wrote initially also has a task to help organize a seminar for women. Among other responsibilities she must help with organizational and administrative needs. This comes on top of her many other duties and responsibilities in life. When I heard this, I thought that this would be a great place for the Christian men in the community to step in and offer to help their sisters. Then the women could focus on the direct ministry to women, while the men could offer a powerful example of Christian servanthood by providing for the needs of the women. I expect they would receive a lot of cultural criticism, shame and ridicule for doing so, but at the same time they could offer a powerful testimony of what a life transformed by Jesus Christ looks like.

So let's put aside the outdated concepts of “men's work” and “women's work.” Instead let's adopt an ethic of mutual servanthood and look for opportunities to serve each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, that's the model he gave us.