On Memory

On Memory

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In a recent conversation with a Central Asian he told me, “We don’t care for the environment because our ancestors were nomads.”

I thought, “You have been sedentary for 1000 years!” But I was underestimating the role of memory in forming identity.

During the recent battle for Kobane on the Syrian/Turkish border, Western powers were urging Turkey to arm Kurdish fighters. But it was only a generation ago that Kurdish separatist bombings were the terror of Turks. We were underestmating the role of memory in foreign policy.

When cross-cultural church planters struggle to see local leaders emerge and blame a “lack of initiative in the local culture,” they are underestimating the role of memory in East-West relationships.

When an American says, “that’s history” he means “it’s all over.” In another context it is a call to arms!

Next year Turkish pastors hope to connect with Armenian pastors to, in their words, “rid the land of the curse of blood from the despicable events of 1915.” They are taking responsibility for memory!

Fritz Kling in his book The Meeting of the Waters: 7 Global Currents That Will Propel the Future Church, names memory as one of the 7. He then makes this statement:

“Post-colonialism is the world’s strongest form of memory.”

I believe the post-colonial world slopes from West to East. It is not a level playing field.

The present continual values-dump from the West, combined with a past of bloodshed and stifling control, shapes the worldview and sense of identity of many people on the planet. For the most part, with a Westerner in the room, many will go into passive mode because of a thousand tacit assumptions about superiority, status and rights. This is exacerbated by the use of English in international contexts: native English speakers have another automatic advantage. The world slopes even further.

Aristotle wrote, “Envy is defined as a kind of distress at apparent success on the part of one’s peers… I mean those like themselves in terms of birth, relationship, age, disposition, reputation, possessions” (in Bruce Malina, The New Testament World).

In other words, you don’t compete with those who you don’t see as peers. You would not be jealous if the king bought a new car! Likewise, even if he is more educated, more intelligent, more well-traveled and more anointed, a local leader will often defer to to Westerner because… well, that’s the point! And we Westerners often accept deference as our assumed right.

So can we do anything to level the playing field?

  • We must work extra hard to inculturate.
  • We must work extra hard on language. Using English reinforces the status quo. Using local language reverses it.
  • We must work extra hard to be honouring and appreciative of culture. If a Westernizing world automatically assumes West is best, we must assume the opposite. Can you do that with integrity?
  • We must work extra hard to contextualise. We often find that we push further East and locals are pushing further West. For example, we are writing worship songs in local style and people in our church are listening to Hillsong on Youtube!
  • We must work extra hard to be honest about our weaknesses and faults. The apostle Paul is a great example of breaking down cultural barriers through weakness. He would argue that weakness is genuine apostolic ID, and is scathing of the “super-apostles” who know all the answers and need nothing.

The business of the gospel is to humble the proud and exalt the lowly. In the global marketplace and in your interactions with people there is, as a general rule, a Western assumption of superiority and a post-colonial complex of lack of opportunity.

I apologize if my generalizations are not politically correct. I am writing this for Westerners and asking these questions:

– What can you do to humble yourself and to honour others?
– How can you level the playing field in your interactions?
– How can you be more aware of the power of memory?

Andy M

Andy M

Andy is involved with cross-cultural church planting in the Middle East. Connect on Twitter.
Andy M

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