Americans exert power, whether we realize it or not. Church members go on mission trips to visit the poor, with a wide open heart to help and give. I believe that in the process, we unknowingly pressure the people of other cultures with our power. Jesus was most critical of the powerful, and most merciful to the weak. Let us examine our approach to helping the poor, and learn to love without applying power pressure.
We have difficulty sensing our power pressure, because we have never lived in a community of severe insecurity. We have options. We have money to complete a project, or we can figure out where to get it. We can get a job and rent an apartment. We feel confident to speak openly. We criticize with impunity. We believe in the American dream, where any idea is free to grow.
Our natural self confidence causes us to advocate ideas, to ask direct questions, to take action to provide a solution, such as donating money to complete a critical project. All of these behaviors feel intuitive to us, and don’t feel the least bit inappropriate.
We have never endured great loss from speaking openly. We’ve never lost a loved one for not complying. We’ve never coped with a total lack of options. We are not self-aware, that we naturally speak and act from a position of personal security and power, and that much of the rest of the world does not. Other cultures that have suffered under ruthless political regimes, war and extreme poverty, relate from histories of insecurity, and that’s an entirely different paradigm.
After ten years of engaging in African-Western relationships, I am starting to feel great respect for my African brothers and sisters who have learned deeper personal skills of flexibility than me. They know how to patiently endure power, how to humbly and respectfully go with the flow. They know how to give up for the sake of peace, or win by waiting. They cope with a lack of options and money. I have no idea how to do that.
I speak my mind, and make my case to defend my plans, because I can. My peers respect me for it. American culture is a mutual power exerting culture, whereas many other cultures are mutual submissive cultures; a patient wait and see approach. It’s critical for us to realize that our natural first response is to step forward, whereas in many other cultures, a first natural response is to yield and step back. We need to realize this difference, so that we don’t incorrectly assume that people agree with us when in fact they don’t.
When I first travelled to Rwanda, all sorts of creative, helpful ideas bubbled up within me. My solutions to extreme poverty ranged from very grandiose, like building a world class high school, to very small, such as donating chickens to our orphanage home. My ideas met with enthusiastic affirmation, and I started to believe that I possessed exceptional creativity and even entrepreneurial genius. Rwanda felt like a magical land where every idea has merit. But as my projects unfolded, I started to see glimpses that some of my ideas were not that culturally appropriate or actually wanted. The chicken coop only got half built, and the money invested was lost. Other projects led to even greater painful results.
My helpful ideas met with initial agreement but not actual consensus. My friends yielded to me out of respect for my position as a visitor and person of wealth. There is a huge difference between consensus and yielding that is lost on most Westerners. Lack of consensus will require a great cost to be paid on the back end of a project, and of a relationship.
Jesus’ love is radical. Jesus’ love does not seek its own way. How can I release my power pressure, and live in mutual submission with those of other cultures? How do I truly gain consensus? To start, I will be willing to spend time, without seeking to bring an idea. I will also let ideas take a very long time to percolate, and gain consensus before moving forward. I may wait to be asked to help, instead of asking if I can help. And I will look for opportunities to respectfully go with the flow.
March 19, 2011