The Need for Cultural Humility

I had an interesting conversation with a couple at church a few Sundays ago. They both were born in Africa, but have lived in the US for a number of years. In discussing children, they told me that they were concerned about raising their daughter in America because of the dangers here. Without a second thought, I knew exactly what they were talking about. As Americans we have become accustomed to comfort, such that we think we deserve it. We have grown cold to the suffering of those in the majority world, and we are greatly tempted to live only for ourselves.

However, this wonderful couple also told me that they had tried to explain these concerns to another American who could just not see it. They could not fathom that there would be anything in the States that would be more dangerous than living in Africa. I believe that this reveals a cultural short-sightedness that we cannot help but have, and that we need to work to eliminate.
Manifestations of Cultural Short-SightednessWhen we were in France we learned that the French have a very different perspective of the separation of Church and State than we do in America. I was speaking one day with a friend about evangelism and he told me that Christians as a general rule are not allowed to go out in groups do to street witnessing. He said that no one is really supposed to talk about religious things in public, or wear religious symbols. He told me that he thought this was a good idea because it helped to avoid religious disagreements and even violence. Looking at his life from the outside, I did not see much effort put into evangelism at all and instead I saw hostility towards those of other religions. Not all French people are like this, I know several who are extremely evangelistic, those who have taught me what boldness for Christ really looks like. However, for this man, his culture had affected the way that he saw his role as a Christian in society. As an outsider, with different cultural baggage, I saw a deficiency in his worldview that he could not see at all.

In Cameroon, one day I went to the hospital with a friend and saw two men arguing. I asked my friend if we should intervene as it seemed on the edge of physical violence. He looked at me perplexed. To him this was the sight of two men having a normal disagreement. Over time this friend has come to see that shouting and shoving is not the way that the Lord would have us deal with conflict. But he needed an outside perspective.

I personally have been confronted in numerous areas as I have encountered new cultures. In France I was at first shocked to see how small everything was: cars, grocery carts, people. But I learned in France the people have a value for moderation. In what they eat and drink, in how they travel, they see excess as unnecessary and undesirable. I have found this to be an area in which I am lacking. Both the French and the Cameroonian church has put me to shame in their kindness and hospitality. On the first day we went to church in Albertville, France we had two offers for people to meet with us weekly to help us learn French. A Cameroonian family invited us to live in their house (I have four children!) without a moment’s hesitation. I have found that my American bred brain values privacy and individuality to a sinful fault. But without input from those outside these weaknesses, I was blind to it. I was just acting in a normal way.

The Need for Cultural Humility

In each culture I have found truth and aspects to be admired. But as good as our cultures can be, “culture” is created by humans, and like humans, it is fallen. And every culture I have ever encountered has been riddled with sinful attitudes and behaviors. But like a fish in water, or like the air that we breath, we do not think about our own culture. Just the other day at the grocery store a woman asked my kids if they were going home to paint eggs. My children just looked at her in bewilderment. What in the world is this woman talking about? We have never painted eggs with them, as that is not something people do in Cameroon. But for this woman, it was a very natural questions and pretty much any other American child would have known exactly what she was talking about. In the same way, culture is not something that we think about, it is just something that we do.

Therefore it can seem bizarre and attacking when someone says something against our culture, almost as though they are attacking the very essence of who we are. This is where we need to have cultural humility. By that I mean that we are able to take a step back and say, “Not everything in my culture is right.” But I also mean that we allow others to speak into our lives. This is a risky task because it opens us up to criticism and confrontation.

One thing that keeps us back from this risk is the lie that those outside of a situation cannot speak into it. I have seen this lie on the street in front of the abortion clinic, where I have been told that I should have no say because I have no uterus. I have heard this lie come from the mouths of Americans who are unwilling to listen to the critiques of those from other countries. The idea is that someone on the outside does not understand the situation fully and therefore cannot give useful insight. But I have found that the opposite is true: sometimes those on the outside have the most profound insight.

When I was in Ethiopia for the court date for two of our adoptions, I drove around with the director of the orphanage. He was looking for a new location as the orphanage was continuing to grow and they did not have enough space for all of the children. As we drove, we saw some incredible houses. You would not believe these houses. They were huge and lavish, some had pools and beautifully manicured lawns. I have seen big houses before, but the contrast between the poverty that surrounded and these houses made them shine out like a diamond on a black cloth. I must have made some awed comment to my new friend because he immediately pulled the car over to the side of the road. And he looked me in the eye and said, “These houses will not get you into heaven! There is something so much better than wealth, so much better than lavish living, and it is the Gospel!”

I was pretty stunned. And to be honest, he totally misread me. I have many faults, and though I am tempted to love comfort, I have zero desire to live in a big house. But while he misread me, he nailed my culture. This man had encountered a good number of Americans, and had seen much about America in media. And he knew that wealth and comfort was a temptation for many Americans. And he also knew that you cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24). I walked away from this conversation a little offended, feeling misjudged. But over time, I find myself thinking about this man’s words quite often. Here, my brother in Christ from a different country, was speaking into an aspect of my culture that he saw so clearly. My response should not have been offense, but humility.

Truth is, I do want comfort. Maybe not in the form of a big house, but in other ways. And sometimes when I am on Facebook and I see how some of my friends live, I feel a craving for more of that in my heart. And in those moments I remember “There is something so much better than wealth, so much better than lavish living, and it is the Gospel!” Sometimes, when people confront an aspect of our lives it feels out of left field. And our first response is to believe that they have no right to question us. But I think most of the time it is those confrontations that feel so out of place that hit the nail on the head. And fortunately, as Christians, we do not have to fear confrontation. A Christian is someone who is characterized by repentance and we cannot repent of sins we do not see. Slowly, I am learning to invite such confrontation, and asking the Lord to use it even when I think the people are wrong. And I pray in doing so, I am weeding out sins I would have never even thought of before.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.