September 25, 2007

A Thought Experiment

I wrote this to answer a question brought up in my Cross-Cultural Leadership class (currently my favorite): why would anybody bother to interact cross-culturally? Why would we bother to go beyond a "tourist" or "tolerance" perspective of interacting with others not like us? If we removed God from the equation, are there any reasons to do that?

Keep in mind this is more of a thought experiment than my personal views, but I'd really like to hear your opinion on it.

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Donald McGavran notes on multiple occasions in his classic text: people tend to stick to their own peer groups, flock to their own cultures. In most psychology texts, we find that “birds of a feather flock together” because it adds a sense of comfort, of ease when a person feels he can understand the world around him.

The classic study in psychology is a fine example, called “
the good Samaritan.” The experiment was created back in the glory days of psychology, when psychologists had a lot more freedom to design experiments (so keep that in mind). The psychologist gathered seminarians (think M.Div students) and asked them to write and present a sermon on the biblical text where Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. On their way to present their sermon, the seminarians encounter a man wounded in a doorway. In one group, the man is out of their way. In another group, the man is right next to them, and in the third, the seminarians would actually have to step over him to get to their sermon. Further variables were introduced, such as the timing (the seminarian is on time, running late, or is early).

The results are simply staggering. A very, VERY small percentage of the seminarians stopped to offer the man aid. The majority of these were men and women who were early to their sermon, and had to step over the wounded party.

What does this tell us?

We are not comfortable, even when primed with a message such as the parable of the Good Samaritan, with going outside of ourselves to people that are not like us. Removing scripture from the picture (and with it the promise of eternity), we are forced to focus on our own survival, and survival can never include those that are different. Different people are a threat; if we are all moving in our own self-interests, it is to our relative advantage to aid others who are seeking the same goals as ourselves. Eventually, everyone in a person’s peer group will become a threat as well, but if the peer group is constantly faced with other competing peer groups, it will always be forced to look outside itself, thus bringing a relative sense of security (strength in numbers) and forcing the group to survive together. If there is a larger threat outside the group, the group members must ignore the lesser internal threats to confront it.

At the absolute very least, we seek others not like us in order to survive.

It is a necessity: the only way we can survive is to find groups of people like us and fight groups of people not like us; we compete for resources. There is no such thing as altruism in a world without God. We bond with others not like us (and everybody is not like us in some manner) because we have to; there simply isn’t enough space or resources to survive alone (and yet it drives us apart; we become alone).

Without God – and an external, absolute morality He asks and modeled – we are no more than animals, fighting for the survival of the fittest. We might build large corporations or teams or cultures to survive (the enemy of my enemy is my friend), and we might even get to know members of other competing peer groups (keep your friends close and your enemies even closer), but ultimately, we are ever alone in our myopic monocultural bubbles.

And yet the men and women who profess a faith that says “love your neighbor” and “love even your enemies” do not, and men and women who profess that survival of the fittest is all there is to life are seen feeding the hungry, healing the sick. Where could compassion, apart from God, possibly come from? I submit that these are following in Jesus’ footsteps. Those that are compassionate outside of their own cultures – and outside of the church – must be getting their compassion from somewhere. I submit that it must come from He who IS compassion.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to become subversives to the myopia of cultural indifference that is so prevalent in the church, in word and in action. We are to live interculturally, as servants of the multitude of races and religions and ethnicities and socioeconomies; loving the poor (physically poor AND spiritually poor), feeding the hungry, housing the aliens and orphans and widows.
Who is our neighbor? Everyone who is not us; and ultimately, that is everybody. Far from being alone, the life of a follower of Jesus is the opposite: we are to be the antithesis of alone; we are to be the embodiment of community.


Kobayashi Maru said...

Nice thought-piece. You are clearly groovin' on seminary. Go for it!

In the psych experiment you mentioned, was the injured person's cultural or ethnic identity ever at issue? I don't think it was.

I assume you're aware of the recent discoveries (e.g., as cited in the book 'Bowling Alone' and substantiated with more recent studies) that suggest social engagement (of all kinds, including religious) is maximized only in "lumpier" communities. I.e., those where people are able to associate more closely with others "like them". Or to put it negatively, people do not engage with others nearly as much when thrust into a bewilderingly heterogeneous milieu.

That sounds terribly incorrect to our modern 'PC' ears. And it is. But here's the big question for you:

If, as that study suggests, we are actually more apt to engage with complete strangers in more homogeneous communities (because despite higher natures, we feel safer, more comfortable, more able to communicate effectively, etc.), and that engagement includes all kinds of compassionate acts, do we need full-blown 21st century notions of multi-culturalism in order to meet scriptural mandates?

I would suggest that we don't.

That remains the ultimate ideal, of course (love everyone generously and without boundaries or superficial prejudices). But if the net effect (in the short term anyway) is far less in the way of compassionate acts (everyone locks their doors and doesn't trust strangers) then maybe we're better off being clear about which approach gets us more quickly and easily towards the Christian ideal.

Chris said...

Thanks for the response,

I'm actually of the opinion that, outside of Jesus, we have no reason beyond the occasional "they have what we want" to interact with other cultures at ALL, let alone in a positive way. You're right - McGavran's study showed that we all tend towards our perceived "in-groups" and shy away from "out-groups." The lines don't necessarily fall along ethnic lines (sometimes it's gender, sometimes it's class, sometimes it's philosophy, etc.) but as my professor is fond of saying, ought it to be this way?

The gospel won't spread cross-culturally in a world that ignores anybody not like them. I believe the followers of Jesus are to be missionaries, as He was, and so if the gospel is truely to be spread "even to the ends of the earth," we HAVE to act cross-culturally = it's in our missional mandate from Jesus Himself.

But that still makes it a duty. I think we need to take it the step further and go to the "love your neighbor" part. Who's our neighbors? Everyone! Regardless of race, class, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, friend, or enemy ... all are our neighbors.