But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry… And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:1, 4)
When we enter a new culture, we expect to be changed. For the better.
The little book of Jonah is the classic picture of cross-cultural mission in the Old Testament. Jonah exhibits a whole catalogue of shortcomings, many of which are in his attitude towards the Ninevites. Jonah’s story is Israel’s story, is the Church’s story, is our story. Many missionaries over the years have found they have identified deeply with Jonah. Is the book of Jonah about God saving Nineveh through Jonah, or about God saving Jonah through Nineveh?
Chang-ee before Chang-er
Veteran missionary James Frazer, when asked eagerly by a student, ‘What was your biggest surprise when you went to China?’ replied, ‘Myself ’.
I wonder if Jonah would have answered similarly.
Freya Stark wrote:
“The proper traveller … thinks it a waste to move from his own home if nothing happens inside him as a result. I mean something fundamental, like a chemical change when two substances come into contact.”
Humility is reading Scripture and identifying with its weak characters. If Jonah had such gaping flaws in his attitude to the Ninevites, the chances are we do too. Jonah does not have much to teach us about strategy, but a whole load to teach us about our hearts.
Every cultural boundary is an opportunity to be changed. Whenever we come face to face with difference, we have a chance to learn from it. When you are entering a new culture, you are the minority, you are the guest, you are the ‘weird’ one, and this is a unique moment to learn some new perspectives, some new habits, and some new ways of living.
Guest before host
Part of mission must be to confront sin, but this is best done after taking time to enter. For your first few years in a new place you bite your tongue, you refuse to judge, you choose, instead of saying ‘that is wrong’ to say, ‘that is… different!’ As a guest, you do not have the right to judge your host. Until I have entered, and understood, and belonged, who am I to judge or comment or correct? If you came into my house and insulted my cooking, I would be angry! But if we were friends of many years, then I might listen to your advice or comments on how to cook better.
Anthony Gittins, picking up the language of ‘host’ and ‘guest’, asks:
Do we show adequate and genuine deference to our hosts? Do we willingly acknowledge their authority in the situation, and their rights and duties as hosts? Do we allow ourselves to be adequately positioned as strangers, according to the legitimate needs of the hosts? Or do we try to seize initiatives, show them clearly what our expectations are, make demands on them, and thus effectively refuse the role of stranger, thereby impeding them from being adequate hosts?
Bernard Adeney, on this issue, comments:
Strangers have no inherent right to credibility or trust. These must be earned. Legitimation is a gift from the host … One of the worst things a guest can do is to take away the rights of a host to be the host.
Some foreigners seem to always be on the outside, are always treated with suspicion, and may never earn the right to challenge. Others seem to gain acceptance or legitimisation by their local friends. This has always been true. Colonials used to accuse some of ‘going native’, meaning that they ate or fraternised or lived in a way that overly identified with local people. It is only these who ever gain the relational authority to challenge, with a view to changing, some aspects of cultural sin.
Take the ethno- out of your centrism
The book of Jonah challenges Jewish ethno-centrism in the OT – that they are the only seat of revelation, that God can’t love or work through anyone else. The sailors repent while Jonah doesn’t. The king of Nineveh has better theology than Jonah. Nineveh repents at the word of the Lord, while Jonah doesn’t.
We are all ethnocentric – “our way is best.” For example, the English think Germans are too serious, Italians are too emotional, but somehow we are just right. We see ourselves as normal and everyone else as outliers.
And because we think like that, we think God thinks the same as us. We foist our preferences and prejudices onto the Almighty.
Ethnocentrism arises from ignorance – we think our way is best because we have never seriously considered the alternatives. Ethnocentrism arises from arrogance – we don’t seriously consider the alternatives because we do not deem them worthy of consideration. Ethnocentrism is a form of racism. It otherises. It discriminates. It prefers. It is unable to discern that the “other” might be able to teach us something which we need to learn. Which is why it needs dealing with, confronting, challenging, rebuking, transforming.
This is not a given. It’s not automatic. It’s possible to live cross-culturally and become even more resistant, even more otherising, even more racist, as many expatriate communities do.
We need to recognise that God has been at work in the communities we are visiting,
Kosuke Koyama wrote on Western mission to Asia, “While Jesus Christ, the head of the church, has an appreciative mind, often his historical churches have displayed a non-appreciative or even anti-appreciative mind.” He complains that Western missionaries came and threw out everything from Eastern culture, labelled all traditions demonic, and could not perceive the common grace at work in these societies.
In Jonah, we see God implying that he has been at work in Nineveh, long before Jonah arrived.
“And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city” (Jonah 4:10-11).
There is a breath-taking implication here – that God cares about this city. That he has laboured for it and made it grow. It’s a pagan city, but God has been at work there through his common grace, defined by John Murray as “every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.”
Douglas Stuart reflects on this phenomenon in Jonah:
“The book does not suggest universalism, that all peoples or nations are chosen, but does teach that non-believing peoples may still benefit in some ways from God’s compassion. In this regard the book teaches the biblical doctrine of common grace (i.e. that some of God’s blessings in this life are given to all people in general, not just believers).”
God is at work in the world, not just in the Church. Those who cross cultures, encounter new perspectives, enter into new expressions, should do so with appreciation, even awe, knowing that God has been at work long before we got there, expecting to discern God’s grace, even beauty, in the lives of those whom we have gone to ‘instruct’. As Newbigin wrote;
“We always, with all others, are still in via. We have not arrived. We do not possess the truth. We are learners. And if one thing is made clear in the teaching of Jesus, it is that at the end we shall be surprised.”
The great privilege of following Jesus across cultural boundaries is the opportunity to be changed, to learn, to be surprised, to be enriched, to be humbled, to be blessed, to be corrected. This might be the most important aspect of your cross-cultural journey. It certainly has been in mine!