If you were to come to live in my village, you would know that there is something wrong. It takes time, of course, to sort through all of the cultural differences. Some things feel wrong, but when you take the time to think about it, they do not have a moral component at all. For example, in Cameroon (following France) light switches go down for ON and up for OFF. Sitting talking to our neighbors, you would watch them prepare grasshoppers or rats for dinner. And you would think, “That does not seem right.” But, in reality, “right and wrong” do not have a place in discussing these issues. There is a missionary mantra we are all taught: “It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just different.” And, at the end of the day, no matter how wrong things can feel, a switch is just a switch and grasshoppers are a good source of protein.
Now, if you were to come with us as we are touring around the US, you would be astounded by the contrast. People are kind to one another! My brothers and sisters in Christ are constantly asking me how I am doing and providing housing and food as we travel. Random people in the grocery store will beam at my kids and ask us our adoption stories. On Sunday we went to our sending church (IBC) and were surrounded by friends that told us that they have been praying for us for years. And together we sang worship to God so loudly that I could not even hear my own voice.
And sure, the switches go up for ON and down for OFF. The meals people are preparing involve tortillas and ground beef and cheese. And these things would feel right to many of you for the same reason that they feel right to me: it is what we are used to. But there is a different kind of rightness in the American experience. Kindness is better than harshness. Joy is better than despair. Patience is better than impatience. Gentleness is better than cruelty.
And so, the obvious conclusion is that America is better than Cameroon, right? Actually, I think that is the wrong conclusion.
A Counter Example
The pastor of our village church is not Bakoum. Boris came from a wealthy family in Cameroon, in fact in the line of the chief. He lived most of his life not too much differently than my neighbors. He did not treat women well and defended his own pride by yelling at others. But one day he heard the Gospel: that Jesus Christ came, lived a perfect life, died for Boris’s sins, and then rose from the dead. And, though still imperfect, Boris is a now new creature. Boris loves his wife and is faithful to her. Boris teaches his children to be kind to animals. And Boris pours his life out as a servant to the church in our village. Boris speaks up for the weak and helpless. He preaches against abuse of women and children. And I am so happy to know him. He is kind, he serves me and my family, he works hard, and I learn a lot from him.
So what is the difference? Is it a different culture? No, the difference is Christ. Boris has been changed by the Gospel. He reflects those values that I mentioned above not because he is more American, but because he is more like Jesus.
Is America More Christian?
But, you may have noticed, I am claiming that I see more of these characteristics here in America than I do living among the Bakoum. And, you might say, “America is not a Christian nation.” And you are right. In fact, America is drifting further and further from Christ in many ways. But one reality that I believe we often neglect to mention is how much our culture has been impacted by the Bible. So, as Americans we value justice and do not stand for corruption in our police departments. Why? Because we have been taught to value justice by the Bible. We put people in prison who abuse animals. Why? Because the Bible has taught us to take care of animals (Proverbs 20:12, Deuteronomy 25:4, Proverbs 27:23, etc.).
In a nation where the majority do not have a personal relationship with Christ, we still have many of the fringe benefits. So, even those who hate God in America, will usually be kind to your face. Though lying might be rampant in personal relationships, it is illegal in court. And when we ask the question: “Is America more Christian?”, we have to acknowledge that there actually are more Christians in America. When God calls us to be the “salt of the earth” I believe there is a preservation aspect to that. And there have been Christians in America for a very long time. The Bakoum have not benefited from this preservation. Heaven and Hell are not even concepts in the minds of the Bakoum. In America, you might have someone say that they do not believe in Heaven and Hell, but in doing so they are denying a concept that already exists in their mind. The Bakoum do not have those categories.
I have found that there are certain moral issues that almost all Americans accept. These are issues that I would never have imagined having to defend. So, it has been shocking when I have encountered other cultures that do not condemn rape (at least in certain situations). Why is it that rape is condemned in American culture, but not all others? Is it because America is better? No, rape is wrong not because Americans say it is wrong, but because God hates rape. As those who have benefited from over 600 years of the English Bible, it is impossible to overestimate the impact of the influence of the Bible on the way that we think.
Only Missions Brings About Real Change
When people think of missionaries, I think they often have the stereotype of white people seeking to spread their culture around the world. And in some ways, missionaries have done this. At nearly any church in Cameroon, the pastor will wear a suit and tie. Having spent some significant time there, I am very convinced that this practice did not originate in a Bakoum village. Ties are imported from colder climates, trust me. However, the true task of Christian missions is not to export culture, but to export Christ. And that is why cultures get objectively better after the arrival of missionaries. I know that is a strong statement, but it is true (if you do not believe me, read THIS ARTICLE). There is a reason that widow burning (Sati) is no longer practiced in India and foot binding is now forbidden in China. The arrival of the Gospel changes culture. In fact, the Gospel is the only thing that can bring real change for the better.
*photo from patheos.com