Culture Learning Brings Fresh Insight
“Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” ~ Jesus (Matthew 18:3)
What exactly was Jesus communicating to His disciples when He gave them this surprising statement? I know there’s been plenty of expounding done on this statement already, but I have come to see it in a new light because of where I am currently in life. My wife and I and our four-month-old daughter have recently begun living with a people group that is quite different from the one that we grew up among. Our goals are to get to know these people as well as possible and to identify with them as fully as we can without compromising our “not-of-this-world” stance as followers of Christ.
In the several months that we have had significant interaction with our new culture, something is already quite obvious. My little daughter can much more easily identify with this new culture than my wife and I can. Indeed, she is often the bridge that helps us make friends much faster than we otherwise would have. People open their arms to her and shower her with attention while we adults are treated with much more reserve. She is accepted in ways that we are not yet, and, apart from being accepted, she obviously feels much more at home with them than we do. Why?
I believe the answer lies in her lack of background. She’s a baby with no history, no (or very little) cultural awareness, no habits, very little identity and no expectations of “normal” behavior from her new friends. In such a position, she can readily adapt to just about any new environment. In contrast, my wife and I are carrying armloads of baggage with us into our new culture. We lived in our mother culture for decades, conforming our behavior to those around us and subconsciously growing to expect everyone to act in this “normal” way. We formed an identity that included our level of education, our talents, and our social circle. These normalized behaviors, expectations and identity were helpful – even essential – for thriving in our mother culture. But now that we have switched cultures, they are hang-ups in becoming part of the new one. Suddenly, the people around us are violating our expectations of normal behavior, and we are violating theirs. What identity we had formerly becomes meaningless as our neighbors see us in an entirely different light.
As I watch my daughter, I’m concluding that a key to fitting well into my new culture is imitating her. No, not imitating her in actions or speech, but in her lack of expectations, her humility and her acceptance of others. I need to give up the identity that I have in my mother culture and become like a baby as I develop a new identity in this culture. I need to be humble as I make mistakes in this new culture and am perceived as ignorant (like the time my wife and I violated some behavioral expectations in caring for our daughter, and a helpful lady told us, “I see that you are young and do not know how to take care of children.”) I need to swallow my pride as I tell people that I know almost nothing of what are basic survival skills for them. I need to extend grace to my neighbors who act completely different than I expect them to as I seek to understand what drives this behavior. Taking a “baby” role in my new culture goes against my natural urge to demonstrate my knowledge and capabilities to others. In spite of this, I believe it is key to ever functioning as an “adult”.
And what about the Kingdom of Heaven? Just like I have to give up my identity and normal behaviors to enter into a new earthly culture, so the one entering the Kingdom of Heaven must denounce their old identity and behaviors. What used to be normal must now be rejected as new behaviors and a new identity are embraced. But this change will not happen in a moment. The one entering the Kingdom must take the humble position of a baby, learning new ways of thinking, talking, living. He must grow into his new identity as a child of the King, recognizing that it will be years before he is an adult in the Kingdom and willingly learning from others who are experts in Kingdom behavior. Humbling? Of course! But Jesus knew from personal experience what He was asking of His disciples. After all, He literally became a baby to take on His new identity as a man.
Leonard is an Old Testament translator on the Mixtec team.