Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The irony of this human condition

I have been thinking about the situation of the culture and the people that we live among.  For a few years now we have observed their lives, heard their stories, and studied how, why and when they make changes or improvements in their lives.  Along the way we have also found some aspects of their culture that have a fierce resistance to change.  Thinking about these in detail, I find these situations to be sad and ironic.  I’ll explain what I mean in three examples that I have seen most clearly in this culture.  Be sure you catch my note at the end as well…

The values that we put such esteem in often escape our grasp.  The specific example I see in this culture is honesty.  Whenever I talk to people here about values, one of the first that they mention is honesty.  Whenever they talk about a person with great moral character, they always mention honesty.  If someone is criticizing another, they will almost always include that the person is “not true,” meaning that they are not honest.  The value of honesty is highly prized here, and because of that it is often ascribed as apart of their religion.  I often hear statements like, “This is my religion, and my religion is honest.”  When a person says this, the hearers are supposed to take the implication that this person is telling the truth.  Children often break it down in more simple turns, when, in the middle of their play on the street one of them will shout out, “by the name of God,” or, “by the name of our holy book!”  That’s all they’ll say, and everyone understands it to mean: believe me, I’m telling the truth!  
With all the value put in honesty, and the frequency with which it is talked about, it is a bit ironic how much dishonesty pervades this culture.  Examples?   
·      Shopkeepers mark a price up 500%, and swear to you in the name of God that they are giving it to you at the price they paid
·      Doctors and pharmacists sell poor hospital patients an entire bag of medicine, which almost always includes an antibiotic and a bag of IV fluid, no matter what the sickness or need is.  (and then the sick person will put the IV needle in and walk around town holding the IV bag up)
·      Police and government officials seek bribes wherever they can get them, sometimes using threat and intimidation, more often using inconvenience to prompt the bribe. 
·      One of the most disturbing to me: it is standard practice for parents of high school students to pay the biggest bribe possible to the proctors of college entrance exams.  Your grade on the entrance exam determines which faculty you can study.  Highest grades go into medicine, next to engineering, next to education and agriculture, and so on.
Yes, they talk an awful lot about the importance and value of honesty, but is escapes them.

The vices we hate most in others are often in us as well.  I’ll use the example of pride here.  It has been said that it takes a proud person to notice the pride in another.  Here, the character of pride is also tainted by the justification of jealousy and injustice.  If a person here is acting proudly it is most often because they have found a way to one-up someone else, usually someone that they were previously jealous of.  Here’s the simplified recipe: jealously leads to feeling justified to do something unjust and awful to someone else, which results in pride.  Classic example: Two men are working in the same office, Tom and Ted.  Tom works harder than Ted and gets a raise sooner.  Ted, angry and jealous, digs up some dirt on Tom that gets him fired.  Ted walks around proudly for years, thinking he has won the war.  Tom bides his time, hating the pride of Ted.  Finally 5 years later Tom has his chance, and joins rank with a stronger leader that fires Ted and anyone related to him, putting their whole tribe in worse poverty.  Tom is now proud as ever.

The community that we wished we had is not made up of people just like us. 
When we dialogue with poor villages about community development, we often hear them make erroneous assumptions about more developed/wealthy/happy/peaceful communities/provinces/countries.  It is astonishing to hear a person say they believe the village down the road or the US of A is more developed because the people there are all good religious people like himself, not invalids like the members of his village.  There’s several things going on in these statements, but here’s what I’m pointing out: a community is not made of people that are exactly alike, community is made of people that put each other before themselves, and work for the common good rather than themselves.  That being the motive, it doesn’t matter as much whether there’s a weird egg in the bunch.  A wise man once told me, “Every person is someone else’s weirdo.”  So of course there is going to be a weird egg in the bunch!  
This notion: “If I could only get people that I like around me and people I don’t like away from me, then I would have a peaceful and prosperous life” – that’s wrong.  We need diversity to be effectively growing and developing.  Unfortunately for the culture here, decades of war have hardened people to notions of diversity.  They would rather maintain and defend the boundaries of the ethnic and clan lines that they know and trust.  In some places the groups are so small and so inbred that they suffer severe rates of congenital birth defects.  Places like these desperately need to stretch their trust to see the benefits of creating wider community.

My note at the end:
What you have read above is a collection of critical statements about the culture we work amongst.  Before you take these as a summary of where we are working, consider the perspectives of people inside and outside of a culture.  In this culture I am an outsider.  It does not matter that I have worked here for a few years and speak the language, I’m still very much an outsider here.  Insiders on the other hand are people that are born and raised and native to a given place.  Our staff, neighbors, and people in the villages we work in are all insiders.  Their perspective is different from mine.  They would agree with some of the statements I have made, but they would give more layers of explanation about the external forces upon their culture and society that have made them how they are.  They are partly right, but I am also partly right. 

Now consider your own culture, where you are an insider.  There are things about your own culture that outsiders would make critical statements about.  Some of those statements would probably surprise you; some you would perhaps agree with, but some you would rebut and provide argument against.  You would be partly right, but outsiders who had spent some time looking into your culture (like we have looked into this culture here) would be partly right as well.  My point (finally) is simply this: It is easy to think we are grand, and other peoples are utterly lost, however, our sanctification is not worked out yet, and there is ugliness in every culture of the humanity.  Let us work out our salvation in fear and trembling. (Philippians 2)

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