"But everyone here offers and takes bribes!" the national exclaims, shaking his head in disbelief. His American missionary friend has just refused to go along with an accepted pattern of behavior, and in so doing, perhaps has greatly complicated his obtaining a document or completing a business transaction.
This little example illustrates the almost countless times when the Christian worker's ethical standards are tested, as he attempts to cope with another culture. He soon finds that moral standards and codes of behavior are totally different from his. He finds that cultural clues on which he has always based his decisions and responses are absent, so he has difficulty in deciding what is right or wrong to do in a given situation.
For example, in a nation where "who you know" means much more than "what you know" should he use his acquaintances to accomplish his purposes? In a land where cutting corners on honesty is standard procedure (in Brazil, dar um jeito or accomplish an end by whatever means), how far should he bend in accomplishing his tasks? In a land where drinking wine with meals is normal behavior and does not result in drunkenness, should he accept a glass in a national's home or reject it, and thus offend his host? (Don't answer too quickly, reader. Solutions to such problems in a foreign land are not that simple.) Should he pay income taxes there, when he must also file U. S. tax returns, especially knowing that most nationals are avoiding payment of taxes? Should he go alone to conduct a cottage class, knowing that the husband may not be at home and that any personal contact between men and women is misinterpreted? Should he report misbehavior of a colleague on the field to the other man's sponsoring church, knowing that he will be misunderstood if he reports this, and condemned later if he does not? Should he ... but the list goes on and on.
In many cases he can find no solution that pleases his people on the field, his people back home, and himself. What, then, is he to do?
Then there is the constant tendency of nationals to criticize Americans, to expect more money and results from them than they can deliver. And coupled with this is the fact that there are vulture-types in the States ready to condemn him almost for breathing. Paul's catalog of trials included this significant item: "in peril of my countrymen...." One low-water point in the writer's mission experience was the day when he received two letters, one condemning him for being "liberal," and the other for being "conservative." Frustration, anyone?
And, too, he has many temptations on the field. Yes, he does...temptations that he may never have faced at home. He gives so much of himself, and may be disappointed at the results so often, that he reaches a low ebb emotionally and spiritually. In such a situation, and far from homeand social safeguards that surround him among his own people, he succumbs.
The worker is also faced with decisions about his treatment of others, about how he will or will not handle the daily stream of benevolence cases that confront him. He has decisions to make about the use of his time, his leisure, his recreation, and the company he keeps--all these resolved often without the benefit of counsel from elders or other experienced brethren.
Most of these, and so many other situations in which he finds himself, call for answers that involve his personal ethics, but in an environment that may be antagonistic to his ethical heritage. How does he respond to them?
First, unless he is able to bend some to meet this different environment, he is likely to break. Some have understood this, but have bent too far, to the detriment of their personal standards and their Christian example. Others have attempted to adapt, and yet maintain their personal ethics. And others have refused to yield in any way to cultural pressure, becoming critical of their host society and losing much of their influence.
Second, he must be sensitive to ethical standards and re-examine all of his own convictions, to determine which are essential to his Christian living and which are only cultural baggage he has taken with him to another country. It is surprising how often the two areas, conviction and tradition, are confused, even in a single culture.
Third, he must determine to remain true to those that are necessary Biblically and conscience-wise.
Fourth, he must be concerned always for his own example, knowing that in a very real sense on the field he is light, salt, and leaven, being observed by a host of other people in every possible situation.
Fifth, he must realize that the Lord only expects a reasonable service of him. He is no superman; he will make mistakes. He must rest and recuperate spiritually at times. He will receive help from above for those decisions that are sensitive, especially if he relies on the Lord for his help. He must pray continually for patience and wisdom. In our prayer life in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, these words, patience and wisdom, crop up daily.
Sixth, above all he must be ethical! Missionary, fulfill your promises to the upmost of your ability. Be worthy of the trust many have placed in you. Answer your correspondence. Demonstrate at all times your personal integrity and honesty. Thus, as your influence extends, you will have closed the credibility gap between one missionary, his life and his claims.
Mirrored by permission of ACU Missions Personnel
Direct questions and comments to Ed Mathews, firstname.lastname@example.org