Battle Creek, Michigan, 2018. Another gathering. Another vote. Another emotional carousel. Because the issue at stake is highly emotional. Although it may seem a discussion about rules and consequences, about cause and effect, punishment or discipline is always a highly emotional exercise.
How do people deal with emotions? Cultural diversity presents us with challenges. For example, awe is expressed through silence and little action in the West, but through definite, even assigned action throughout most of the rest of the world. Can we be united as a church in worship? We express emotions through our primary values. But what do we do when our value systems differ or even collide? How do we function as a church when what is normal for one side of the world is unacceptable for the rest of us? Let me mention briefly some differences that raise emotional responses. I will use some generalizations in order to make my points clear, but I acknowledge that variations always exist.
Due to its democratic heritage, the Western world settles issues by voting. Everyone should have an equal voice and vote. If you want to punish someone, you remove their right to vote or to express their opinions. However, in the rest of the world, rights are not so important as are honor and respect. A problematic issue may be discussed at length, opinions may be expressed, but the final say belongs to a respected elder and the result is often unanimity or at least general consensus. One feels respected because of the chance to express opinions, but often individual voice is used to support the authority person and return the honor. If there are major differences of opinion, or opposite views, time is necessary to mediate between parties and reach a consensus. Although not everyone may share or accept the outcome, the consensus is supported by a large majority. In the West, this is probably seen as uniformity. In the rest of the world, equality is not an important value. Calls for equality in ministry are strange for them, not only gender equality but also status equality among men. Concepts such as servant leadership may have a very different meaning in various parts of the world. Specific values obviously influence the way we see life and deal with its problems.
There is another major difference between our worldviews. Westerners not only act based on equality but also on truth and justice using a binary logic. An issue is labeled as right or wrong, and religious history is full of orthodoxy and heresy. Grey areas are at best not talked about; they are simply considered impure, and thus not acceptable, or willfully ignored. However, the rest of the world is more interested in preserving honor and saving face. Truth is a too abstract notion to die for, but everyone will do everything to save face and avoid being ashamed. Blood is frequently necessary to wash away shame, and honor deaths are not uncommon in the rest of the world. When Jesus hung on the cross, the shame was unbearable for his disciples so no one was acknowledging him as their master or even as son of God. Peter even cursed to distance himself from Jesus and avoid being ashamed. Finally, all disciples hid in the upper room, in utter shame and fear. I vividly recall the moment when our esteemed past president identified some parts of the world as not supporting women’s ordination during the San Antonio GC Session in 2015. Several speakers jumped to the microphones to “save their faces” because they felt they had been shamed. Nobody claimed that the statements were not true because truth was not the most important issue in that case. Face was.
For many Western Adventists, ordaining women based on equality is an issue of individual and social conscience. Such arguments may sound strange to the rest of the world for whom conscience is a collective feature under the leadership of a person of authority. Entire nations follow their leaders because these are considered the voice of collective conscience. The voice of the emperor was frequently considered the voice of God and the conscience of the nation. The tribe leader plays the same role. By default, all other voices become authoritative only if they are accepted by the supreme leader. Wise people surround the leader, but he is the one to decide what should become normative. When missionaries reached remote tribes, it was the approval of the tribal leader that opened the doors for the missionaries’ work. When the group’s conscience did not trust the missionaries and their intentions, there were very few or no results.
The main changes in the voted document, although they may seem superficial and even ridiculous to a Westerner, are responding to such deep-seated assumptions that are part of the worldview of the rest of the world. The document expresses the punishment views and process of the rest of the world – shame them. Removing the voice or vote, as indicated in the previous version of the document, carried no meaning of real punishment to the rest of the world. It did not make sense to remove these because the leader will have the final say anyway. But a process of shaming is felt undoubtedly strongly punitive for people living in shame and honor cultures. As it was often mentioned in the introductory session, the Unity Oversight Committee listened to the suggestions coming from the world divisions and institutions. And what seems like nonsense for the egalitarian Westerner makes perfect sense to church leaders from the rest of the world. And they voted accordingly. It is not that they do not have good intentions toward Western Adventists and their requests, but there is a worldview gap between the two parties that makes communication and understanding difficult, if not impossible.
I recommend that a cultural dialogue be initiated under the supervision of specialists in the field, before any other further theological debate or administrative action. What needs to be identified and clarified is primarily what triggers high emotions, how emotions are expressed, and how they affect relationships and communication in different cultures.
Second, an identification of assumptions and values and their interpretations is sorely needed. Many arguments and debates are fueled by assumptions that are never questioned or stated. Most people are not even aware that assumptions may vary across cultures. What seems normative to them is assumed as normative for the rest of the world, and conflict and misery simply follows. Justice and honor should not exclude each other.
And third, Westerners should make an attempt to translate their views and assumptions into meanings appropriate to the rest of the world. As regulations and policies are so important in the Western worldview, it is our duty to understand the others and learn how to make ourselves understood by them. Indeed, there is a need for an effort to contextualize doctrine and policy to make sense to others that may not share our worldview. Simply labeling them as conservative or fundamentalists and threatening to leave the ship or withdraw financial support may not serve our commendable missional purposes.
May the church listen to God’s wisdom when handling highly emotional issues such as dealing with consequences and discipline. He is both a just and honorable God.
Cristian Dumitrescu teaches missiology and intercultural studies at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.
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