There is nothing wrong with being proud of our own culture and country. However, if this pride grows to the degree that we look down on others, it becomes harmful and hinders a sound relationship between people. It is especially harmful when it occurs in the context of Christian ministry.
A great thing about the Church of Christ is that it doesn’t have boundaries. It spreads all over the world and is made up of believers from different cultures, races, sexes, colors, languages, etc. It is always exciting to meet and to work with believers from different cultures and countries. This helps us to envision the eschatological reality described in the book of Revelation: After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10)
While we are still here on earth, we need each other’s gifts in order to accomplish Christ’s mission until he comes again. St. Paul said God has given us a variety of gifts in order to build up the Church (Ephesians 4). However, it is often challenging to work with believers from different cultures, because there are many barriers that can hinder such “togetherness” in fulfilling God’s mission.
One of those barriers is found in the development of “cultural pride.” We are all at risk of developing such pride. In my experience, I have seen many Christian workers who initially get so excited about working overseas or working in a different culture. However, this excitement (which some people call “The Honeymoon Period”) fades away after some time. They then start to see the negatives, weaknesses, and differences in the host culture.
Brothers and sisters coming from the West are often well-educated, and used to a more ordered or systematic way of life. They respect time and are more task-oriented and responsible. Western educational systems teach people to develop critical thinking. We in the East definitely need to learn much from our Western brothers and sisters. On the other hand, I also believe that our Western friends, if they are open, will find many things to learn from us as well. In other words, we need each other. It is important to be aware that local people, while they may not have the same standard of education, do possess the wisdom that is relevant to the culture in which they live.
There is always the risk of cultural pride creeping in to our mindset and attitude when we serve in a different culture. Developing cultural pride can happen without our own awareness! This is why I am using the word “creeping” to describe how subtle it can be. Such cultural pride can show itself when our trust in the local people decreases, when we want to do things ourselves, and when we try to control others using our skills or our money. It hinders our duty to develop and invest in the local people.
I have encountered this cultural pride and colonial attitude during my years of service. It is problematic and sometimes destructive to ministries and to relationships.
One time, I was planning to appoint a highly-qualified, bilingual, Egyptian priest to be the Priest-in-Charge of a church which had a tiny English-speaking congregation and a thriving Arabic-speaking one. The outgoing (expatriate) priest resisted this appointment and persuaded the very few English-speaking members to resist as well. They did not want to accept an Egyptian to lead “their” church. However, the Egyptian priest was appointed and proved to be a very caring shepherd of both congregations!
On the other hand, I appreciated what my colleague Bishop Bill Musk did when he became the Bishop of North Africa. He changed the constitution of the church in order to emphasize that the ultimate goal of the church is to see the congregation of the local people growing and leading in the future. He and his wife truly loved the local people and invested in them. The local people loved them.
One time when I was in Addis Ababa, I met a faithful servant of the Lord, Mrs. Hazel Mansel, who served the Ethiopians for over thirty years. I observed how she was keen to always be in the background. She and her late husband worked hard to empower the local Ethiopians. They both wanted to live in the shadows, but they had a desire to see the church in Ethiopia grow. I asked Hazel, “how did you develop this spirit?” She answered, “I look at myself as scaffolding that was put in place for the purpose of constructing a building. After the building is completed, there is no need for the scaffolding to continue to be there. In fact, if it continued around the beautiful building, it would block its beauty.” These wise words never left my heart.
It may be easy to say all this, but in reality it can be difficult to apply. We may experience a lot of disappointments when we work with local people. With a gracious and generous spirit, we can continue building up our brothers and sisters in Christ.
I would also like to mention that local people are well-aware when cultural pride has developed in someone. They can pick up on this from negative speech and expressions of distrust, which immediately create barriers between people. On the other hand, they can feel when someone has a gracious, generous and loving attitude.
In conclusion, we need to be aware that we are all at risk of developing cultural pride and a colonial attitude. If we grow more aware, we are less likely to become culturally proud. It would be wonderful to develop an attitude of servant leadership, following the example of our Lord Jesus.
+ Mouneer Egypt
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Mouneer Hanna Anis
Bishop of the Episcopal / Anglican Diocese of Egypt
with North Africa and the Horn of Africa