When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, "How did these nations serve their gods? - that I also may do the same." You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:29-31; ESV)
My wife and I are preparing for a teaching trip to Italy and Slovenia this fall. This will be the first time either of us will be in mainland Europe. Having lived in Canada's four largest cities we are used to interacting cross culturally. My wife especially, ever since she was a child, has had a keen interest in people of diverse backgrounds, combined with a love for languages. Yet apart from our teaching trip to Haiti early last year, we have done very little traveling outside of Canada and the US.
In preparation for the upcoming trip as well as for general interest, I have recently read a couple of books on understanding culture. "Survival Kit for Overseas Living" by L. Robert Kohls (Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press Inc., 2001) is specifically designed to orient the American businessperson for working abroad for a period of time. As a Canadian, it was an interesting bonus to note the cultural differences between us and our American neighbors. Much in the book is helpful, including the need to know ourselves better before we can effectively understand others. It also explains how normal culture shock is due to the vast amount of differences when traveling to various parts of the world. The overwhelming effects of disorientation can be quite severe for some people, but in most cases, it is temporary. The book has some interesting examples of how different cultures do things, some of which made me question customs I take for granted. For example, according to Kohls, some cultures outside of North America think that it is very unhygienic to have a toilet in the same room in which we wash.
While there is much in the book I appreciate, I found myself questioning its basic premise, which is that cultural differences have nothing to do with right and wrong, they are just different. For Kohls, accepting this is key in overcoming culture shock. Removing right and wrong from how we regard cultural diversity enables us to view differences as personal preferences that we will get used to over time.
But is Kohls correct? Moses doesn't think so. He made it clear that the people of Israel were to develop a culture contrary to the customs of other peoples. I know we are not dealing with a true parallel here. We should not directly apply the principles governing Israel's conquest of Canaan with cross-cultural business endeavors in the 21st century. Still, Moses (and God) didn't regard culture as morally neutral. In fact Israel's culture was imposed upon them by God. Israel actually clashed more with God's cultural standards than with those of foreign nations.
In the New Covenant Writings we read how Yeshua's followers are called to export the God-imposed standards of ancient Israel beyond its borders. From almost the start, Yeshua's followers grappled with the need to differentiate between the standards applicable to everyone everywhere and those which are simply cultural preferences. This is where Kohls's advice is helpful. When we are visitors to a country, we should suspend judgment on their culture. Much harm has been caused by confusing our sense of right and wrong with what's neutral in a culture. But the arrogance of people in the past and the need for tolerance for cultural differences should not undermine the need to retain a sense of right and wrong.
Where Kohls is certainly correct is that we need to better understand ourselves first before engaging other cultures. Like ancient Israel, the more important culture clash is not between us and others, but between us and God's ways. How much do we put up with in our lives just because it's our culture instead of truly submitting to God's Word? We might be shocked to find out.