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Archive for the tag “Western culture”

On the inherent superiority of Western culture

Cultural chauvinism is alive and well, it seems. Hat-tip to The Western Confucian: The West Is the Best, But Don’t Dismiss the Rest for this:

On the inherent superiority of Western culture: Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity:

Christianity is fundamentally a historical religion. If there were any way to get around that, I would have found it by now. But the fact that the Gospel was written in Greek using concepts such as “logos” that had been in formation in the Greek mind for centuries is no mere accident of history. God could have been incarnated in the context of another culture, just as He “could have” been incarnated in a pearl or an ass. But He did not do that; He came into this world at a very specific time and a very specific place, as did His Body, the Church. Even the Fathers of the Church saw this, and there will always be a superiority of the Greek and Latin tongues to all others, just as the Muslims consider Koranic Arabic sacred, or the Jews Hebrew.

Reading that kind of thing makes me despair.

Assuming that the paragraph I quoted is the premiss, and the heading is the conclusion, I wonder what went wrong. I suppose I should feel relief that this kind of cultural chauvinism isn’t confined to Orthodoxy. It’s a universal sin.

I’ve been asked to write an article on the Orthodox diaspora, and so various incidents come to mind.

One, from about 7-8 years ago, was when I went with a rather mixed group of people to be interviewed on the Greek community radio station. One of those being interviewed with us was Johannes Rakumako, a Tswana-speaking South African who was a first-year student at the Orthodox seminary in Nairobi. He had returned home briefly for his father’s funeral, and he started to say something about life in the seminary when the presenter interrupted him and asked him what had made him interested in “our Greek culture”.

He was gobsmacked, and didn’t know what to say. I doubt that he had given Greek culture much thought at all. He was being asked a question from a totally alien mindset.

A second incident from the diaspora that comes to mind is from the film My big fat Greek wedding. We bought a copy of it to show African catechumens from the townships so that they can learn something about Greek culture and Greek cultural chauvinsim. If they become Orthodox, then they are bound to meet Greeks sometime, since most of the Orthodox in South Africa have a Greek cultural background. The film was made in the USA, but in spite of that it fits South African Greek diaspora culture right down to the hairstyles, and the only difference is the accents. The film depicts the “our Greek culture” that the radio presenter was talking about, and so it is a good and good-natured humourous introduction, and in many places it pokes gentle fun at some of the foibles of Greek diaspora culture (which differs markedly from Greek culture in Greece).

But there is one part that was not intended to be humorous or ironic, and that is where the Anglo husband-to-be is baptised in the Orthodox Church, and after he is baptised he says “I’m Greek now”.

And that is tragic, and leads to the third incident: when we were in a church hall, having tea after the Divine Liturgy, and a woman announced, loudly for all to hear, “The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture.”

So it’s interesting, and perhaps a little consoling, to see that some Western Christians are under a a similar misapprehension. Though that too goes back a long way — when Saints Cyril and Methodius evangelised the Slavs, they translated the liturgical texts and the scriptures into Slavonic, and were criticised by Rome for doing so, because of Rome’s belief that only Greek, Latin and Hebrew, the languages that Pilate used for the inscription on the cross of Christ, could be used in church.

And so I return to the the bit that I quoted at the beginning. To paraphrase another writer, there is to much magnificent truth mixed up with these appalling falsehoods that it smacks of perversity even to attack its perverseness.

Yes, Christianity is a historical religion. Yes, God chose to become incarnate in history in a particular time and place. But he chose to become incarnate in the multicultural Roman empire of a Jewish mother who probably spoke Aramaic rather than Latin or Greek.

But the title of the post says it all: Western culture is “inherently” superior. In other words, God chose to become incarnate in Western culture (actually he didn’t, but that is what the author of the post apparently believes) because it was superior to other cultures.

I’m reminded of George Orwell’s book Animal farm where the animals on a farm rebel against their human masters, and set up an ideal farm in which all animals are equal. Equality is the watchword and slogan of the revolution, but as time passes one group of animals, the pigs, claim extra privileges for themselves, and begin to lord it over the other animals as the men had done, and when the other animals question this, the pigs say, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” And so here we have the Western pigs claiming to be inherently superior. They were chosen by God for special privileges because they were better than anyone else.

Samuel Huntington, in his book The clash of civilizations and the remaking of the world order writes of this Western superiority

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.

And when God became incarnate, the Romans were in Judaea because of their superiority in applying organized violence.

But this perversion is nothing new.

The history of the Church goes back to Abraham, to whom God said:

and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse: and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed (Gen 12:2-3).

seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (Gen 18:18)

Abraham and his progeny were chosen in order that they might be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. They were not chosen because they were “inherently superior”, but rather because they were inferior, a small and weak people, of no account among the great powers of the world.

But the church of the Old Testament, the people of Israel, were often seduced by the notion that God had chosen them for a special blessing because they were inherently superior, and forgot he had chosen them in order to be a blessing to others. And when that happened, sooner or later, and with more or less pain, they learned that it was not so and were brought back to the true path.

Let us not be seduced into the same error. Belief in the “inherent superiority” of our own culture is one of the most impenetrable insulations against the Holy Spirit that exists in the world.


Women march for mutilation

clipped from

Some 800 women in the Sierra Leone town of Kailahun have paraded in favour of genital mutilation and told donors opposed to the practice to keep their money, demonstrators and witnesses said.

Women wearing colourful beads and adorned with seashells chanted songs in the local dialect that warned authorities and foreign organisations against “any attempt to take away our traditional ritual.”

The United Nations World Health Organisation says FGM – the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and related injury – is recorded in 28 African nations and opposes the practice on medical grounds.

blog it

This has some interesting missiological implications.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Western missionaries to Africa and Asia were sometimes accused of attacking and destroying the cultures of people they came in contact with. Some of these cultures had customs of bodily mutilation, which the missionaries thought were cruel and inhumane.

In China Christian missionaries started the Natural Foot Society, to discourage the custom of binding the feet of young girls to make them grow up with smaller feet. In Kenya they discouraged the practice of female circumcision. There are various bodily mutilations where various parts of the body are altered. Bits are cut off genitals or fingers. Teeth are knocked out, ears or nostrils pierced, necks are lengthened, cheeks are cut, lips are made to protrude.

Nowadays it is no longer only the province of Christian missionaries to object to such things. Even secular Westerners do so, and this leads to the suspicion that there is a link between such interventions and cultural imperialism.

In Kenya Protestant schools, in particular, demanded that teachers take an oath against female circumcision. The Kikuyu people saw this as part of a general colonialist attack on their culture, closely linked with dispossessing them of their land. Some broke away from the Protestants and became Orthodox.

And even when it is secular groups and NGOs that object, there is a whiff of cultural imperialism. Africans must make their behaviour conform to Western norms, even when Western norms are changing, as can be seen in the continuing disintegration of the Anglican Communion. And whether the Western norms relate to female circumcision or structural adjustment programmes motivated by neoliberalism, the underlying assumption is that the West knows best.

Western values may change over time, but even when they change, Africans had better get in step. And in some of these issues it seems that the Western value, unstated but implied, is that the human right that takes precedence over all others is the inalienable right to an orgasm.

To some extent, I can sympathise. I remember the absolute horror I felt when I first learnt of female circumcision, and what it entailed. It was more than 50 years ago, when as a schoolboy I was reading the book Blanket boy’s moon. A friend had told me it was like Cry the beloved country, only it would make one feel even more revulsion against the system, and then I read this:

The first night of the (circumcision) school is known as the Marallo, the secret night. This night is spent outside the village in the dongas, where ritual dances are taught and new code names are given to the girls — so that they can afterwards challenge the claim of any woman who states that she is circumcised.

At Marallo, too, the Khokhobisa-tsoene, or “Hiding-of-the-monkey” is encompassed. The girls are cut with a blade in their outer sexual organs, and a flap of flesh is drawn down to cover that mischievous “monkey” which can be the source of much pleasure to uncircumcised girls. The performance of this rite tends to encourage chastity among the women, for a circumcised girl can know little of the joys and passions of physical love. During this ceremony when the blood flowes from the wounded flesh, black magic medicine is rubbed in as a protection against bewitchment.

It can perhaps be said that the circumcision of women not only denies the girl great pleasure and joy in the sexual act, buit must in consequence lessen the happiness and exaltation of the man, and thus shut out any upliftment of the spirit — lying with a woman, then, becomes a selfish rather than a mutual pleasure. Here in the very homeland, in this circumcision of women, lie the seeds of the physical love of man for man, which is brought to flower in the living conditions imposed on African mine workers by the white man.

As a schoolboy I was shocked and horrified at the thought that people could treat others like that. It seemed unbelievably cruel. Reading the book made me feel revulsion against capital punishment, but the revusion I felt against female circumcision was far stronger, perhaps because it was the first time I had heard of it.

But now I’ve thought about it a bit more, and I remember that the countries that protest most strongly against such practices hardly protest at all when children are mutilated by cluster bombs and landmines, and go on making more cluster bombs and land mines to rip children apart.

The countries that protest so vociferously against female circumcision very often kill hundreds of thousands of children in abortions, all in the name of a putative right of women to control their own bodies. Isn’t it ironic that women in Sierra Leone are protesting that very right, to control their own bodies, a right they want to exercise in female circumcision?

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