I was 19 weeks pregnant with my second child, holding my husband’s hand and trying to decipher the elusive ultrasound image in the OB/GYN’s office in Beijing, China. Plastered on the wall of the exam room is a poster of the hospital’s official policy, stating compliance with the Chinese government to refrain from unveiling the gender to expecting parents. This is an attempt to curb the rampant abortion of baby girls, as is common practice in One-Child Policy China, after families find out they are expecting a culturally less valued gender.
The doctor asked if we’d like to find out. We nodded, aware of the official policy, but also hopeful for a hint. He smiled and slyly pointed to the legs of our baby. Here’s one, there’s the other, and left us to marvel at what’s in between. We erupted with joy, at the news of our anticipated son, and also giddy with our mischievous doctor for besting the system.
You see, in China, there is often the rule, printed officially on propaganda posters and stamped with the red seal of authority, and then there is the seemingly haphazard enforcement of the rule, which is actually governed by an intricate hierarchical system based on one’s network and connections. There is almost no rule that can’t be bent if you know the right person. This can be exceedingly frustrating for the foreigner, typically devoid of the right connections, who encounter situations of blatant hypocrisy between policy and reality.
Missionaries often fall prey to these frustrations and the temptation is to cry foul and relegate the reason for this moral failing to the un-saved state of the local people. This is misguided. Although Christian faith convictions encounter tension with prevailing cultural standards, we can offer a valid critique only as someone who is intimately familiar with cultural values and assumptions. This means the missionary must go through the painstaking work of language study and years of cross-cultural interaction before earning the authority to guide and critique the local culture.
Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of missionaries bringing the gospel and compelling people into repentance and new life?
No. A thousand times no. Because the gospel is so much more than legislating morality. The Spirit of God indeed shows us a new way to live but never in a way that denies our identity pre-conversion. A Chinese Christian need not stop being Chinese in order to walk in God’s ways. Non-Chinese missionaries should let the Spirit do the work of showing them how to be more fully Chinese as God redeems what is beautiful in their culture. The problem is we take our culture so much for granted it is easy to miss the beauty. It is not until an outsider steps in and points it out that our eyes are opened afresh to see it. Missionaries are Pointer-Outers of Beautiful Things.
Missionaries to China are tasked with this important job of spotting the ways God has placed God’s love, beauty, mystery, and grace in customs and practices Chinese people have simply taken for granted. “Look how you honor the elderly, it is such a beautiful thing.”
The Gospel is the story of a God who makes a choice to enter into relationship with humanity. Our fundamental brokenness is our disconnection with God and others. Missionaries proclaim the Gospel of together-ness. Being together is our salvation. The best news of the Good News is that we are no more alone. Missionaries take this intentional step, counting the heavy cost of leaving home, to tell people across the seas this beautiful, healing news: You. Are. Not. Alone.
Not, stop your sinful ways.
Not, I will show you the proper way to live.
Not, let me tell you all the answers.
Just, you are not alone. Together, we can look for the beautiful things God has given us, and walk this difficult journey of life alongside each other. Together is enough, and makes all the difference.
We need to withhold our snap judgments of another culture before we have properly grasped all the nuances of the context. The Spirit’s work is not to be rushed. The only sense of urgency springs from the joy of being together.
Being carriers of the Gospel doesn’t equal being enforcers of a moral code, especially if the moral code keeps us from being in relationship with people. Consider how the God of Scriptures is One who stepped into prevailing cultural norms such as slavery and polygamy. As theologian Greg Boyd says, God bends the rules to be in relationship with us. In Scripture, we see God working within broken systems, using immoral people to carry out God’s plan of redemption. God wasn’t bowing to cultural pressures, nor was God compromising Holy standards. God’s foremost desire was to be with us. Immanuel.
Westerners have come to rely on policies and rules to guide right living. Perhaps the Chinese locals have something to teach us about the character of God:
There is almost no rule that cannot be bent in order to be in right relationship.
*In China, it was difficult to interact with women for whom abortion is very much a flippant decision. It was hard to navigate how to be in relationship without judging. What situations do you encounter in your local context when it’s difficult to take a back seat and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work?*