Culture shock: for returning missionaries

Returning missionaries experience culture shock. Things about life at "home" seem different, unreal and strange. Sometimes it's the simplest things. After ten years in Africa it was the wealth of brands on the supermarket shelves that blew our minds.

In recent weeks, teaching a course on the Old Testament prophets again has caused me to reflect on the culture shock that they can cause. The prophets are almost never read in Baptist churches today. The exceptions are a few passages from Isaiah (during the days leading up to Christmas); some verses (of a hopeful kind please) from Jeremiah, small chunks that prefigure Jesus the Messiah, and (at least when the offerings are down) Malachi 3.

It's different, of course among those who peddle their religious wares on TV. They will explain to you how, with the "right" key, Daniel describes the latest turn in the struggle to keep the world safe for American liberty. A generation ago they explained how the locusts in Joel were really the helicopter gunships of the Vietnam war.

But few read, and even less preach or teach, the huge groundswell of disgust with God's chosen people that pervades the books of the biblical prophets. The core of the prophets' message is simple, and shocking:

Some summary like this captures the essential core of the preaching of the prophets, from Isaiah and Amos to Zechariah and Malachi.

Such preaching is not un-Christian, indeed you can catch echoes of it in Jesus' words in the Gospels, yet apparently it is too hard for Western Christians today. Our pastors shield our gentle (or genteel) ears from such strident tones.

Perhaps because we have relegated the prophets to some second division within our Bibles, Western Christians have failed to live up to God's standards in just the same ways that the Israelite kingdoms failed two and a half thousand years ago. The prophets regularly pointed out the futility of seeking security in imperial power, or in worthless idols. Yet we Western Christians seek security:

and our politicians nervously watch their words (lest the Aussies win a free trade agreement with Uncle Sam leaving us out in the cold).

According to Jeremiah it is foolish to seek security in such human resources instead of in the blessings that God offers. His God says to them (and to us?):

My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. (Jer 2:13, NIV)

    How we compare:

Infant mortality:
6 deaths per 1,000 live births in high-income countries like NZ to
92 deaths per 1,000 live births in sub-Saharan Africa (1999)

Death in childbirth:

99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries

150 million children in the Third World are malnourished, according to medical criteria

Over a billion people (i.e. 1 in 6) have no access to safe drinking water
Statistics from Jubilee Debt Campaign

Time and again the prophets call for justice, for a world where the rich do not feast while the poor starve, where the powerful are not permitted to force the weak to do their bidding. Micah summed it up succinctly:

He has showed you, O people, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6:8, NIV)

Listen to a bunch of New Zealand Christians chatting, wondering if we can afford that DVD player, or coffee machine, or faster computer, discussing whether we need to replace the curtains as they are beginning to look old and tatty. Meanwhile two thirds of the world looks on in hunger, squalor and disease.

It is time more of us got culture shock, not just returning missionaries. The wealth of resources we use, and worse the wealth we squander on our own pleasure and entertainment, could be used to feed the hungry, free the oppressed and proclaim the gospel of the Lord (cf. Luke 4:18-9 where Jesus preaches from Isaiah 61:1ff.). For, as Amos and his colleagues remind us time and again, all our fine worship, and tuneful praise songs are painful to God without justice (Am 5:23-24).


© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2002

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