The American teacher stood in the staff lounge with a cup of yellow broth. Look at this, he laughed. It looks just like beer!
A Tanzanian staff member just stared at him. Do you drink beer? she solemnly asked.
He paused for a moment. Yes, he said. I do sometimes.
That was the end of the relationship. From that moment on, she wouldn’t make eye contact with him. Because for many Christian denominations in Tanzania, drinking alcohol is not compatible with Christianity.
When we move overseas, we give up a lot. Christmas at Grandma’s, Girl Scout Cookies, garbage disposals, 24-hour stores, our own language, feeling competent.
So we should be able to hold onto some of what’s important, comfortable, and familiar to us, right?
Sometimes we sure would like to think so.
I should be able to wear what I want in my new culture, because clothes express my unique identity. So if I look cute in bikinis, then I’m going to wear my bikini. If I am comfortable in shorts, I’m going to wear shorts. I’m not comfortable in long skirts or head coverings. And my tattoo is an expression of who I am, so why would I want to cover it up?
I should be able to eat what I want to eat, because asking me to give up pork or eat only vegetarian–well, that’s asking too much. I should be able to drink alcohol, because it’s not a sin, and it’s something I enjoy.
You might take away Starbucks and Target, but don’t touch my bacon.
For those of us from western cultures, we might be nodding in agreement. Of course. We’re used to a culture where self-expression reigns supreme. Conformity is viewed with disdain. Even our churches are pushing the boundaries of what was considered taboo or morally unacceptable. We aren’t legalists, right?
So when our host culture conflicts with our forms of comfort or self-expression, who wins?
Scripture tells us that for those so-called gray areas–which include issues of food, drink, or dress, there is some wiggle room. And in those cases, the Bible is clear that for the sake of the gospel, we submit to the culture’s moral norms. I Corinthians 9 says, To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
So that might mean that if our host culture believes that drinking alcohol is incompatible with being a Christian, then for the sake of our witness, we refrain. That means that if our host culture doesn’t eat pork or even meat, it might be important for us to keep away from it as well. At the least, it’s a way of showing respect, and more importantly, a way for others to feel comfortable in our home.
It means recognizing that modesty is cultural and covering up the way our hosts do is a way to honor them. If shorts or bikinis or short skirts are offensive in our host culture, then we leave those packed in our parents’ attic. Maybe it means taking out the nose ring (or maybe it means getting one), or maybe it means covering up tattoos some or all of the time.
But does it really matter? Yes, it does. As in my introductory story, I’ve seen relationships between expats and locals completely derailed over these issues. And on the other hand, I have a friend who was told, If you didn’t dress the way you do (which included ankle-length skirts and long sleeves), we would never have invited you into our home.
Isn’t that just capitulating to legalism? Why should we condone cultural expectations that feel demeaning to women or suffocatingly oppressive or just plain wrong? Well, sometimes it might be as simple as humbly asking Why? The answers might surprise you. Maybe what we consider an innocuous accessory is associated with witchcraft in our host country. Or maybe what we would consider oppressive is actually a garment of pride for women.
What if there isn’t a good explanation? Then that’s when we have to remember that life isn’t about us, or our rights, or what makes us comfortable. On the contrary, Jesus said we need to die to ourselves. Die to our rights. And when we move overseas, even more so. Life isn’t about us, it’s about the gospel we are representing.
Sure, when a strong relationship is established and the opportunity arises, we can gently train Christian friends on what the Bible has to say about legalism. (And they’ll certainly be able to point out our own blind spots!) But to get there, we’ll probably need to start by respecting them enough to do things their way.
We must ask ourselves: What’s more important–my rights or my witness?
Of course, figuring this all out is tricky. What is despised in one culture may be expected in another. If you live in a big city, you may be navigating several subcultures that have different moral expectations. How do we even know what offends our hosts? There aren’t any black and white answers, but starting with a posture of humility and self-denial is a great place to start. Here’s some other advice:
Pay attention. Seriously, pay attention. I can’t tell you how many times in Tanzania when I’ve seen some young white girl walking along the side of the road in short shorts. I want to slow down my car, roll down my window and holler at her, Look around! Do you see any Tanzanian women around here dressed like that? (I know, I know, I’m proving I’m a grouchy old lady for even thinking this.)
But sometimes this can mean more than just modesty. For many years, I dutifully wore my long skirts and loose pants until I realized that in many situations, I was way under-dressed. Tanzanian women may cover their legs, but they are rarely casual and never frumpy. If I was going to present myself as a respectable pastor’s wife or school principal, I needed to beef up my wardrobe.
When in doubt, ask. Ask more than one person and find the right people to ask. Many cultures are very gracious to ex-pats and won’t confront us even if we are being blatantly offensive. Cultivate relationships with people who will be honest with you about cultural expectations. When you are humble and teachable, people will open up. Yes, there will inevitably still be some contradictions in what they tell you. But should our goal be to push the boundaries of what we can get away with in the culture, or rather how we can show respect to the most people?
Don’t take your cues from other ex-pats. Just because another ex-pat eats it or wears it or does it, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. I’ve lived in Tanzania 14 years and I am still learning. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I discovered that ankle bracelets are associated with either prostitution or witchcraft in this culture. Yikes. I wasn’t an ankle-bracelet-wearer before, but now I definitely am not. So please, don’t ask me about what’s appropriate. But if you do, I’ll point you to some amazing Tanzanian friends who can fill you in.
The Apostle Paul sums it up really well, so I’ll end with him.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.