(My regular blog will return in January)
Years ago, I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I was reading serious science fiction, including that written by C.S. Lewis. So when Ender’s Game came out as a movie, I had to see it. The movie, like the book, poses two moral dilemmas. The one more in tune with our culture is highlighted. The other is only mentioned – understanding one’s enemy. Ender, the protagonist, is trying to understand an alien species that had attacked earth so that he can defeat them. I’m not sure what was said in the movie, but it was something like the book which reads:
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them …”
Orson Scott Card has captured a truth. When we engage our enemy, or opponent, to truly understand them, some empathy and love usually results. We might find out that some of what we believe about our opponent is only partly true. Even if that is not the case, we get inside their head, which causes us to see things from their perspective, even if we disagree with that perspective. At the moment when we see things from their perspective, we care for them.
If our faith is weak, the empathy might cause us to stray from that faith. But the other way is equally dangerous to faith. That is to make caricatures of our enemies, which allows us to demonize them. We then risk defeating only the demonized caricatures in our own minds. Plus, we fail to follow Christ in loving our enemies. The route to love for someone very different from myself almost inevitably runs through the hard work of understanding them.
Cross-cultural mission involves trying to understand the other culture. We imitate Christ who left heaven to live like us, become like us, empathize with us, experience our reality. One way we can celebrate Christmas is to imitate that same method – reaching out, crossing boundaries and empathizing the way Jesus did.
This principle applies to all kinds of situations, not just ministering in cross-cultural situations. Whether we are dealing with another culture, people of a very different political ideology, opponents of our faith, or radicals from another religion, it behooves us to understand them to the point of love and love them enough to want to understand them.
Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. (Luke 6:35, NLT)
I am an American. Sometimes people in Ghana asks me where I am from. I tell them the United States. I have not yet had someone ask me where that is. I have a national identity which is recognized worldwide by almost everyone.
It is not so for many who speak the smaller languages of the world. Some of you reading this might have to ask about Ghana were someone to tell you he is from Ghana. But what if someone told you he was Buem, Nawuri, Nafaanra or Sekpele? Those peoples have an identity, but it is not widely known. Even officials in their own countries may not know who they are. At the presentation of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, a prominent chief of the Nawuri said:
“Politicians do not know us.”
What would it be like to have an identity which officials in your own country do not recognize? Many peoples who do not have a Bible in their language are in exactly that situation. They feel it. I have heard some of them wonder if they are cursed by God, or wonder why God would have them born into a minority. Does God have something against them? Some feel divided about their identity. On the one hand they speak their language and identify with others like them, but on the other they want the advantages and recognition that come from being part of a more well-known identity.
I recently attended the dedication of the Bible into the Buem (also known as Lelemi) language. There, I heard a lot of comments about identity. Some of the quotes can only be understood in the context of the unknown status of their Buem identity, such as:
When God confused the languages at Babel, the Buem were there.
The Buem understand this to mean that their language is not some unfortunate mistake.
God intended the creation of the Buem language. So their identity as Buem is not a curse, a mistake or an oversight. When the Apostle Paul was preaching in Athens, he said:
From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.
If you think about it, that is a very strange thing to say in evangelistic preaching – for an American that is. Yet the Apostle considered it a key thing to preach to Athenians – that God created all peoples, that he decided what their status should be at various points in history. The Buem spoke this message to each other at the dedication. If the Buem language was created at the Tower of Babel, then it is God’s deliberate and good creation; not a curse or an unfortunate oversight. God himself created the Buem language and identity. Another Buem person said:
We are gaining our identify in God’s people.
When I quoted the Nawuri chief above, I left out the end of his statement. Here’s the whole:
“Politicians do not know us, but God know us! We have now been included among the People of God!”
A translation of the Bible necessarily represents both the language in question and God. It is, therefore, an identity bridge. Through the translation of the Bible into their languages, smaller language groups around the world are weaving their ethnic and linguistic identities into an identity with the people of God. And this is not new. The Apostle Paul spent a whole chapter on identity in his letter to the Romans, including this quote:
For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many peoples.” (Romans 4:16b-17)
All those who have Abraham as their father have a common identity. The dedication of the Bible into Buem attracted ordinary people, ministers of the Gospel, choirs, politicians, business people, and traditional chiefs. Why, because here is something very important – the most published and translated book in the world and the holy book of the largest religion in the world – in the language of their identity.
“Let’s all be happy, because the Bible we receive today is more than food and drink to us.” -Daniel Asiama, Ghana Member of Parliament from the Buem constituency
As God came down to be born in human form, now the Word has come down into Buem form. That act offers to all Buem the wonderful opportunity to weave the thread of their identity into the rich, colorful and varied cloth that is the people of God – to become one of the peoples who have Abraham as their common faith father. They can connect their small (by the word’s standards) identity to the largest and most permanent of all human identities – that of the faith children of Abraham.
The need for people to have God’s Word in their mother tongue has been recognized throughout the church’s history. Although church growth is influenced by a variety of factors, times of increased emphasis on mother-tongue Scriptures, such as the Reformation, often correlate with times of church growth. Times when mother-tongue Scriptures were neglected in the communication of the Gospel, such as the early Middle Ages in Europe, often correlate with times of spiritual stagnation. Churches that experienced persecution and isolation from the rest of the Christian world, such as those in Madagascar and China, have often endured and even multiplied if they had Scriptures in local languages. In contrast, churches without Scripture in local languages, even those at centers of Christianity like Alexandria, have disappeared from the map.
So writes Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society in an article entitled “The Vernacular Treasure” which appeared in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. You can download and read the full article here.
Here in Ghana, the impact of translations in local languages is being confirmed in other ways. Before there was a translation of the Bible in the languages, decades of evangelism in some people groups produced few results. Worse, the few converts there were drifted back to traditional beliefs when the outreach impetus from the missionary or Ghanaian church stopped or paused. Ghanaian researcher Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa has shown that after the translation, churches in those same areas not only maintain, but even grow out of their own initiative even when the rest of the community is resistant to the Gospel.
Some may wonder about the value of translating the Bible for smaller languages. At least in northern Ghana, when one compares the number of decades and number of people involved in relatively fruitless evangelism before the translation, and the results afterward, one is tempted to conclude that evangelism without translation is what really costs too much time and money.