Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cultural Debris

In the most recent issue of in the Journal of the Society of Cultural Anthropology is an article on “Imperial Debris.” The cultural remains left behind by foreign occupying nations on the landscape of countries linger long after the alien people release their occupation and give back to the indigenous people their own land. The residue of the Spanish in Latin America, the French in North and West Africa, the Russian expansion that made up the Soviet Union and the colonialism of the British Empire has left on the landscape of the world remnants of their influence and cultural practices. Present day domination of American capitalism and the market economy has impacted the globe to the point that even Communist China has formed an alliance between collective good and personal economic advancement. Like space junk, nuclear waste and plastic bags, cultural debris never goes away, even though it no longer is needed or wanted.

Of course not all cultural debris is inherently bad. As societies evolve one can appreciate the advances of education, medicine and technology and the positive residue that come with progress and advancement. Critics would argue that that these steps forward is too high a price to pay for the loss of cultural identity, corruption of indigenous values and the invasion of new diseases brought about primarily due to expansion. Try to make that argument to those people who still have no clean water, labor in the fields as subsistence farmers or to millions of kids who cannot read but long to enjoy the good things they see on television. Like a banana peel that one discards, you cannot savor the fruit without also having to contend with the part that’s not edible.

As a cross-cultural worker the tension I must compete with is making sure that whatever I am selling is the fruit and not the rind. The message of Christ is not the problem, but sometimes the trappings of Christianity in the Western (as well as Korean, Brazil or South African) wrapper are the culprits. The ultimate goal is that the only debris that remains when Christianity confronts culture will be that of spiritual transformation brought about by the message, not the cultural residue of the messenger.