catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 48, Num 1 :: 2008.10.01 — 2008.12.15


What we can learn from African society

In one of my workshops for educators in South Africa last April, I made reference to an article by Stuart Fowler, an Australian educator, who contrasted the dominant Western view of the human person with the dominant African view. Fowler writes, “In the dominant Western view individuality defines the person…. By contrast, traditional Africans think that the social group defines the person; what is central to the human person is not individuality but membership in a community.” (“Communities, Organizations and People” in the June 1993 issue of Pro Rege.)

I told the South African educators that we Westerners could learn about community from them. We tend to reduce everything to the individual. We live isolated lives. We dare not enter each other’s homes without making an appointment or without being invited. Parents are losing connections with their children. Many children have little sense of loyalty to the family and are not willing to submit to the authority of parents and teachers.


Judicial interference

This became painfully clear again this month when a 12-year-old girl in Quebec took her father to court because he had grounded her from an end-of-year school excursion. Apparently the girl had disobeyed her father about her use of the Internet – she had posted indecent pictures of herself on the Web. The father decided to show his daughter that her disobedience was unacceptable. He grounded her. The girl, supported by her non-custodial mother and a willing lawyer, tried to have her father’s decision overturned. The judge who heard her case agreed with the girl that the father’s punishment had been too harsh and that he had robbed her of her “right” to attend an important school event.

Here’s an extreme example of how the dominant Western view of personhood is reduced to the will of an individual – in this case, a pubescent individual with an overdose of rebellious hormones. The judge in question glibly dismantled the family structure and reduced the issue of disobedience to a human right. The 12-year-old did not take her identity from the community, from her family, but she took it from the absolute authority of her own individual will.


The force of tradition

I did tell my South African friends that their situation is not perfect either. They could learn something from the West about freedom. I used as example our four married sons. I told them that all of them can, and do, cook meals. They all take part in household duties. They all have taken turns changing the baby’s diaper. One of our son’s weekly task is to do the laundry. So I asked the men in the group, “How would you like to change your baby’s diaper or do the laundry or even sweep the driveway?” The response was a collective expression of horror and a downright rejection of such a notion. “What would the neighbors say? They would think that we had married a witch who had certain powers over us.” They admitted that they took their identity from the community. 

Even the women did not necessarily think it was a good idea. The South African women we met are used to preparing the meal, serving the meal, praying a blessing on the meal, and then withdrawing into the kitchen to eat their own serving. “How free are you to do what makes sense?” I asked. “Today both men and women often work out of the home, also in South Africa. Doesn’t it make sense to share some of the household duties?” “Yes, but that goes against our tradition!”

My wife, Alice, challenged the principal of a Christian school when she questioned why a husband we saw walking on the side of the road with his wife, allowed her to carry a heavy load of branches while he airily trotted along, holding an axe. My wife suggested that he carry the heavy load. “That’s not allowed,” the principal responded matter-of-factly. “He cuts the branches; she carries them.”


No communal taboos

But when I read in a North American paper that a bunch of teenaged girls from Gloucester, Massachusetts, agreed to all get pregnant and then raise their kids together, I thought, “Maybe African society is not so bad after all with its traditional mores.” I suppose one could say that the pregnancy agreement displays a slight sense of community. The girls, allegedly, hope to raise the kids together. Not that I put much stock in that hope of raising kids together. They are not mature enough to form a true community. Besides, what is their idea of family and fatherhood? Where is the notion that children need to be born out of the committed love relationship of a man and a woman? One of the Gloucester girls apparently got pregnant through a homeless guy in town. Having babies is not the same as going to Disneyland together or throwing a party for grad night.

The two separate incidents named above indicate what’s wrong with North American society. It shows the breakdown of authority – the notion of rights without responsibilities, the lack of communal taboos, the breakdown of family, the focus on having fun to the point where babies become toys. William Gairdner in Oh! Oh! Canada calls it the breakdown of the “molecule” of the traditional family and the “atomization” of society.


What can we do?

As Christians we need to sit up and take notice. We need more than ever before to maintain or create an alternative to the dominant popular culture. Not that we will entirely escape the breakdown of community. Statistics about Christians in America say that 40% of their marriages fail. The fact that the rate of divorce is almost as high among Christians as it is in the rest of society tells us that “the world is too much with us.” Marriages begun with the best of intentions don’t seem to hold together in a society that has removed too many support structures and offers too many distractions and alternatives. 

We need to find new ways of being communities. Churches can do it by forming small groups and organizing youth activities. Christian schools can focus on being intentional communities by working with a common vision, creating an atmosphere of love and trust, and developing an ethos of leadership for service (Gloria Stronks and Doug Blomberg in “How Do We Forge a Community for Learning?”) Families can focus on activities that bring the family together – activities that minimize such isolating practices as watching TV, escaping into the world of the computer and Internet and listening to I-Pods.


Take time to be what?

But above all, we have to slow down the pace of life. We can’t build community on the run. We need to take time to reflect and to look at each other. We tend to act as if God made a huge mistake when he created a 24-hour day and night. We think we need more time. We don’t. We only need to set our priorities right and take the time that God has made available for doing essential and constructive things. According to a Christian organization called Man in the Mirror, “for every 10 men in your church, 10 are struggling to balance work and family.” This, too, says something about the pace of life in North America. 

We used to sing the hymn “Take Time to Be Holy,” until we decided in our better wisdom that holiness cannot be a part-time job. We are called to be holy all the time, at work and at play. Absolutely! But the intent of the hymn was to say that we need to set aside time for taking stock and nourishing the inner person, because “the world rushes on,” says one line in that hymn. So the hymn writer urges us to “speak oft with thy Lord … feed on his Word … make friends with God’s children … help those who are weak … be calm in thy soul …each thought and each motive beneath his control.” That’s not such bad advice, is it? If only the hymn writer had begun his composition with “Take time to be centered!” I know … that still leaves us with the last line: “Thou soon shalt be fitted for service above.”


A time for redemption

This June one of our married sons and his wife adopted a nine-month-old baby boy who had been forsaken by his parents. I’d like to think that our son and daughter-in-law have rescued this little guy from a society that is falling apart and have brought it into a community of accountability and love. According to a letter to the editor in the National Post, author Alistair MacLeod once wrote: “We are all better when we are loved.” So true, especially if that love comes from a Christian couple who is part of a Christian community. That little boy will soon be fitted for service below and will take his identity from his family and from his Christian community in Vancouver, the Lord willing.

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