Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Mt 5 vv27, 28
The more I learn about individual people, the more I understand how essentially alike we all are, allowing for the great divide between men and women. We are, literally, all descended from the same father and the same mother, the individuals science calls ‘mitochondrial Eve’ and ‘Y-chromosome Adam’, in reference to the Genesis Creation myth; truly, we are all cousins. By contrast, the more I learn about different cultures, the more I grasp just how different they are, often in ways that are far from obvious. Over centuries and millennia, choice and chance have made different groups of those essentially similar individuals adopt ways of thinking and living that are radically different and often almost incomprehensible to each other. It’s sometimes hard to keep both these insights in mind at once: it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, if all humans are cousins, there can really be nothing to choose between the cultures they have created. The outcome of that kind of thinking is a moral and cultural relativism in which nothing can be legitimately criticised; anything goes. On the other hand, if cultures are so radically different, surely some must be preferable to others, and those who belong to the less worthy cultures must in some sense be less worthy human beings. And the outcome of that approach is that we feel licensed to look down on those whose cultures are different from ours, and then pity, forcibly convert or perhaps enslave them.
It’s into the second of these two traps that western religion has historically tended to fall in practice. Jewish religion thought of the Jews as being especially favoured by their God; many Christians and Muslims have felt comfortable with forced conversion and the enslavement of people from ‘lesser’ cultures. Yet always there have been voices quietly insisting on human cousinhood, sometimes perhaps without quite realising the cultural implications of that insistence. As those implications became clearer within Christianity, a new approach to mission became desirable, one that genuinely respected the humanity of people from other cultures and recognised aspects of those cultures that could be valued by Christians, even while trying to offer the most valuable-seeming insights from the Christian tradition. In practice this new approach has proved extraordinarily difficult to implement; missionaries, like the rest of us, religious and secular alike, have found themselves repeatedly falling into one or other of the old traps.
We naturally tend to characterise what we believe and how we behave by contrasting them with the beliefs and behaviour of others. Within our own western culture therefore religious folk and secularists find in each other foils for the development of their distinctiveness vis-à-vis each other. What this inevitably obscures is the extent to which they have values in common. It is only when we see the other, very different, value systems that have been developed by humans that we can begin to see just how much we westerners have in common with each other, and how much those shared values mean to us all. I’m thinking of things like human relationships, forgiveness, the value of human life, love, empathy, kindness. We shouldn’t make too much of this: running through western culture are important threads of value systems that give pride of place to wealth, power, will, duty. It was perhaps the German philosopher Nietzsche who crystallised the matter most succinctly by defining a ‘master morality’ and a ‘slave morality’, and identifying the latter with Christianity. Nietzsche didn’t think much of slaves, and one of the most important questions for our modern secularists is whether or not they share his contempt for the values of ‘slave morality’.
But perhaps Nietzsche was only speaking for the inner, unconverted, self in all of us, the raw, almost pre-human, drives that we usually keep hidden from public view and whose power we can learn to harness in order to pursue what we honour as higher purposes. And of course to a considerable extent our universally shared humanity is defined by those raw drives, including – and I think this was part of what Jesus was saying in our text – the sex drive. How you employ your raw drives matters hugely of course, but that you share them with the rest of us is critically important for self-understanding. It is only when you understand how similar you are to every other human being that you can begin to engage truly meaningfully in a debate about the values we might pursue. It is no doubt because I’m a westerner, brought up with values shaped by Christianity, specifically in its Anglican form, that, for example, I find it hard to make very much of the pre-eminence Confucian thought gives to obedience and rigid social order, or to find much depth in Japanese or Afghan notions of honour and shame – or come to that to have much patience with American-style bible-bashing Christianity. Yet so convinced am I that there is in the values I have inherited and developed a great deal that could help everyone who has the shared human drives to flourish wonderfully and to be makarios, that I must be a kind of missionary for them.
Any such missionaries must, I think, observe three principles, pre-eminently the understanding of the essential similarity, the cousinhood, of all human beings. Then the acceptance that, however rich the missionaries believe their own culture to be, there are always likely to be elements of it that are at least open to question – and similarly however impoverished they think the cultures of their interlocutors are, there are always likely to be elements of it that offer valuable insights that are lacking in the missionaries’ own culture. And finally the principle that underlies the method of the Jesus teaching: it is not by logical argument or passionate persuasion, let alone by force, that values can best be commended; it is by example and guided observation. It is the business of missionaries of any kind to engage with those who see life differently; no such engagement can be serious unless the missionaries are as genuinely open to what may be learned from them as they are enthusiastic to share with them their own understanding. That is the real risk that missionaries must be prepared to face: not that they will be persecuted but that they will themselves be converted.