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Friday, August 31, 2012

Here Come the (Cultural) Mercenaries

by MAB (bio)

Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal
We just got back from a four-week vacation that included extensive travel in Europe. Some of the highlights, of course, were trips to castles and museums (enjoyed by the adults much more than the kids). Europe is unique in that you can travel relatively short distances to experience a variety of ancient and modern cultures.

All that culture got me thinking about my time as a missionary in Honduras. Since I was born and raised in the U.S., and had only been to one border town in Mexico for a day, I was eager to soak up the new culture despite the inevitable "culture shock." And it was shocking at first. But eventually I adjusted. But there is a deeper level of history and culture lying just beneath the surface. I think this is true of anywhere, even for a mission in ... Ohio for example.

I'm a fairly immature person to this day, but was much more so back then. If I had been more mature, had done more research and had a better understanding of history and culture, I think I could have enjoyed the people and my time in Honduras even more. But perhaps I am not fully to blame. My mission president would rarely let us do anything other than missionary work (and we had the standard four or five books we couldn't deviate from). I presume that's still the case in most missions. It would be nice if missionaries were given culture time so they could travel, with the objective of gaining a better understanding and appreciation of the people they serve.

Speaking of missionary work and culture, and not just from an LDS perspective, I often feel squeamish about one culture imposing it's belief systems and way of life on another culture. I'm reminded of a book I read by James A. Michener about the settlement of the Hawaiian islands. The islands were first settled by Polynesians who traveled a long distance from Indonesia in shockingly small boats. But the islands were eventually discovered by British explorer James Cook. Shortly thereafter, Catholic missionaries arrived. Michener seems to have fun describing how the missionaries tried to impose their culture and belief system on the Hawaiians, even though many things did not make sense. The Hawaiians were not sure why, for example, they were supposed to cover most of their skin and sit in an enclosed chapel to worship. It was basically a sweat lodge, an idea from a different culture based much farther North.

On the one hand, I want to learn more about a culture in order to preserve it. I guess this is in keeping with the idea that variety is the spice of life. On the other hand, there are aspects of my (modern American) culture that seem to make life more efficient and (perhaps) more successful, at least in the way most people describe success. So, the spreading of modern culture leads to homogenation and maybe, just maybe, more material wealth and all that is associated with greater resources such as lower infant mortality, better education, clean water, less disease, etc.

But cultural homogenization reduces variety and might, like genetics, have deleterious side effects. Maybe there are vanishing or vanished cultures that had better sustainable construction, for example. I don't want to imply that life was all roses 500 years ago when disease would wipe out half of the world's population and there were cold, starving orphans all over the place. But it seems like we should consider the impacts.

So I've been wondering lately, do you think missionaries (of all religions) could be considered cultural mercenaries going around slowly killing other cultures by imposing their belief systems and ways of life?

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