Last year I (Julianna) visited a Muslim country, where persecution runs high and the only Christians allowed in are foreigners working charity or development projects who promise not to proselytize. All women are required to cover their hair, but the foreign women I saw at the airport were doing only the bare minimum of a scarf set over their hair as a nod to tradition. I traveled with another white Christian female friend and we decided to go all out in our dress. While we were there, we wore the traditional layers of voluminous dresses and slips and wrapped huge shawls around our heads that trapped our sweat close to our bodies and felt a bit suffocating. But the response we got was incredible. The first day, we went to the market with a local friend. People stopped us everywhere we went and asked us about our appearance. (Well, they asked our friend, since we didn’t speak any of the language.) They would ask, “Are they Muslim?” Our friend would respond to their questions and then translate to us. I remember the first group of women who asked us this. The oldest mama was selling spices. My friend told her, “No, they are not Muslim. But they respect our culture. They honor our customs.” And I will never forget the look I got from this spice merchant. She was filled with wonder; this certainly wasn’t her idea of a Western Christian woman. She reached out and gripped my hand tightly, looking me directly in the eyes. “Thank you,” she said with more emotion than I’d expected. And then she smiled at me, and I realized that I’d affirmed her dignity and given her respect without ever even opening my mouth.
This story illustrates something Paul talks about in his letter to the church at Corinth:
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” — 1 Cor. 9:19-23
This passage is something we think/talk a lot about as cross-cultural workers. At its core it’s the basis for the idea of crossing cultures with humility and respect for the beauty in a culture. More than that, I think Paul is talking about even taking on the less beautiful pieces of a culture, the slavery within the culture, in order to bring God’s kingdom where it is not yet. That’s the example that Jesus set, leaving the right hand of the father and choosing to come to earth and take on our limitations. And I think it’s really powerful whenever a follower of Jesus chooses to lay down their rights, freedoms, or power in order to reflect Jesus to someone who has not yet experienced his transforming power.