Monday, February 2, 2015

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

It sounds corny but whoever came up with that slogan knew what appeals to Americans, I’d say.

My own American culture is like my American  accent: everyone has a funny accent but me, because mine is so close it’s invisible. Everyone has a different, funny or strange culture except me. Well, I notice I have four pointy corners only when I find myself being forced into a round hole.

For one thing, I realized justice is very close to our hearts. I see it in the current trend of young people who have a passion for social justice and righting wrongs at home and abroad. In my college near Portland, Oregon, if you weren't campaigning or volunteering or occupying Wall Street or making the latest human-rights-violating villain famous on Facebook, you were basically a troll from under a rock. This thinking is not just for young hip liberals in Portland though. From the crotchety old gun-toting Tea Partier, to the pro-life soccer mom protesting outside the abortion clinic, as Americans we all have the same attachment to justice, if you think about it. We may have vastly different views but we all partake in the same system, especially on a personal level. We get angry when our personal rights get trampled on, and we feel it is a very noble, righteous anger. We can call on our rights, on our legal system, on principles outlined in our Constitution, like calling down fire from Heaven, because in the face of “rights” opposing arguments melt away. It’s not just political to us, it’s emotional and personal.

 I notice this a lot at work. I like to think I have a right to certain things like privacy (why do I have submit the results of my physical to my manager?), truth about company policy, and pay for every hour of work. Yet in Japan, “rights” just aren't mentioned or talked about very much in society. No one invokes them in an attempt to get out of a situation, because the basis of Japanese culture is not the individual but the flourishing of the group. Everyone is committed to preserving that group harmony.

Part of individualism is acknowledging that other people—not just yourself—are also individuals, with feelings, hopes, dreams, motivations, a personality, etc. that are completely unique to them. We don’t try to “read the air” and work overtime in order to follow what everyone else is doing, because in pressuring someone to do so you are not respecting them as an individual with the right to feel sick, or tired, or to have children at home, or to simply want to leave work on time. Men are islands. Everyone has a little impenetrable wall around them of individuality that makes us a bit “dry” and self-centered when it comes to relationships with others.

Japanese on the other hand, are all about adjusting themselves to fit whatever atmosphere they happen to be in. To not do so, is selfish, inconsiderate, childish or just strange. Some Japanese get so good at this hiding and adjusting though, that they need alcohol before they can speak their real mind.

What is interesting to me is what happens to Japanese when they become Christians. This sacrificing of personal rights is emphasized as a part of their faith “to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice” and so adjusting and suppressing one's self is the way to show love to people. I think Americans take an opposite tack, and emphasize “different gifts but members of one body” and accepting people just as they are to show love. I think American Christians can learn something from the Japanese about patience and self-sacrifice, and Japanese can maybe learn something about honesty and consideration for the individual's feelings. It’s thought-provoking when you realize faith is not safe from the bias of culture. I went through a phase when I was studying abroad where I tried so hard to follow what Japanese people do and adjust my behavior as needed...but it messed with my head and made re-entry so painful, the next time I decided I would just be American and if I offended some Japanese people in the process, oh well. But now I am coming full-circle, and wondering if the way I show love to fellow Christians is different from their way, and if my efforts are being interpreted by them as “love” at all...I may have to try my best to love with their methods.

I think if we are true Christians, we need to try and forget our nationality and culture for a minute. Christianity does not equal the American right wing, or the American love of fighting for your rights. If you read the Bible, it’s actually about the opposite. Jesus did not consider equality with God—his rights—as something to cling to. He willingly gave them up. We are also called to give up our rights and unselfishly look to the welfare of others, placing ourselves in the hands of God who judges justly. (I should clarify, in situations where employment is involved, like in my husband's company, I do hope he can make boundaries and remember Christians should "not become the slaves of men". Offering oneself on the altar of a commercial company that's just after profits is not what Jesus had in mind by his example, methinks. He had in mind a personal laying down of one's life especially for those who can't give anything in exchange).

So in our church life and our marriage, I want to hold on to this lesson. It’s something my life in Japan has brought to my attention, that I never heard talked about at home, because American Christians don’t want to talk about giving up rights or individuality or personal happiness without complaint. It makes people from all political persuasions pretty uncomfortable. But I think this humility and patience is something that can revitalize and deepen our love and relationships. It's something we need to learn and show the world, no matter which culture we happen to be a part of.

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