Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World
by Bernard T. Adeney – a Book Review
Bernard Adeney is an Adult Missionary Kid or Adult Third Culture Kid. His English father met his American mother in China where they both served as missionaries. Adeney, though born in China, also spent parts of his growing up years in Illinois, Hong Kong, Indiana and Taiwan. His family spent their summers in Africa, India, Europe, Japan and the Philippines. He studied in France, Switzerland, Greece, the United Kingdom and Singapore. As a married man with children, he travelled and conducted research in Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Germany and Holland. At present he is a ‘professor at large,’ sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to work in Central Java at Satya Wacana Christian University. Who else could speak as authoritatively to Christians about the challenges of cross-cultural ethical behavior?
Because of my love of all things cross-cultural, I found this book on cross-cultural ethics fascinating. Ethics theory can be relative or absolute. As a Christian I believe there are absolute values, but I also understand that for those of us who work in cross-cultural situations, the obvious existence of cultural values that differ from our own culture leads to a complexity little understood by many Westerners. A study of cross-cultural ethics blatantly demonstrates to us that our own values are culturally conditioned. There is nothing that we believe that can be divorced from who we are – our race, our class, our age, our education or our gender. Faith in Christ does not automatically free us from our culture: read the Poisonwood Bible or Hawaii.
The central theme of the book is that ethics means doing good appropriately at a certain time, in a certain place, with certain people in a real life context of a culture. The end goal of studying ethics is not to be able to expound on all the theories and abstract concepts. Ethics is action or praxis. Other cultures have standards that are drastically different from our own culture. Adeney urges his readers to not too quickly judge different values from our own too harshly, but to look more closely into the patterns of meaning prevalent from culture to culture. Doing the right thing in a variety of circumstances can be quite challenging.
Rahab lied to the authorities at Jericho and God saved her and her family. Phinehas speared a man and woman through in their tent and God counted Phinehas as righteous. David ate the showbread. Why did so many Dutch build false walls into their homes in order to make a space to hide Jews during World War II and then lie to the German authorities? Adeney, from his vast cross-cultural experience, presents many different interpretations of several dilemmas, some of which concern bribery, gender conflicts, social ethics, the meaning of gifts and the giving of gifts, friendship, and the challenge of other religions, specifically Islam. With each of the moral dilemmas he presents, he looks at the unassailable ‘truth’ in each option and the subsequent difficulties of each option. He does not offer answers. He demonstrates that each dilemma cannot be seen as either black or white. He emphasizes that all values are not true to everyone until we look at the context from which the values are practiced.
Following are some of the passages I underlined:
Faith does not free us from culture, because culture is the environment in which what we believe takes shape. “There is no space which is not cultural space.” As a Christian, I have no doubt that there are absolute values, but our understanding of them is always relative. “Now we see in a mirror dimly…Now I know only in part” (I Cor 13:12)
The first step in overcoming ethnocentrism is the recognition that my own values are not necessarily the same as God’s. All Christians hold many values derived from their culture. A second step is to understand that our own interpretation of Scriptures comes from a particular cultural context. A third step is to see God’s values may be “enfleshed” differently in another culture from how they are in my own.
The implication for cross-cultural ethics is that different languages produce different perceptions of the world. Language and culture cannot be separated. Therefore we cannot hope to really see the world through the eyes of another culture without learning the language.
Context is central to ethics, because by understanding the social, political, religious, economic and cultural causes of suffering we can learn to effectively love our neighbor.
Cross-cultural ethics forces us to acknowledge that the form of goodness often lies not in an act in itself but in the cultural meaning of the act.
Goodness has two outstanding characteristics. One is that beyond all the significant differences in cultural expressions of goodness lie qualities of character or virtue that shine with clarity across cultures. The other is that all virtues and vices are made real in cultural forms…Most apparent are what Paul call the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. There is no law against such things.” These virtues transcend culture…the reality of goodness is embodied in recognizable forms in all cultures.
The last chapter is a practical illustration of how two people, Linda and Franklin, who live in West Africa, combined their personal ethics with their social ethics to represent Christ in a difficult situation that concerned the torture of individuals in their neighborhood and beyond. Combining personal ethics with the ethics of any given society can lead to safety issues when the two ways of thinking come into conflict. Pat answers often are not helpful. We cannot ignore that there are clearly right and wrong answers to certain moral dilemmas, however, before acting one should consider not only the theological ramifications, but also the cultural and contextual forces involved. Even Proverbs offers contradictory advice about bribes (Proverbs 15:27; 17:8; 17:23; 21:14; 22:16).
In the appendix, Adeney explains several models of cross cultural ethics and offers his own. His model “focuses on the ethical implications of different value orientations. It differs from all other models in that it not only describes cultural value orientations but also evaluates them. Adeney’s model is descriptive and normative. One category in the model focuses on different ethical priorities that seem to follow from different orientations. The last two categories suggest some moral strengths and weaknesses that may be inherent tendencies in particular orientations. The contrasting strengths and weaknesses reflect Adeney’s assumption that no culture is free of moral weakness or devoid of moral strength. Often strengths and weaknesses or good and evil in a culture are flip sides of each other” (Summary paragraph from the last page of book).