Making My World View Visible

February 1, 1996

Making My World View Visible
Responses to Virstan Choy: From Surgery to Acupuncture

by Alice Mann (reprinted from Congregations, Jan/Feb 1996)

With the recent article on church conflict “from an Asian-American perspective,” Virstan Choy has made several important contributions to the field of congregation development. Most directly, he has provided some possible criteria for deciding what kind of assistance might be appropriate for congregations rooted in Asian cultures. Choy urges the use of methods which acknowledge this group’s:

* relational orientation;
* predisposition toward preserving relationship;
* preference for nonconfrontational interaction;
* capacity for solidarity in the face of conflict.

Such guidance helps pastors, consultants, and denominational staff to respond better to specific cultural environments. But this article raises (in my mind) larger issues than “proper techniques” for Asian-American congregations. I’d like to identify three important conversations which might grow out of this article.

1. We need to set in cultural context the entire body of knowledge about congregation development.

When I tell a group “what the literature says” or “what we know” about conflict resolution, a whole reef of questions lies hidden below the surface of my statements. What culture has generated the ideas I am presenting? What historical period do they reflect? What sources of wisdom have been honored and ignored in constructing those ideas? Which voices have established the terms of the conversation, and which have been relegated to the status of “others”?

Virstan Choy challenges me as a practitioner to note the cultural context of my own assertions and to avoid a stance equivalent to the “omniscient narrator” in literature– a disembodied voice which purports to reveal what is really happening in this situation and these characters. During my recent stint as a graduate student in English, I was especially grateful to novelist Russell Banks for insisting that a white author is obligated to make visible in her work the racial and ethnic components (and limitations) of her world view. I find myself wondering now how this same ethnical commitment can be reflected in the work of congregational development– how the “unmarked” categories (white, European-American, middle class) can carry their proper labels, so that I do not present myself as the “omniscient narrator” of a multicultural story, a reality which cannot be fully described from a single frame of reference.

2. “Cultural differences” between men and women might be explored in relation to Virstan Choy’s criteria.

The work of researchers like Deborah Tannen suggests that distinctive male and female subcultures may interact to create the larger “culture” of a people. Some would say that women (or should we say “white middle-class women in the U.S.”?) tend to emphasize the relational in their communication patterns; if this is so, we might find some common ground between Asian-American voices and feminist/womanist voices in the church.

I would proceed cautiously, however, in defining what that common ground might be. American women of European background may tend to worry about preserving relationships more than our male counterparts do– but we both have a narrow, atomistic definition of “relationship” compared to men and women from cultures with a livelier sense of communal identity.

3. “Mainstream churches” may be challenged by Asian-American congregations to reassess the relative value of disclosure and privacy.

Choy’s work sheds new light for me on the current preoccupation– with disclosure as opposed to privacy. Following Barry Johnson and others, we might identify disclosure and privacy as a “polarity”– a creative tension between oppposites– which must be managed rather than resolved in order for a community to remain healthy. A polarity resembles a set of scales tipping back and forth between two “weighty” values. What I learned from Choy’s article is that the fulcrum (or balancing post) of the scale doesn’t fall in the same place for every culture because the “good” at one end may not be given exactly the same weight as the “good” at the other end.

Privacy (or “personal space”) is a positive value, to be held in tension with self-disclosure (or transparency, or “openness”) for the health of persons and communities. The downside of privacy– secrecy– seems at the moment to be condemned as the cardinal sin in mainstream American culture, and for some good reasons. Secrecy tends to favor and perpetuate existing power structures. The illiegitimate power of Iran-Contra conspirators depended on secrecy, and so does the tyranny of a parent (or pastor) who is sexually abusing a child.

On the other hand, we see the downside of exposure in the emotional “feeding-frenzy” that occus when figures of authority (civil servants, parents, clergy) are accused of serious violations of trust. Churches will pay a high price in the long run if we remain in that mode regarding cleary sexaul abuse–if, for example, judicatory materials on clergy background checks express an appropriately high concern for the person reporting abuse, but do not articulate a similar commitment to due process for an accused person. We can also see the destructive side of exposure in the format of the less responsible talk shows, where traumatized people are encouraged to tell all for the sake of public entertainment and private profit. Choy’s discussion of “face” may help the rest of us do some revaluation of the way we deal with matters involving shame. If we listen to our own imagery (red-faced, egg on the face, slap in the face), we will discuver that concern with “face” is not unique to Asian cultures. From listening to others who weigh these competing “goods” somewhat differently, we might gain greater perspective on our current choices, and swing less recklessly from cover-up to witch-hunt and back again.

Alice Mann is a senior consultant with The Alban Institute, working especially with issues of evangelization, mission strategy, leadership development (laity and clergy), congregational planning, size transitions, and spiritual growth within congregations.

Reprinted from CONGREGATIONS (Jan/Feb 1996), with permission from the Alban Institute, Inc., 7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1250W, Bethesda, Maryland 20814-3211. © Copyright 1995. All rights reserved.

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