Ethics of Cultural Change

A reading for Cultural Anthropology

by Charles H. Kraft with some editing by Howard Culbertson

Originally published as a chapter in Anthropology for Christian Witness, (Orbis Books) © 1996. Used here under the educational "fair use" provisions of the U.S. copyright act.

Integrational thought

"'We are allowed to do anything,' so they say. 'We are allowed to do anything,' but not everything is helpful. No one should be looking to his own interests, but to the interests of others" (1 Corinthians 10:23-24).

As Paul approaches the topic of whether or not Christians ought to eat food that has been offered to idols, he asks a basic question: How far can we carry the freedom we have in Jesus Christ? Are we accountable only to God, so that we may do anything we want to do, as long as it is moral? Or are we also accountable to other people, such as "those who are weak in faith" (1 Corinthians 8:9)? [ case study on food offered to idols ]

Here's the question: Is the term "ethical" to be defined only in the abstract? Or does the definition get quite specific — relating not only to the motives of the one who does something but also to the perception of the observer? Paul seems to come down in favor of the latter interpretation when he says, "Well, whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all for God's glory. Live in such a way as to cause no trouble either to Jews or Gentiles or to the church of God. Just do as I do; I try to please everyone in all that I do, not thinking of my own good, but of the good of all, so that they might be saved. Imitate me, then, just as I imitate Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1).

We are to glorify God in everything, just as Jesus did. He and Paul both taught that glorifying God means, among other things, always being concerned for the good of the receptors. It is the receptors of the world that "God so loved that He gave" (John 3:16). It is the receptors of the world that Jesus said He came to serve and to give His life for (Matthew 20:28). Glorifying God means putting others first, ministering to them in ways that are meaningful to them and that communicate effectively the caring, loving, accepting, forgiving nature of God to the weak, the damaged, and the needy.

There is another group to which neither Jesus nor Paul accommodated. These were the hypocrites — those who took advantage of their position as religious leaders to dominate and oppress those over whom they have power. During Jesus' ministry, the Pharisees and other rulers of the Jews fell into this category. The Judaizers — Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles convert to Jewish culture in order to follow Jesus — were the ones who caused problems for Paul. Such people who use their power to oppress in the name of God are not to be accommodated; they are to be opposed.

The "weaker ones," those who are not willfully blind and opposing God, are the ones before whom we are to "live in such a way as to cause no trouble . . . so that they might be saved" (1 Corinthians 10:32-33). These may be Christians as well as non-Christians since the term "saved" can be seen as having a broader reference than simply spiritual salvation. It can apply to anyone who needs to be rescued from any problem — spiritual, physical, psychological, or material.

We must, however, get our message across to these receptors in an ethical way. Our approach must be perceived as ethical by those who are reached through it, or it simply is not ethical. Our end, our aim, is to help, to rescue, to save (in a spiritual sense). How, though, are they to relate to that aim? They will know our aims only through observing and experiencing the means we use! The Golden Rule must be in effect: We are to treat those we work with as we would like them to treat us if we were looking at and experiencing things from their perspective.

Our means must be perceived as ethical if our aims are to be considered ethical. The nature of the process is crucial, since most people never see our ends, only our means. It is even more important that our means be perceived as ethical than that our ends be so perceived! It is more important that our means be understood as ethical than that our ends be understood at all.

This is what Jesus was getting at when He said, "All who take the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). He was saying that we are captured by whatever means we employ. Therefore, only proper means — those perceived by the receptors to be in line with what God wants to get across — are allowable. Any means that communicates a perception of God and His intentions different from those shown in Jesus Christ is unethical.

Let's practice "receptor-oriented" ethics, as Jesus did.


Trying to answer the question as to whether what we do is ethical or not can be difficult and even scary. There are people who say that raising questions about God's work and those who are doing it is meddling and unspiritual. They think that if we are prayerful enough, spiritual enough, and committed enough, then surely God will see to it that things work out well. Those who say this are sincere, and I wish they were correct. I wish it was just a matter of prayer and commitment. Experience, however, shows that even dedicated, sincere, committed, Spirit-filled people doing the Lord's work can come up with very different results, some of which can be questionable. I don't know why God allows this, but He seems to allow even His most dedicated servants to make some big mistakes.

Internationals sometimes look at the work of sincere, dedicated, prayerful missionaries and ask how things could have come out so badly. At times, missionaries have done everything they could to make sure they were getting the right directions from God, but something went wrong anyway. We missionaries have all looked at our own work and sometimes said, "I prayed about this, I thought about it, I read the Scriptures, I did everything I could before I made a given decision or a certain approach. I just don't understand why it seems to have worked out poorly."

That's the kind of circumstance that I want to bring to our attention. Ethics is a technical term with a long history of study and discussion in theological circles. Without going into all that discussion, we will simply say that something is ethical if it is right in God's sight, and in line with God's intent. If it is wrong in God's sight or out of line with God's intent, we'll call it unethical.

The understanding of the human processes involved in getting a message across ethically is, of course, no substitute for the spiritual dimensions. The human processes and spiritual dimensions are not, however, mutually exclusive. We cannot say we need either deep spirituality or we need an understanding of the dynamics of ethical communication. We must advocate prayer, sincerity, and commitment, plus an understanding of the processes of effective communication. Our intent is that both the power of God — which is available to those who are truly spiritual — and the effective use of human communication insights will be operative in ways that enable the whole message of God to come out properly at the other end.

Even professional anthropologists raise questions concerning the ethicality of what they are doing. For example, what are the relationships of anthropologists to people of other cultures? Are anthropologists justified in exploiting people in other cultures to get information from them that an anthropologist will publish in a book and get a degree and reputation for? Can an anthropologist do this without feeling an obligation to at least share the results with those who helped? If a researcher publishes material on a given people group, what is done with that material? Is it simply for the purpose of study, or are the insights to be used for the benefit of the people studied?

Christian cross-cultural witnesses dare not ignore these questions. It's so easy for us to simply assume that whatever we do — especially since we do it in God's name — must be OK. Experience is a hard master in this respect. Frequently,, we are pulled up short and forced to recognize that many of the things we do as individuals — even though we do them in God's name — have not been done in a way that God approves. It is very important that we not be found doing Christian things in ways that can be called unethical or sub-Christian. We must learn how to do Christian things in a Christian way.

A secular perspective

George Foster notes that the belief that we should help those less fortunate is deeply embedded in the consciences of Americans and other Westerners. However, we seldom ask questions such as "Why are we doing this?" or "What right have we to assume that our efforts to help others will be really helpful?" We simply go out and help them as best we can. "Yet," says Foster, "very genuine moral and ethical problems arise in every instance in which attempts are made to change the way of living of others."

We have, for example, been able to extend the life expectancy of peoples around the world through improved medical services. We assumed that the aim of bettering health and lengthening biological life entitles us to export Western techniques to other societies. Foster says, "Yet failure until very recently to integrate birth control with death control has produced a population problem far more threatening to man's future than unchecked disease ... [raising the question] `Will four billion undernourished people be more desirable than two billion undernourished people?'"

Other basic assumptions stemming from Western worldviews have also been prevalent (again, both within and outside Christian circles). Among them is the assumption that Western societies have learned how to make "progress" happen and that such insight is suitable for export. Large numbers of those who work cross-culturally share, perhaps with the majority of Americans, the belief that all peoples really want to live and be like us. The experience or remembrance of millions of immigrants or children and grandchildren of immigrants who came to America seeking greater opportunities to achieve "the good life" may have contributed to this belief.

George Foster wrote:

Poverty, coupled with poor health, primitive agriculture producing insufficient food, and limited education — these, it was argued, were the conditions that inhibited peoples in most of the rest of the world from making the progress they desired toward the American way of life. . . . [It was believed] that developing nations had neither the technical skills nor the financial means to lick poverty, disease, malnutrition, and ignorance.

The answer seemed simple, whether from the point of view of Christians or — especially after World War II — of Western governments: Send people with technological skills to provide education, medicine, agricultural insight, and the like. For both groups, the justification was on humanitarian grounds — as defined in terms of Western worldview assumptions. We assumed, furthermore, that all peoples would see the value of our efforts and praise and be loyal to us (and, for Christians, to our God) because of them.

But, Foster points out, "professional aid looks very different to the recipient than to the donor." He asks, "What does an offer of technical aid imply to potential recipients? It implies many things. . . . Above all, it says, in essence, 'If you people will learn to do more things the way we do them, you will be better off.' This is not a very flattering approach"

The same might be said of spiritual aid. Whether in technical or spiritual areas, traditional peoples may be wrong. However, — and this is often overlooked — they may also be very right in many areas. Furthermore, we may be right or wrong in recommending a change, especially when their custom fits their life situation (whether technical or spiritual) better than our custom does. As Foster notes with regard to technological matters, "It is wrong to assume that a method, because it is modern, scientific, and Western, is better than a traditional one." If, for example, it is not appropriate to the receiving context, can it be better? We may assert the same thing with regard to spiritual matters and contend, with Foster, that "until we are sure they are wrong on a particular point, it is unwise and morally wrong to try to `improve' them." What about appropriateness in spiritual matters as well? What's wrong or inappropriate, and according to whose definition?

One perspective comes from an old woman in a central African village. "You Europeans think you have everything to teach us. You tell us we eat the wrong food, treat our babies the wrong way, give our sick people the wrong medicine. You are always telling us we are wrong. Yet, if we had always done the wrong things, we should all be dead. And you see, we are not." (Margaret Read in Education and Social Change in Tropical Areas).

Questions of right and wrong are ethical questions. The answers to such questions are deeply influenced by the cultural matrices in which people live.

Three sets of ethical standards

We assume, of course, 1) the existence and concern of God for His creatures, 2) the distinction between "big R" and "small r" reality, and 3) the validity or adequacy of any cultural structuring that enables those who use it to survive. Since, however, no cultural way of life is without its problems, and since God is always in favor of human betterment (according to His "big R" standards), we also believe in change. We stand, therefore, in favor both of cultural continuity and of certain kinds of intervention by certain outsiders with certain aims and motivations for the purpose of improving a people's way of life. What is done, how it is done, and who it is done by are, however, crucial questions, even when we are in general agreement with the aims and purposes of those who intervene.

A position such as this, which espouses a caring God and takes an informed view of human culture, can be broken down into two levels of ethical standards:

  1. Transcultural ethical standards, or "big E" ETHICS. These are the moral ideals built into the universe that, if lived up to, enable the peoples of the world to experience whatever God intends for them (tentatively postulated to be a more meaningful and fulfilling life). Transcultural morals are the guidelines for correct behavior established by God. Discerning what these ethical and moral ideals are, however, is quite another matter from merely postulating them.
  2. Culture-specific ethical standards. These are the "small e" ethical ideals (principles, standards, values) of a society that the members of that society are taught and presumably expected to live up to. Culture-specific morals are the guidelines for correct behavior generally accepted, approved, and sanctioned by a social group.

Many groups are attempting to assist people in societies other than their own. For purposes of this discussion, I will assume that most of these groups intend to conduct their interventions in an ethical manner. They will, however, inevitably define "ethical" according to their own cultural values. Will what they define as ethical be perceived as ethical by the receptors?

The critical realist epistemology contends that there is a REAL (ETHICAL) above and beyond the cultural (perceptual) real (ethical). The problem is, of course, that if such a REAL exists, humans can only see it through their cultural (perceptual) lenses. We are, therefore, guessing at what that REAL might be. The fact of cultural limitations and distortions makes the question of how to discover that REAL is a very important one.

As an anthropologist, I would claim that examination and comparison of cross-cultural data yields insight into cultural universals (or near universals) in the area of ethics that may be regarded as candidates for a transculturally valid ethic. As a Christian, I would contend that God has revealed His ideals in the Christian Scriptures. The problem of interpretation is, however, just as large with respect to such a revelation as with the cultural data — we still see and understand in terms of our own cultural grid.

Nevertheless, I will here postulate three sets of ideals (ethics) to consider in any cross-cultural encounter: 1) that of the communicators (source) and their culture, 2) that of the receptors and their culture, and 3) the transcultural. A triangle diagram can illustrate the relationships between these three:

triangle illusrating relationships in cross-
cultural encounters

Worldview assumptions: The basis for ethical judgments

It is assumed that the reason for differing understandings of ethicality lies in differences in the deep-level worldviews of the world's peoples. These assumptions are basic to cultural behavior, having been carefully taught, though seldom proven. They provide the perspective through which a society views reality. Many of these assumptions concern what exists, how it got here, and what the nature of it is. These are what Adamson Hoebel called existential postulates. But, he continues, "There are also deep-lying assumptions about whether things or acts are good and to be sought after, or bad and to be rejected. These are called normative postulates or values."

Such assumptions are the ones in terms of which we make evaluations. These are learned in the process of enculturation, along with the rest of our worldview assumptions, and become the basis in terms of which we make ethical judgments.

Worldview assumptions give rise to interpretational reflexes. That is, we ordinarily interpret what is or happens automatically, habitually, and without thinking. Accompanying each interpretation is a judgment, an evaluation of the rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness of whatever is or happens.

Ethical judgments are thus a form of interpretation. They are based on worldview assumptions and are made automatically as a part of our interpretational reflexes.

Receptors, meanings, and motives

As noted above, though messages pass between humans, meanings do not. "Meanings are in people," not in the messages themselves, said David Berlo in his book The Process of Communication. Meanings are attached to message symbols by the users of those symbols; they are not inherent in the symbols themselves.

One implication of this fact is that the meanings understood by the receptors of a given message are likely to be at least slightly different from the meanings intended by the communicator of the message, especially if the receptors are interpreting from the perspective of a worldview different from that of the communicators. Yet it is the receptors, as the "endpoint" of the communication process, who play the crucial part in determining whatever the outcome (the meaning) of the interaction will be.

Meaning attachment is a form of interpretation. Interpretation is always accompanied by evaluation of the goodness or badness, the rightness or wrongness (the ethicality) of an interaction.

Behind the meanings in the minds of those who try to help others are motives. The intent of such people is almost always worthy, but, worthy or unworthy, the motives of the originators of helping activities are also evaluated and judged by the receptors. Our intent and our motives, like all other meanings, will only be understood through the means we employ.

Understanding, evaluation, and the resulting meaning attached — whether concerning motives, ends, or means — is determined from the perspective of the receptors within their frame of reference. When communicator and receptor come from different cultural frames of reference, it is virtually certain that the meanings of speech and behavior will be interpreted and evaluated differently by each participant. What may seem quite good or right (ethical) from the communicator's point of view may be interpreted as unethical from the receptor's perspective. When such an evaluation takes place, all the benefits of good motivation, sincerity, careful planning, and all the rest go down the drain.

What receptors have a right to expect

A key to this approach is to attempt to look at things from the point of view of the receptors. Such a "receptor-orientation" can be defined as an orientation on the part of sources of messages (behavioral as well as verbal) characterized by a primary concern that those sources do whatever possible to enable the receivers of the messages to understand their intentions as clearly as possible within the receivers' frame(s) of reference.

The doctrine of sociocultural adequacy has helped us appreciate the essential validity of other people's ways of life, including their basic assumptions (worldview). Sociocultural adequacy is an anthropological statement of the Golden Rule. It advocates granting the same kind of respect and appreciation to another people's way of life as we would like them to grant to us, were we in their place.

Some have, however, carried the doctrine to the point where no outside evaluation is allowed. These seem to assume that all cultural structures are neutral (the term "functional" is often used) and all those who use them are well motivated.

Though most structures are indeed neutral, there is a great deal of evidence that even apparently neutral structures are regularly misused, especially by those in power. It is, therefore, difficult for most anthropologists to take such "absolute relativism" seriously, at least with respect to the way cultural life is actually lived out. Most anthropologists would say that in certain (perhaps many) ways, any given way of life can be improved.

However, believing this and knowing just what needs to be changed and how, and how fast the change can best be brought about are quite different things. We should have learned enough about the pervasiveness of our own ethnocentrism to be suspicious of our judgments in this regard.

Nevertheless, we can, with Elvin Hatch, assert that human well-being is a value that transcends every culture. It relates to a level of human beingness (aliveness or existence) that is deeper than culture. Though defining what this means as a trans-cultural value poses problems, Hatch advances two principles:

  1. It is good to treat people well. . . . We can judge that human sacrifice, torture, and political repression are wrong, whether they occur in our society or some other. Similarly, it is wrong for a person, whatever society he or she may belong to, to be indifferent toward the suffering of others.... [Furthermore,) we may judge it to be wrong when some members of a society deliberately and forcefully interfere in the affairs of other people.
  2. People ought to enjoy a reasonable level of material existence: we may judge that poverty, malnutrition, material discomfort, human suffering, and the like are bad.

I agree with these, but I would add a third principle:

  1. People ought to be free from spiritual oppression. Spiritual oppression is real because evil spiritual beings are real and actively oppress people in physical, psychological, material, and relational ways.

Thus, we are looking beyond the validity of specific cultural matrices, toward what we might assume those cultural structures ought to be providing for their peoples: genuine quality of life in interpersonal and personal areas, in material areas, and in spiritual areas.

Problems to contend with

1. The problem of interpretation by insiders.
Interpretation is based on worldview assumptions. Worldviews, however, are culture-specific and therefore yield differing interpretations. Like all assigned meaning, interpretation is usually more felt than reasoned. Meaning assignment is, furthermore, done reflexively, on the basis of habit.

The activities of a foreigner will, therefore, be regularly interpreted by insiders on the basis of what those activities would signify if they were performed by insiders. On this basis, both the meaning of the activity and the motivation of the actor are judged.

Outsiders must be prepared to have their motivations and intentions evaluated purely on the basis of the insider's perception of their overt behavior. Their means, seen from the perspective of the insider's worldview, therefore become the basis on which their ends are understood.
2. The Problem of Cultural Goals/Ideals.
People are conditioned to have certain expectations. Many of these seem to have at least some rootage in basic human needs. Others seem to be constructed. All of them, no matter how basic, seem to be culturally elaborated.

In physiological, psychological, and spiritual spheres, humans are conditioned to expect their society to provide for the satisfaction of what are defined culturally as their needs. The nature and extent of such satisfaction is culturally defined, as are the ways in which the satisfaction is to be delivered. Freedom from want or lack (as defined by the society) in such areas is a very important ideal of any people.

In the physiological sphere, people are conditioned to expect satisfaction of their biological needs for food, housing, safety, health, and the like. In the psychological sphere, Maslow reminded us that there seem to be needs for meaning, communication, "love and belongingness" relationships with other humans, esteem, security, structure, and the like. In the spiritual sphere, the quest of most peoples could perhaps be defined as a search for a positive and beneficial relationship with (often power over) benign supernatural beings and powers, and protection from evil supernatural beings and powers.
3. The Problem of Interference by Donor Society Goals/Ideals.
As with those who are receiving, so with those giving, activities tend to be interpreted and evaluated on the basis of what those activities would signify if they were happening in the sociocultural context of those doing the interpreting. Donor society participants will, from the best of motives, regularly attempt to provide things they believe to be necessary or advisable from the standpoint of their own values.

Westerners, for example, regularly assume that peoples of other societies want what we want: material prosperity, individualism, comfortable housing, schooling, clothing, rapid and effortless transportation, physical health, long life, "equality" (by our definition) of women, and even our religion. We assume others are willing to pay the same price in terms of other values that we pay. Thus, we assume others will value individual rights and freedoms over group concerns; material prosperity and creature comfort over family and group solidarity; easy mobility over isolation; mass, information-oriented education in schools over individualized, person-oriented training at home; impersonal, naturalistic medical procedures over personal, supernaturalistic procedures; women who are "free" (by western definitions) like males over women who are secure; even our religion over their "superstition," and the like.

Most of the things we seek to provide fall into the category we define as good in terms of our values and aims. Whether the receptors also consider them good, and how many other good things they are willing to sacrifice, are serious questions that need to be faced realistically by those who would help people of other cultures.

Toward a solution

  1. Prior considerations. A belief in the validity of every culture predisposes us to take seriously the goals and aspirations of each people. If so, the place to start in determining which of the potential interventions might be appropriate would be with a serious attempt to ascertain those social ideals. Here we are faced with several problems:
    1. The conservativeness of people with regard to their cultural structures. People of the present generation have been taught the cultural structures that members of the previous generation employed to handle life problems. To the extent that today's problems differ from those of the previous generation, the available perspectives (worldview) and structures may be unsatisfactory and disappointing. Especially in rapidly changing situations, cultural structures never seem to be up-to-date. There is no assurance that an outside observer will be able to accurately discern the most important felt needs of a people through a study of the culture as it is at the present time. Nor, often, are the people caught in such a situation able to effectively articulate either their real needs or adequate answers to them.
    2. Even without the complications of rapid social change, there may often be latent dissatisfaction among the people with certain ways in which their lives are structured by their societies. It is no longer possible to believe (with the older functionalists) that the relationship between a people and their cultural structures is always agreeable. Often, people who appear to be quite satisfied with a given approach to life readily give that up when they become aware of the possibility of an alternative approach. Discovering such latent dissatisfactions is, however, a considerable problem for the researcher. Determining what can be done about it and how to carry out the change is an even greater challenge.
    3. Even if outsiders carefully research the desires of a people, what do they do when different segments of a society come up with conflicting ideals? Given the pervasiveness of self-interest on the part of those consulted — a characteristic that can be expected to skew all information obtained through interviews — how does one arrive at a proper basis for intervention, even after one has carefully researched the situation? It is one thing to be able to look back at mostly bad examples of outside intervention and analyze what went wrong; it is quite another to plan beforehand and carry out an intervention that will not result in similar mistakes.
    4. Another set of problems relates to the fact that a large number (perhaps most) of past interventions, no matter how sincere the agents, seem to have caused enough social disruption that one might question whether the benefits are sufficient to offset it. This raises the question of just how good anyone is at cultural manipulation in a positive direction. To put it more pointedly, would anthropologists have done a significantly better job than the missionaries of introducing change among the Yir Yoront? Perhaps. But perhaps the concomitants of a fairly small change in technology might not have been much (if any) clearer to anthropologists before the event.
  2. Principles for intervention. To the extent that the goals of a people can be ascertained, let me suggest a few candidates for trans-culturally ethical principles of intervention in another society.
    1. Follow the Golden Rule. I propose that, whether on a religious or nonreligious basis, the Golden Rule be regarded as a transculturally valid ethical principle of intervention. We are to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated, were we in their position. This means we are to seek to understand, respect, and relate to a people and their way of life in the same way that we would like them to understand, respect, and relate to us and our way of life if the tables were turned. It also means that we need to find out from them how they would like to be treated, what their (not our) definition of understanding, respect, love, is and so on, and to treat them that way.

      The problem of discovering, defining, and (through participant observation) coming to actually feel what this means is an enormous one. Outsiders can seldom, if ever, learn to really feel what it's like to be in the skin of another people. Another problem is defining what to do in relation to the perceived "good" of the individual versus that of society as a whole. Westerners, whose primary orientation would predictably be individualistic, would likely have to resist those tendencies without overreacting in the opposite direction.

      In a sense, the following principles are but amplifications of the Golden Rule principle. The Golden Rule, defined in receptor-oriented terms, may be all we need. Nevertheless, here are four more principles.
    2. Insist on Person/Group Orientation. This principle recommends a primary concern for persons (as organized in groups, of course) and speaks at least as much to the methods as to the goals of intervention. Any approach to intervention must be grounded in what I will call "person factors" that lie at a level deeper than culture. At this deepest level, says Goldschmidt, "people are more alike than cultures." Person factors would be such things as the quest for well-being in relational, material, and spiritual areas mentioned above. Such a quest and the expectations surrounding it are, to be sure, all culturally defined, raising again the need for working in terms of a receptor-oriented definition of what intervention should bring about. But the universality of the quest for these things (and perhaps others) would seem to indicate that it is rooted in basic human beingness, rather than simply in culture.

      This emphasis I see as in contrast with a primarily structural emphasis, such as preserving a culture simply because cultures are believed to be good in and of themselves. The question to ask is not, What can be done to preserve the culture? The question to ask is, What will provide the greatest good for the person/group? The problem of making judgments concerning what that greatest good would be is an enormous one, and those who make such judgments will need considerable anthropological insight from both emic (insider) and informed etic (outsider) perspectives. I believe, however, that it is unethical in the transcultural sense for change agents to put any goals ahead of those that will seek the greatest benefit for persons/ groups.

      This principle relates, I believe, to an important insight coming from communication theory, where a distinction can be made between information or "word messages" and "person messages." News broadcasts, solutions to mathematics problems, science and history teaching, plus most of the rest of what is taught in school, can be passed from person to person rather impersonally through words designed to convey information. However, messages designed to lead people to make changes in their way of life need to be demonstrated in life and passed on in life-related ways through the impingement of the behavior of one person on the behavior of another person. It is not enough for such messages to be reduced simply to information passed from mouth to ear. In this way, the person-oriented message is both conveyed by and is part and parcel of the method used to convey it.

      One of the major problems with this principle is the tendency for change agents to spend far too little time with the people they seek to assist. Participant observation is the proper approach to study and planned change, but true participant observation requires more investment of time (and especially life) than even change agents (other than some missionaries) are usually willing or able to give.
    3. Maintain ethnic cohesion. Any intervention in another society should give careful attention to helping the people maintain what Alan Tippett calls their ethnic cohesion. This is an elusive factor, perhaps made up of some combination of pride in one's cultural heritage and a determination to survive, no matter what. Its presence keeps a people struggling to maintain their sociocultural existence, even in the presence of great pressure to change. The breaking of such cohesion results in the loss of the will of a people to continue living as a viable social entity.

      Even though, according to the last principle, we are to focus on person/group over cultural structures as such, persons/groups do require effective sociocultural structuring to function properly. They also need a measure of pride in their way of life. Thus, one function of culture is to be a protective coating/clothing and psychological support system for human psyches. If damage is done to that protective coating/clothing, people become psychologically naked. They lose self-respect and become vulnerable to harm from outside influences. If this process goes far enough, people begin to break down psychologically and, as individuals and groups, lose the will to live. Such breakdown signals the loss of ethnic cohesion and, unless followed by revitalization, moves into personal and social disintegration. I believe it is unethical in the transcultural sense for an advocate of change to seek change that will result in a loss of ethnic cohesion.

      Of course, it can be difficult to know when and how what one advocates damages such cohesion. Another difficulty is that for many peoples of the world, much damage has already been done. Widespread personal demoralization is an indication that ethnic cohesion is in danger. Sympathetic understanding and genuine personal caring may be the best we can do to help stem the tide, at least for some people.
    4. Involve the receptors. Receptor orientation requires that any decisions relating to the future of the receiving people 1) be made with their permission and 2) involve their participation, both in the decisions themselves and in their implementation. People are to be treated as people, not as things. They are to be respected and consulted, not simply dominated. Potential innovations are to be politely advocated, not rudely mandated, even when the power of the change agents is considerable. It is unethical in the transcultural sense to attempt to change people without involving them in the decision-making process.

      Problems arise with respect to this principle not only when the power differential is great but also when there is a significant differential in expertise. For example, public health specialists may not be able to convince people to boil water or to dig latrines, even when it is clear that failure to take these steps results in a lack of the quality of life the people ardently desire. A person-orientation involving patience, personal friendships, and a willingness to work at winning over persons and groups through carefully planned demonstration can turn the trick if continued long enough. Working within their categories requires close attention to establishing and maintaining the right kinds of relationships with the right persons. It also requires a willingness to take seriously their understanding of the influence of spirit beings and powers on their lives.
    5. Use Power to Serve and Show Love. Many times, those who intervene in another society are perceived — both by the receptors and by themselves — as more powerful than those they seek to change. Whether it is the power of political relationships, of wealth, of cultural prestige, or of that which comes from God, they can be tempted to use such power to achieve what they define as worthy ends, whether or not this is done in a loving way. Whenever power is used without love, it is unethical in the transcultural sense, even if the ends seem justified.

      Problems arise with this principle when Westerners with an egalitarian perspective fail to perceive themselves as more powerful than those they work among. It is very easy for them to miss or misunderstand the significance of, for example, rapid agreement from the receptor group to what was intended as merely a suggestion. Westerners must learn to perceive such situations as characterized by unequal power relationships and to lean over backward to attempt to compensate. Jacob Loewen suggests that, in such situations, the change agent never offers only one alternative but, at the very least, two alternatives, thereby making it necessary for the receivers to choose between alternatives or come up with their own solution.

A case study: The ethicality or ethics of missionary activities

We have looked at the ethics issue in Christian cross-cultural witness. We may now look at certain Western-style approaches to the communication of the Christian message to see what we can learn about how things actually turn out. To do this, we will attempt to evaluate how such activities rate when measured by the ethical principles listed above. That is, do they carry forward God's work 1) in accordance with the Golden Rule of cultural respect, 2) with a primary concern for person factors, 3) with serious attention paid to maintaining ethnic cohesion, 4) involving the receptors in decisions that affect them, 5) being careful to use all power in helpful, loving ways so that 6) God's intent is perceived by the receptors and 7) our activities contribute to what receptors have a right to expect in the area of well-being?

We will ask these questions concerning some of the typical activities initiated by missionaries. This is done not as a definitive statement of rightness or wrongness of the activities but to suggest how we may attempt to evaluate the activities we are involved in.

The tendency of Westerners is to be program- and institution-oriented rather than person-oriented. The vast majority of the peoples of the world are, however, person-oriented. So is God. To the extent that our programs and institutions are impersonal, they are out of sync with both receptors and God.

This points to an interesting facet of our discussion. Though we may decry the Western propensity for programs and institutions, we cannot evaluate the ethicality of the structures themselves. We can only evaluate the ways in which they are used. This leads to another important point: it is unlikely that all of those who participate in these activities will use them in the same way. It is likely, therefore, that any program or institution will turn out to be partly ethical and partly unethical, depending on who it is used by and how.

1. First, let's look at an institution such as the hospital and clinic program in which our mission was engaged. Our mission leaders had set up this program to help people with one of their most deeply felt needs, better health. They and we saw this as an available way of using Western expertise to demonstrate the love of God to the people among whom we worked.

This is a worthy goal. Unfortunately, such a goal easily gets submerged under the Western value that assumes that the primary purpose of a hospital is simply to bring better health and longer life. The doctors were trained to support these Western secular goals in America and assumed that enhancing health and prolonging life would automatically be understood by the people as communicating love. They made little or no adjustments in the way they used the hospitals and clinics, beyond the many physical adjustments they had to make because of lack of equipment, irregular electricity, and the like.

In terms of criteria such as obeying the cultural Golden Rule, being personal, consulting the receptors in deciding on how things should be done, and using power in loving ways, these programs often fell short. Though there have been many exceptions in each of these areas, times when people were treated as persons and their way of life respected, it was usually clear that these were foreign institutions operating almost exclusively on Western assumptions. In keeping with Western assumptions, the relationship between healers and patients tended to be impersonal, and the healing process was dependent on a mechanical relationship between medicine and body. How could the patients discover the personalness and lovingness of God? How could they receive what they had a right to expect from life except in the narrow range of concern for physical problems? Sociocultural and spiritual problems, if addressed at all, were treated in Western ways that did not connect with their ways.

In addition, these programs exacted a high social cost, threatening the societies' ethnic cohesion (though that cohesion was also being threatened in even greater ways by other factors coming from the outside). These programs and institutions were set up in direct competition with parallel institutions already present in the society. Though the native medical practitioners were often no match for Western medical techniques, they were holistically focused, rather than narrowly dealing only with the physical. In contrast with Western medicine, they took seriously the social and spiritual dimensions of people and the healing process.

Though Western medics often talked about the place of God in healing and sometimes prayed with the patients, there was little in these programs to connect with the spirituality of the receptors or extricate them from their bondage to evil spirits, and the Western approach to healing did nothing to help them with the social and relational problems of life that likely underlay most of their physical problems.

In one area of Western expertise — the ability to repair the body as if it were a machine — our mission programs were usually seen by thinking people to be superior. Some, especially those in the process of becoming Westernized, did perceive the love of God coming through. The partially Westernized church leaders I worked with told me that for purely physical problems, they would much rather have the Western dispensaries and hospitals than the native medical practitioners. They contended, however, that not all diseases were better handled by Western medicine than by traditional medicine. It was clear to them that social and spiritual problems were largely ignored in the Western programs, and the society had to pay a high social and spiritual cost for their presence.

A disturbing part of the spiritual cost derives from the fact that though these programs teach people to put their faith in medicine and Western medical techniques rather than in spirit power, they also unconsciously teach against faith in God for healing. Even when secular medicine is done by Christian doctors, there is usually a deeply secularizing aspect to it. Traditional doctors know how to work with both spiritual and medical techniques. Western doctors, though they may pray before they treat a person, seldom show the deep spiritual sensitivity and expertise to satisfy what these people have rightly come to expect from healers. Instead, people learn to be treated secularly for physical problems, many of which are not healed anyway, since they are emotionally or spiritually based. For problems related to social and spiritual relationships, major sources of emotional, physical, and spiritual problems, they are left to turn to usually less effective Western churches or native practitioners.

Some missions and churches have been able to lessen parts of this problem by consistently highlighting the place of God and faith in Him in any healing process. They teach that God alone heals, even when He uses medicine and Western techniques to bring it about. And, because they pray authoritatively with patients for healing before any medicine or other technique is used, many are healed directly. Thus people are confirmed in what they already know (but we seem not to) — that medical healing is closely related to the spiritual dimension of humans. In accordance with what we say we intend to communicate, they are directed to a new spiritual Source and taught that it is He (not some other spirit) who works through these medical techniques. The social relationship part, however, is still neglected.

In our medical program, as in many others, the Western assumption that the main issue is physical healing rather than communicating God's messages into the receptors' world has done extreme damage to the work of God through medical programs. The down-deep secular nature of this and other underlying assumptions led to virtual enslavement to the press of sick people and the press of other technical duties, to the neglect of meaningful spiritual (and social) realities. Typically, the doctors and nurses give the medicine without praying, and often the people get well. This leads them to put their faith in medicine because the medicine apparently healed them without spiritual assistance.

The situation in our field was not all as deficient as the above analysis suggests, however. Up until about the mid-fifties, we had a leprosarium that included a colony made up of those receiving treatment, plus their families. Though the hundreds (at one time thousands) of people in the colony came from various places, they were able to create a community that worked at supplying its members' social, spiritual, and physical needs. This fact went a long way toward making up for at least some of the deficiencies in the Western approach to medicine.

This leper colony had a direct relationship to the growth of the church in the area in which my wife and I served. Though it was nearly 100 miles from our area, decades ago a young man from our area made his way there, stayed for about fifteen years, and returned to our area with his leprosy arrested and his soul on fire for the Lord. His evangelistic work before missionaries arrived provided the foundations for what is still a thriving church among the Kamwe.

2. Though I'll not go into it in as much detail, this kind of evaluation of Western schools in such a traditional context would be even more harsh. I've come to the conclusion that our use of schools in missionary work smacks of unethicality at every turn. Both what they stand for and the way they are operated in every context that I know of find them breaking all seven of the principles we are using for evaluation.

However, schools will not go away, so the practical question is: Is it possible to use any parts of them in ways that would satisfy any of our criteria for ethicality? The answer is yes. For example, it is possible for teachers to establish personal relationships with some of their students and, beyond that, with some of their families, if they will go out and visit them. From this basis, they may be able to demonstrate respect for the society and its culture to both students and their families. If, in addition, teachers are able to connect with the people they spend time with in ways that speak to them spiritually, they may be able to reduce at least a little the disastrous effects of the schools on some of their students and their families.

I believe the ethicality of much of what is done in and through churches planted by Western organizations can also be questioned. Though their aim is to communicate God's intent in ways intelligible to the receptors, their Westernness gets in the way. In many parts of the world, there is little in the churches that even connects with the people's spirituality. In India, for example, one who claims to be close to the spirit world is expected to be an ascetic and to be able to tell, not ask, a person what is wrong with him or her and then heal it. Western-style pastors usually don't even come close on either count. Nearly worldwide, the expectation of traditional peoples is that one who is close to God will also heal. In this expectation, they have both the Bible and their traditional culture.

Church leaders often show little respect for the traditional culture or concern over the threat they represent to its ethnic cohesion. Church leaders trained in Western subjects often are puzzled by the myriad of social, spiritual, and psychological problems their people face. Some are deeply person-oriented and good models of how to use God's power in loving ways. Unfortunately, many lord it over their people and badly misuse their power. One major reason for this is the insecurity that young leaders especially feel when they are required to operate a foreign system with little relevance to the society around them, either in its organization or in the way its message is presented. Though I feel sorry for them, I must contend that much of what they do is unethical.

What about a Bible translation program that is based on the Western principle of specialization of technical tasks but works among people whose tradition is to relate to each other holistically, rather than in terms of specializations? The receptors are deeply person-oriented, but the translators are expected by their organization to be specialists, not to do church work because the organization considers that someone else's task.

The way this sorts out is often that those who follow their organization's guidelines most closely are those who would, by these criteria, be least ethical. There are others, however, who go beyond those guidelines to become personal — respecting and supporting the cultural cohesiveness of their people, involving the receptors in decision-making, and all the rest. Through these, God's intent is often communicated very clearly.

InIn many parts of the world, especially in more urban settings, Christian home fellowship groups function either as part of churches or as the primary form the church takes in those places. I believe the New Testament speaks of such churches meeting in places such as Lydia's house (Acts 16:15, 40) and that of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Corinthians 16:19). When such groups meet in culturally appropriate ways, they can measure up in each of the ways we have specified as ethical.


Both the theoretical part and the case study have drawn our attention to ethical issues in intercultural intervention, with a focus on how the receptors of such intervention perceive it. We have not solved all the problems, by any means. Indeed, I would contend that it is only in concrete situations, rather than in abstract presentations such as this, that such problems can effectively be dealt with. Nevertheless, I believe it is very important to raise these issues so that the cross-cultural worker for Christ will be constantly concerned to do His work in His way. It is hoped the seven principles we have formulated will guide us in this direction.

Of course, things often do not turn out as they were intended to. I think of the businessman I once heard say, "This is a nonprofit business. We never planned for it to be nonprofit. It just turned out that way!" Though he intended for his business to make a profit, it turned out differently. Sadly, I'm afraid the same can be said of our "business," the cross-cultural communication of the Gospel.

For example, our Western propensity for starting institutions has been mentioned. Our intention is to go to the ends of the earth to demonstrate the love of God. To do this, we often set up an institution and then get captured by it to the extent that the real (as opposed to the stated) purpose of the institution changes imperceptibly from serving to demonstrate God's love to the need to perpetuate itself. Institutions are not intrinsically bad. The question is, however: Just what does the institution now stand for? What is it really communicating? And what is its real purpose?

The history of institutionalization is that almost inevitably, the institution becomes primarily a means for perpetuating itself, no matter how worthy the goals that brought it into being. The history of American universities, seminaries, and not a few churches bears this out. Seminaries, for example, promise to prepare students for church ministry. In most seminaries, however, most of what is taught and modeled by the teachers equips students not for churches but to teach the same things their professors taught them. The idea being taught is to teach in a seminary. I call this unethical in that what is promised is not delivered, and what is delivered is quite different from what the students are led to believe they will receive.

In just such a way, whether in the home country or in another society, the person message of God, who came all the way down to reach us where we are, gets changed into an institution message. Though people may be promised the true message, the one that Jesus gave His life for, what they get is a chance to learn how to perpetuate the institution that made the promise. This institution may be the church, a school, a hospital, or a club. It may be a large institution or a fairly small program.

Our problem is: How can we keep God's "person message" from becoming merely a "word message," an institution message, or an academic discipline message? How can we deal with spiritual issues, poverty issues, health issues, and training issues so we deliver what we promise in a way that is appropriate to the receptors? If we do something that changes God's messages into something else, I'd say we are doing something unethical.

The purpose of the above analysis is to help us ask, What is our intent, and what are the receptors at the other end really getting? Is there anything we can do along the way, any mid-course corrections when we see our programs misleading people, to make sure that what they understand is closer to what God intends? We ask these questions seriously. If the work we are called to is as important as we believe it to be, we must regularly examine our motives and assumptions. We can't always assume that our motives line up with God's, or that they are understood properly, or that they are even the same as those we started with.

If we intend to be ethical, we will need to do what we do with a primary concern that it be done so that God's intent is perceived by the receptors. The meanings intended by God must be communicated in ways appropriate to the receiving people and understood by them, at least approximately, as He intended them to be understood. If this is to happen, the communications will not be limited to verbal messages. There will be certain concomitants of the words spoken and the deeds done, such as love, personalness, and respect for both receptors and their sociocultural context.

Furthermore, our activities will genuinely contribute to the receptors' well-being in terms of the things they have a right to expect from life. Among these things are reasonable treatment by other people (insiders and outsiders), a reasonable level of material existence, and a reasonable degree of freedom from spiritual oppression.

Where does this leave us? I am reduced to a single principle of operation: John 1:14. The communication of God became a real, credible human being. Why do I go as a cross-cultural witness? What have I to offer? My conclusion is that in communicating, the only thing I have to contribute is my God's message wrapped up in myself as a person. Whatever my talents, abilities, or skills, these are secondary to myself as a single, dedicated human being committed to God, willing to live in this place for the sake of this people. I already see myself as a person. The line I have to cross is to become a person or human being according to the receptors' definition.

Definitions of human being-ness differ. One thing they have in common, though, is that they require participation in the receptors' lives. At a basic material level, one missionary found that he could not be considered a person in his part of Papua New Guinea unless he owned some land and a pig. I was able to work toward becoming a person to the Kamwe by doing such things as sleeping on a grass mat when I visited their villages, eating with them, living for a period of time with a family in a village, and spending lots of time talking, ministering with, and discipling a small group of leaders. In more urban settings, the Apostle Paul participated with his receptors in the trade of tent-making.

We have been entrusted with a person message. We go out as persons to become persons by their definition so that the person message brought by our Lord can come across to the receptors as it was intended by Him. Such a message involves first a relationship with us. Paul said, "Imitate me as I imitate Christ." Jesus said, "If you relate to Me, you're related to the Father." That relationship to us results in a relationship with God as person. Whether we speak of the initial relationship, that first response that leads to salvation, or growth in spiritual maturity, it is still a relational thing, a personal message. Christian institutions should be giving degrees to people who show maturity in relating to God, not just to those who gain more knowledge about God.

Think back to the question: Is what we are doing perceived as ethical? I'm afraid the answer may often be "No" from the receptors' point of view. Though we perceive it as ethical by our standards, we need to remember that the only standards our receptors really can judge by are theirs. The only place they can start is with their standards. If what we intend as ethical comes across to them as unethical, what does that do to the communication? It comes out at the receptor's end as unethical.

We are accountable for their perception of what we do. We have to get within their frame of reference as credible human beings who live as well as speak God's messages, recognizing that we are accountable for whatever they understand from within that frame of reference.

-- Some editing by Howard Culbertson,


Ethical considerations surrounding cultural change are complex and multifaceted, touching on various aspects of human life, society, and identity. Here are some key issues:

Related articles