Power and Culture

My neighbors moved in across the street just under a year ago. There is an older couple that appear to be grandparents, a younger couple with two small girls, and I think one other adult. The older gentleman’s name is Milkiet; he speaks very little English, is very gregarious and friendly, and is a pretty solid volleyball player, although our family has noticed that the techniques he learned playing in India are very different from the ones we learned.

It strikes me as funny that his volleyball techniques stand out as a difference when he also speaks a different language, dresses differently (including his turban), eats different food, and worships differently.

When we talk about all the difference between Milkiet’s family and our family, we talk about a difference in culture. But this idea of culture is not so easy to define. To keep it simple, let’s assume that culture refers to one’s values, habits, expected behaviors, thoughts, practices, customs, roles, rituals, and manners of interacting (see the diagram below for you visual learners).

Components of Culture chart

When I think of Milkiet’s family in the context of this definition, it becomes abundantly clear that our two cultures are very different. However, I would suggest we have cultural differences more often than we notice, because I think many of those differences are subtle. For example, if you were to observe my wife and me hanging out on a Saturday, you would assume we are very similar. We’re both tall, athletic, Caucasian folks in our 40s who love Jesus. However, we had very different upbringings due to our cultural heritages, and much of that cultural heritage has shaped our identities. And these differences in expected behaviors, manners of interacting, habits, etc. often lead to misunderstandings and even conflict. I believe the same differences in culture impact the interactions in our schools more than we realize, and I believe this is especially the case when we are dealing with power.

Let me remind you at this point that my underlying framework for engaging the topic of power is that of critical theory, and as I said in an earlier blog, critical theory at its most basic is the use of rationality to expose norms, values, and practices—implicit or explicit—that shape an organization and society. The goal in exposing these factors is to free humans from anything that limits their flourishing. In my research, I found that faculty and staff members held significant differences in how they view leadership, and those differences were directly connected to the cultural differences amongst those faculty and staff. I have mentioned some of those differences already in both “Gender and Power” (February 23) and “Theology, Psychology, and Power” (March 23).

And yes, we are beginning to hit a stage of overlap. I think it is challenging to separate out how our cultural heritage has shaped our theological understandings, attitudes, and actions regarding gender (be they conscious or subconscious), and how we exercise and respond to power in our day-to-day lives. I believe I do good, but also difficult, work when I sort through how my cultural heritage has shaped my way of being in this world. As I seek to follow Jesus and walk in a way that builds the kingdom, I need to discern what practices need to be shed, what practices need to stay, and what new practices I need to adopt.

For me, this kind of honest self-reflection often entails discomfort. Because, truthfully, I am quite comfortable continuing in my own way of being and maintaining my identity, especially considering that way of being is cloaked in a particular kind of Christianity. However, I believe the challenge to “die to the old self” speaks very directly to a willingness to question and expose assumptions, values, and practices that, even if well-intended, fall short of fully walking in the full light of the kingdom.

Join me in some reflecting and in exposing some of those norms, values, and practices related to power:

  1. How much of how I enact power relates to my ethnic-cultural story?
  2. How has my family upbringing shaped how I wield, share, and respond to power?
  3. What influence has my church experience had on the way I “do” power in my vocation?
  4. What are the possible cultural factors at play in my school, and how do they affect how power dynamics play out?

I encourage you take these questions on a solo walk, maybe journal some thoughts, and then share them with a trusted, self-reflective soul who is also in leadership. In my experience, if you are serving in a highly homogenous school setting, reflecting on these questions is much harder work, as the assumptions of beliefs, values, and practices are often more entrenched.

Blessings as you follow in the path of finding our identity more and more in the crucified and risen Christ!

– David Loewen

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