Since Martha, the maid, spoke no English, Sara had to learn basic Amharic very quickly. Soon she and Martha had become fast friends and were comparing cultural differences. (Martha, by the way, is the godmother of my new granddaughter, Rebecca, who – I’m sure you will be interested to know – is the world’s cutest, smartest, happiest baby.)
After a strong friendship was forged, Martha explained to Sara that house maids in Ethiopia often assume that one of the perquisites of working for a foreigner is sharing certain possessions. This sharing includes their mistress’s toothbrush. Later in that week at dinner with long-term missionaries Sara was asked about the cultural surprises she had encountered. As she concluded the toothbrush story, Sara noticed a horrified expression on the face of her hostess. The veteran lady missionary had wondered for years why her toothbrush seemed to wear out so much faster in Ethiopia. When I was a kid we went to the movies every Saturday afternoon to watch the cowboy dentist known as Hopalong Cavity. Not only could he sing, he always told the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth.
In my next life I am coming back as a sociologist. I admire psychologists very much but, while individuals are wonderfully amusing to observe, they are too various to provide useful conclusions for long-term reflection. For example, on some enchanted evening a guy is minding his own business and gazing idly across a crowded room. Suddenly his heart is captivated, his breath is taken away, and his brain is fried thin and crispy. Who can understand the way of an eagle in the sky, a serpent on a rock, or a man with a maid (Proverbs 30:19)?
However, it would be nice to understand the actions of groups of people, especially behaviors of acceptance and rejection that flow from springs of conviction running deeper than logic. For years I thought Luther’s observation at Marburg in 1529 that the Zwinglians were “of a different spirit” was only an expression of Brother Martin’s theological spleen. I now believe it is a profound insight. Human beings harbor powerful instincts that are beyond the reach of reason and in some cases beyond the resolution of compromise. The only successful response to great differences seems to be putting great distances between the contending parties. I hope the pilgrim band, known as the Presbyterian Church (USA), is not approaching a fork in the Glory Road where their paths must separate.
After his experiments with “all things in common” (Republic V, 462c), Plato confessed that the distinction between “mine” and “thine” was fixed so deeply in the human psyche that it could not be eliminated. At some point in every life the conviction obtains, “This belongs to me.” Likewise, the mysterious transmogrification of personal identity into social sodality produces the assertion, “That belongs to us.” My self and my group are obvious realities. On the other hand, altruism is not an obvious truism.
When I entered the Presbyterian ministry, the congregational goal was to spend only half the budget locally – calculating the minister’s salary as a local expense. The other half was supposed to go to national and international outreach. The last figures I saw indicated that the average American congregation today spends 85% of its budget on identifiably first person singular and first person plural causes.
As a sociologist my first research project after metempsychosis will concern the perceived (or suspected) gap between two groups in the Presbyterian Church, the conservative proponents of evangelism and the liberal proponents of social action. I will begin by analyzing seminary professors of mission in relation to seminary professors of ethics. I will not study their books and lectures because in my next life I will realize much sooner just how easy it is to put your mouth where your heart is NOT. Rather, I will observe their faith and behavior. In other words, where they put their own blood, sweat, tears, prayers, and money. I would like to know how much and what kind of evangelism is promoted by ethics professors and how much and what kind of social action is effected by mission professors.
The big excitement in our family this week is that sharp-eyed grandmother spotted Rebecca’s first two teeth breaking through. Among the Buna people in Ethiopia, telling the tooth is a matter of life or death. A baby is allowed to live if the lower teeth appear first. If the upper teeth come in first, she is put to death. On the conviction that Our Lord loves all the little children of the world, I will ask the two sets of professors what, if anything, American Presbyterians should do about these African babies.