After nearly two months of living in Zambia, I’m starting to know my way around and starting to feel comfortable here. But as time goes on, I’ve started noticing many similarities between life and culture here and life and culture in the United States. Granted there are many differences. In the States, people don’t yell “mzungu” at me everywhere I go, you don’t normally see men out and about drunk/drinking before 8AM, people don’t come up to your car and ask for a lift, people I’ve never met don’t try to take my picture because I’m white, only knowing English allows you to communicate with the vast majority of people you’ll meet, cars have headlights and break lights, I can get in my car whenever I want to and go wherever I want, the public education system produces people who can think creatively and critically (even though it has it’s flaws), I have my handy iPhone to look up answers to random questions and text/call my friends anytime I want, and cars are driven on the right hand side of the road just to name a few.
But the similarities are present as well. Yesterday’s Chipolopolo qualifying match reminded me of an SEC football game—people painted up and covered from head to toe in their team’s colors, making all kinds of noise all day long. I also see glimpses of home in all the friendly Zambians who greet you and wave, even if you’ve never met. And Zambians love fried food…just like we do in Alabama. However, at home we don’t eat fried caterpillars and here they do (I tried them last week and didn’t think they were that bad!), but I did go to a restaurant that served fried chicken with nshima. Zambians also love their sugar and sweets. I thought we liked sweet tea in the South—here, one might put 6 or 7 spoonfuls of sugar in their tea (granted, here it’s hot tea). Although it’s definitely magnified here, I see a similarity to the States in that one’s title and perceived status is important.
The biggest similarity I see between the South and Zambia is the presence of cultural Christianity. Having spent my entire life in the “Bible Belt,” I’m used to seeing churches of all shapes, sizes, and color on every corner; it’s the same way here. Anywhere you go, you’ll pass several churches along the way—there are some of denominations I’ve never even heard of before. Each time you meet a new person, it’s very likely they’ll ask where you go to church; the church one belongs to is a big part of their identity.
While going to church and being a part of a body of believers is a good, necessary thing, it isn’t the only thing that makes you a Christian. Again, spending my life in the Bible Belt, I’ve met a lot of people who say they’re Christian and tell me about the church they go to and all that but whose lives don’t reflect being a Christ follower in the slightest. Going to a building, singing a few songs, and trying to stay awake during a sermon each Sunday doesn’t make you a Christian. Instead, it’s a relationship with Christ.
Cultural Christianity is one of the main reasons that nonbelievers want nothing to do with the church, as it creates hypocrisy. I’ve been reading No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu about his experiences during and after apartheid in South Africa. In describing the persecutors Tutu writes, “They read the Bible, they went to church—how they went to church!…Our people were very often left perplexed by this remarkable fact, that those who treated them so abominably were not heathen but claimed to be fellow Christian who read the same Bible.” This can ring true for the Church today! Granted, it might not be as extreme as the horrors of apartheid, but we are still responsible for treating people “abominably.” We don’t live lives, as Colossians 1 says, “worthy of the Lord.”
At home in the States, it is sometimes a bit more difficult to see cultural Christianity without really getting to know someone. Here, it’s much closer to the surface. Churches are crowded on Sunday mornings and services last well into the afternoon. The singing is beautiful and the prayers loud and powerful. However, there’s a disconnect between the head and the heart—they have the Bible memorized and know a lot of facts, but a lot of times it has no impact on their lives.
It’s easy to say that people here just don’t understand and start trying to figure out how this problem can be remedied. But the truth is, it’s not just in Zambia where this is happening. As the Church Universal, it is imperative that we evaluate whether or not our lives reflect what we say we believe and whether or not we’re living our day-to-day lives in a way that is pleasing to God.
It is about entering a story. It is about orienting our lives around what God has been doing throughout history. And it is about being sent forth into the world to help write the next chapter of that story. Wandering the world in search of meaning and purpose, we may not even realize how desperately we need a story. But we know we’ve found something priceless when we find ourselves in God’s narrative.