When Cultures Collide

I have been granted a privilege in being invited to take part in a series of interviews on Aghape TV. But I wonder if I may have gotten myself into trouble last night … you be the judge.

The topic of discussion was the challenges of the next 50 years for the Coptic Church in the Western world. Among many other challenges, I suggested to my genial and longsuffering interviewer that one of the challanges was going to be the clash between cultures in the area of how we do things in the Church.

In Egypt or Sudan, Christians are forced into certain practices just to survive. These practices might include bargaining a price down vehemently, negotiating ruthlessly to gain some sort of advantage in a contract, using contacts and influential friends to get things done, misrepresenting the truth in order to achieve a worthy goal, or the ever popular “koussa” (zucchini), a popular euphemism for a small bribe paid to attain a certain goal. People are driven to these practices, often just to survive, or to maintain their sanity.

I recall the true story of a relative in Egypt who was shuffled from government department to government department for the better part of an afternoon, trying to get some document signed and stamped. At the last office, a minor functionary told him that the office that was authorised to stamp his document was in fact not in Cairo, but in Alexandria, and that he would have to take it there. With some frustration he travelled to Alexandria the next day, only to endure another day of being shuffled from office to office, and finally be told that he had actually come to the wrong place. The right place was definitely the department he had started in in Cairo!

I don’t think I could survive in such a climate. The men in white coats would certainly be called on to deal with my reactions! So I have a great deal of sympathy for those who resort to a little ‘greasing of the palm’ to maintain their sanity, so long as they are simply getting what any sane society would normally take for granted, rather than trying to get some unfair or undeserved advantage or causing loss to another person.

The problem for us stems from any attempts to apply these strategies to how we do things in Church, and especially in Church in the Western world. I can see no place whatsoever for such practices within the Church, whether in Egypt, Sudan or Australia. Within the Church the love, compassion and trust of Christ should and must prevail, or else we are no different to those who without Christ. This is a very serious issue, and cuts to the very heart of who we are as Christians. Keep in mind that the Lord Christ reserved His harshest condemnation for those who were hypocrites, the Pharisees and scribes, for example, for although they possessed the knowledge of the truth, they practiced a lie by not being faithful to it.

What compounds the problem for us is that young Copts who have grown up with the Western sense of right and wrong are often seriously offended when they see their elders employing Egyptian-style tactics to get things done. Who of us with first generation parents has not at some time or other cringed when the parent they went shopping with insisted on bargaining down the fruitshop man to get a discount on the mangoes? Who of us has not been infuriated when the Coptic tradesman promised solemnly on his mother’s grave that he would be there first thing on Monday morning … two weeks ago?

But when it comes to employing these methods within the Church, that is something altogether more serious. The work of God must be done in accordance to the laws of God, and young Copts know this: they are not stupid. What is more, they see other Aussies, non-Copts and even non-Christians who are quite capable of living their lives happily without the need for lying or seeking unfair advantage or using contacts to gain advantage over others. So when they see people within the Church, even servants within the Church doing such things, they begin to question the Church that produced such people. If those people are respected within the Church community, that makes things even worse, for that means that their way of doing things is accepted and even honoured.

This creates a conflict in the mind of the youth that is very difficult to resolve. Does she stick to her principles, or to her Church?

To me it seems horrendous that our Church should ever subject its youth to such a dilemma. I recall with anxiety the words of Christ:

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble , it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)

All of us who serve in any capacity whatsoever in the Church have a very serious responsibility to ensure that what we do is not just the right thing, but also done in the right way. If we in the Church are unable to adhere to the most basic ideals of honesty and integrity, how can we expect our congregation to do so in their own personal affairs, as is compulsory for the authentic Christian?

As Copts in Australia, we have the opportunity to pick out the best of both our cultures, Egyptian and Australian, and discard the worst of both cultures. There are many beautiful aspects of Egyptian culture that can enrich our lives, such as the warm and generous tradition of hospitality to others, the closeness and mutual support within the family unit, among many others. But the practices listed above seem to me to be quite clearly in the ‘worst’ category, and certainly, they are not in harmony with the words of the Bible that we all revere.

So what do you think. Am I going to get in hot water?

Fr Ant

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14 Replies to “When Cultures Collide”

  1. Fr. Antonions, after kissing your blessed hand,

    thank you for your thoughtful, sincere, and relevant writing.

    A quick introduction for the sake of content, I am an Egyptian copt studying in the US now, I’ve only been here 2 years but have lead a privileged life back in Cairo.

    I managed a business for 4 years and therefore have intimate knowledge of these practices you speak of on many levels, in Egypt it isn’t just an advantage to use bribery in business, it is a necessity! Did you know that bribery is tax deductible in Egypt? The article is under “Ekramiyat” which means tips and can amount to up to 5% of your income, now who exactly “tips” in a water purification business up to L.E 100,000?

    I only have one contention with a single point you had made in your entire argument, I pray you take it under natural assumption that I agree with everything else you have said.

    Your point about your understanding the false practices we as Christians participate in so long as they are for the purpose of receiving what is rightfully ours and are in no way meant for an unfair deal or to harm others is naive at best Father. To participate in a harmful system is to hurt others, to not stand up against corruption and lies is to harm others, to let bribery and lies embed themselves deeper into the fabric of Egyptian society is very harmful to all. Egypt has reached a point where if by some miracle the corrupt government were to be entirely replaced and attempt to put in place an honest and fair system the people wouldn’t know what to do with it. Bribery is in our blood to such an extent that it’s affected how we deal with our children… Your average Egyptian parent now “bribes” the child with gifts or threats in order to coerce them into doing something. It is our role and duty as Christians to stand up against this whenever and wherever we can!

    If the entire society is killing one another (not an alien concept in our world) and I am ordered and advised to kill or be killed, what is the Christian thing to do? Can I stand before Christ’s seat of judgement and tell him “it’s just the way things are… everybody’s doing it to survive, I HAD to!”?

    I realize that our blessed church in her wisdom has the concept of oikonomia, and we can understand that certain circumstances that people find themselves in make it very difficult/impossible to do the right thing, but I also realize that Christianity and Christ are in the difficult/impossible business. And we shouldn’t hold our selves up to regular moral standards as if we were any other religion or just some ethical system comparable to a moral atheist’s code of conduct. We are followers of Christ, there is much understanding but there is very little tolerance for watered down morality.

    I also understand that I am privileged and my decision to leave my company and Egypt was easy for me, and the option to leave Egypt is not available for most… but each culture will have its challenges in different ways, if it’s corruption in Egypt it could be materialism or false patriotism in the US or Australia. What is our willingness to be unpopular, impractical, and standing against this false ‘reality’ in-order to declare the true reality? The reality of Christ!

    Like all sins, it comes back to a lack of faith, do we believe in Christ’s words when he promised to take care of us and watch over us if we are to trust him? Are we taking him seriously when he says that each hair on our head is counted? Are we willing to suffer daily for what is right without the dramatic flair of the martyr? Being martyred daily for the decisions we make not to take the easy way out?

    I know I lack this faith and make wrong decisions every day, but I pray that one day my faith will catch up with my ideals and I will have the strength to walk the walk.

    Thank you again Father…

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  2. As a hypocrite, and the critique of hypocrisy, I will both feel a cold stab of guilt, but also relief that perhaps an exhortion for integrity will surface and perhaps be talked about. St. Paul charged St. Timothy, to exhort, rebuke, instruct… I think we should expect any pastor to keep the Church pure, rather than it’s perception of purity.

    Christians sometomes need to be rebuked of what they came to believe was normal and exhorted to good. We should forsake the ways of the world and hold on to God. We all know it; some of us (esp. me) have kidded ourselves that God needs us.

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  3. It’s not tolerance Karim, but sympathy. All leaders in the Bible that has a lengthy part dedicated to him or her, have things which make you ponder whether that was the ideal approach or not to the circumstance that arose upon them. We are called for a constant renewal of the mind- and transformation. You seem to think that you have ideals you wish to strive to, but I assure you during your “striving” you will see more of your failure, and have these very ideals develop more and more towards the ideals of Christ. We should expect that our leaders with us will experience the same transformation that they exhort to us; they aren’t dead in their spiritual struggles. They haven’t conqueered. We should have leaders that are growing in the grace of God; not pretending to already have completed his/her race.

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  4. Fr. Antonious,

    I most definitely agree with you on your point.. but there is something that I’m struggling with. In my recent trip to Egypt, I have experienced a lot of these things first hand, and let’s just say, it wasn’t a happy trip. The corruption and impurity that existed in the country I called home was so unbearable, it brought me to tears.

    At the beginning of my trip, right after I was shocked with the truth, I was foolish enough to think I could actually change something. I quickly got over that fantasy, and so instead, I tried to correct the paths of those closest to me, my family. That too was foolish. They don’t see that it’s wrong. The corruption they reside in is how they live, it’s how they grew up and it’s been tattooed into their personalities. How then, can they not do this inside their churches? It’s how they live! Just like we teach our kids please and thank you, they teach their kids ‘how to survive’. After I lost hope in trying to change the oppinions of my family members, two weeks into my two month ‘holiday’, I wished I was home and continued to until the day I arrived at the airport.

    During this time, I talked to my family about coming and living in Australia. They always said the same thing, ‘we can’t leave our church’. They didn’t think our Australian Churches could compare. Jesus lives in our churches too, and so does the corruption I suppose, but on a MUCH MUCHHH smaller scale.

    Okay, sorry about dragging on, this is my actual point. If this way of life is accepted outside of church, then it’s obviously going to exist in in Churches too. People aren’t going to switch their personalities on and off… In order for it not to reach our church communities, it shouldn’t be accepted outside of church, in Egypt or Australia, or any other country in the world. Right and Wrong shouldn’t change according to where you live.

    Monika.

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  5. Thankyou all for your thoughts on this topic. I am really interested in knowing how people view it. Of course we have a responsibility to strive for the highest of Christian ideals in our personal lives and in the life of our community. I agree that right and wrong are not ‘relative’ concepts.

    But having done a little research into the area of Ethics i must say I am much more forgiving and much slower to condemn than once I was. There always so many circumstances to take into account, so that very, very few issues are black and white in life. For example, would you condemn the poor theif who steals a loaf of bread to save the lives of his starving children?

    Having been exposed to the blessing of the high ethical standard expected in western democracies, we have an advantage that many in this world do not. When we see a standard being accepted in Church that is ethically inferior to that accepted at the local RSL Club we clearly have a very, very big problem. We should never accept this. But neither, I think, should be condemn those in other countries whose ethical standards at Church are far superior to those of the society around them. And when they, over there, manage to maintain the same standards that we hold to over here, that is nothing short of heroic!

    What do you think?

    Fr Ant

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  6. If we deviate from our black and white, won’t everything just be a blur?

    I lived in an ideal world, where an ideal Christian knew the difference between right and wrong. In Egypt, what I found was that few drew a line. A whole lot of people lived within this blurry area… Where alot of wrong wasn’t really wrong… wrong was ok. I’m not talking about fathers with starving children; I’m talking about lying, cheating, stealing, and horrible horrible treatment of people in lower social classes by people who live a comfortable lifestyle. They do this because everyone else does it, and if they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t live a comfortable lifestyle. I can understand that they must do that to keep their head above water… But in an ideal world, an ideal Christian should do everything to fight evil, even if it leads them to poverty. Are we supposed to care about materialism? A father with starving children should have the faith that God will provide.. What’s the worst that poverty can do? Open up the gates of Paradise sooner?

    Of course I speak as an outsider, of an ideal world that we may never see. It is however possible, the Book of Life tells us so. We can do all things through Christ – all that’s needed are prayers and faith. Why do we need grey when we have that?

    Everything may not be Black and White in the sight of a merciful, righteous, fair and complete God. But to man, I believe that black and white are essential to living with Christ.

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  7. It’s so easy to judge people in Egypt…

    If the child in your arms that YOU nurtured and God gave you to look after is hungry, and you had no money what would you do…? Its not just poverty in terms of materialism Monika its poverty of the spirit, if all you can think about is getting your next piece of bread for your son or daughter, would you think twice about stealing? If there was NO OTHER way?

    We will be judged much more harshly then they lets look at ourselves before judging .

    I think if we were applying it for ourselves black and white yes, to apply black and white on others i don’t agree.

    What are your thoughts?

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  8. It’s not up to me judge people, it’s up to me to decide what’s right and wrong.
    Stealing is wrong.
    A poor person stealing is still stealing, so it’s still wrong.
    I can excuse a poor person for stealing bread, but I cannot say it was the right thing to do.

    Now in saying that, in no way, shape or form am I saying that God would judge a poor person stealing bread like he’d judge a rich theif, hungry for more. All I’m saying is if we don’t apply the same principle to all people, our sight will not be clear. It just seems like a dangerous thing to do.

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  9. Hello Fr Antonios , God bless you ,you hit the nail on the head ..we can not deny there is cultural differences , the question now how we handle it and get around it ????we can not have two standards the church at all levels including the old congregations have a way of life inside the church and different one outside of it ….trust , democracy ,dignity , respect , transparency and openness would be lost !!!so i believe it is all in the hands of the church at all levels” which i see it difficult to be fixed at this stage because the bishop and most of the priests were born and grew oversease ” so it is difficult to close the gap between the two ways of life and get us and our childern and our whole church safely in the next decades …it is a complete way of life rather doing right or wrong ….may God strengthen our faith , hope and love till thy kingdom come , amen

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  10. i attended the mass yesterday 17th august 2008 in our local church “St Mary and St Stevens ” i was there with my wife and child at 7.45 and i found a couple of young children and an adult running around i believe they were preparing the altar …i had my child who got his Tonia and went to the altar but came back and put it in his bag and returned to give a hand with the others …at 8.00 one of the priests turned up up aaaaaaaaaaaaaand the church started …so far not too bad , but from that time till 9.30 those deacons had been turning up in a group of two and others in individual basis and all of the them got permission to dress as deacons except the last two , i believe one at 9.20 and the other at 9.30 who i believe they had been turned away ..the question now that we as parents , we are on trouble now as our young child just a few weeks ago heard the announcement from father Antonios if they want to dress it is between 7.45 and 8.15 and no later than that and we got him up with difficulty this morning to prepare himself to church , he is entirely confused and this will make it difficult for us to get him early to the church ????we are confused too and we wonder is it one of the cultural problems of punctuality???!!! might be sort of flexibility ??!! could be i reckon there is an attitude problems at all levels because there are alot of problems around of such kind ??!!might be something else it needs clarification from the church ???? may God maintain and improve in this part of the world our spiritual life within our way of life in one positive blessed standard in every thing we do and without any confusion to those least , amen ….

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  11. Seems for some it is very hard to adapt in new environmental culture and do the right thing by others ….last Sunday during the mass in our local church St Mary at Mt Druit and as usual as everybody trying to do own best to be attentive and not to be destructed by any means from own self by thinking about own problems during the mass or being destructed from anything around in that holy environment of the church , unfortunately some i believe servants pushing children to kneel down according to our ritual part of the mass, and one of the deacons always carry own child move up and down during the mass and in his way thought he is rectifying those problems with the young deacons which i believe things on the contrary are getting worst besides the harm he is doing to the rest of the congregation from this continual destruction of going up and down passing through congregation and not only that but specifically that Sunday even the old deacons got a bit of those instructions as the servant went to the old Deacons all of them on the top telling them to kneel down !!!!!????? most of them reacted and refused, i believe it was too early in that part of the mass to kneel down ??? i wonder why was that all ???? i believe that bunch old deacons are great one , cooperative among one another and know exactly what are they doing ??? i believe even if there is a constructive suggestion to be done for improvement and the person really in charge why don, t you do it in those regular meetings with the deacons ??? also if the person concerned about those knee lings down of the children why the problem not to be addressed on Sunday schools for improvement and please no need to distract the rest of the church congregation and others ??? i am sorry pal and forgive me >>>

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  12. Dear Fr Antonios,

    You are not going to believe it, but I was doing a search on one of my relatives Mark Koussas and you came up as a reference!

    Anyway, I read your opening comments and I found them quite thought provoking, but must be brought to attention of all. I wish you well with the feedback you attain.

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  13. The other day we were talking about our christian orthodox marriage and it was a debate, is our church marriage a contract or a covenant ???to tell the truth we got nowhere !!!!! i wonder if anybody knows so we can share and learn a bit more ??? i wonder if abouna Antonios can elaborate on this vital issue specially for the youth ….somebody came up with the word company and complicated for us the whole issue ????!!!

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  14. our identity is Australian Coptic Community, no need of mentioning nationalities because we are part of this land and part of this community and we look after one another and we pay our taxe4s here etc .and the other factor we do not want more divisions in our churches …. …we live in this land ..when we pray our liturgy we mention this land , the crops , the waters and we ask for the support of our rulers here and not in Egypt or Sudan or anywhere else …please strengthen our identity and support the land and the community in which we are living , sharing and supporting one another ….please look after your own backyard first by collecting donations for the needy , orphans and all good causes and then support any overseas good cause …. i was astonished not even one word of support of our nation and country yesterday to support and share the sorrow of the bushfire and the disaster around and those who were dead…on the contrary we heard at the end of the mass from an announcement by the priest that there is an appeal by selling ice cream for collecting money for the orphanage in Egypt …i thought for the fire disaster appeal of our nation …please we have to wake up before it is too late !!!??????please look after our own backyard ….

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