“There is a story by Kukrit Pramoj, former prime minister and leading Buddhist scholar from Thailand, based on the New Testament account of a man born blind whom he called Simon. The story describes the difficult life of blind young Simon and how, upon the death of his father, life became desperate. Simon began to beg in the streets to support his widowed mother. One day a fruit vendor named Ruth took pity on him. She led him to the market where he was able to increase his income. Through Ruth’s eyes and kind descriptions the world became full of color and beauty to him for the first time. Eventually they fell in love.
One day Ruth heard that a man named Jesus from Nazareth would be passing by. The miraculous reputation of this Jesus had preceded him so that when he came near Simon cried out, “Lord! Son of David! Please help me to see!” And he was healed.
Turning towards the one he most wanted to see, Simon was disappointed to find that Ruth was nowhere to be found. But what did he see? The filth of a poor Asian market, debris in muddy piles, bodies of animals lying unburied emitting a stench never noticed before, crowds of people bathed in sweat, vendors’ fatigued faces, cruelty, malnourishment, and death.
Closing his eyes he retraced his way home, but the ancient, toothless woman who answered the door praising God for her son’s healing repulsed him. Making his way to Ruth’s home where she was hiding, Simon insisted that she show herself. At last she opened the door, but his joy turned to immediate fear and disgust. There stood his beloved Ruth so hideously deformed by a burn that he could not stand to look at her. Finally he saw Jesus crucified. Falling on his knees Simon cried, “Oh God, give me back my blindness!”
I find Kukrit’s story both jarring and revealing, and frankly I often need that. How quickly I am absorbed by my own cultural environment of comfort and optimism and forget that for many people suffering is their daily reality of life. Culture is where the blind Simons of the world must somehow survive in the contradiction between the promises of a healing Jesus and the present cruelties of the human condition. As Gustavo Gutierrez said, “How do you tell the poor that God really loves them when everything in their life points in the other direction?”
As a Christ follower in a broken world, I live in the tension between survival in the battlefield culture of the street and seeking refuge in the sanctuary culture of the saved. Both can become completely absorbing. Both can prevent me from following God’s priorities in the world. In the words of Lucien Legrand, this is the tension of the “puzzling tangle of intercultural dependence and counterculture, of osmosis and protest.” I have chosen to call it the challenge of living faithfully in the tension between cultural osmosis and cultural alienation.
If nothing else, my years as a missionary taught me that God had plenty of work to do in my heart as I sought to partner with what God was already doing in the Buddhist culture of northeast Thailand. I found it impossible to live faithfully in the cultural tension between osmosis and alienation on my own or even as a missionary family. With our Thai sisters and brothers we had to become something known in anthropology as communitas, companions together sharing, not the bread but the rice of life,4 and the mutual experience of God’s grace at work in us as we sought to follow God’s leading together. The thesis of my paper is that through Christian communitas the church lives faithfully in the tension between cultural osmosis and alienation and is continually transformed to God through partnership with the missio Dei already at work in the culture wherein God has placed her.”
-Excerpt from Paul DeNeui. Christian Communitas in the Missio Dei: Living Faithfully in the Tension Between Cultural Osmosis and Alienation. Ex Auditu. Vol. 23, 2007, 92-107.