There are many challenges awaiting missionaries when they go forth to serve Christ in foreign lands, the language barrier being one of the first tests he faces, for how can they understand the Gospel if they can’t understand what you’re saying. Harsh climates and unsanitary living conditions are also waiting for those whose desire is to reach the unreached. Besides all of these the persevering missionary will also discover an alien culture, with values not only different from their own, but also one that just doesn’t think the same way you do.
I know a man and his family currently serving the Lord in Benin in West Africa. Along with his language learning he is trying to broaden his understanding of the people by understanding their fables, and he has found that they have many of the same stories we have, but they vary greatly in the telling. We can illustrate this difference here by comparing both ours and their versions of the fable of the tortoise and the hare.
I’d be surprised if someone reading this today did not know the tale. In a nutshell, the tortoise and the hare have a race; the hare, being swift, soon outpaces the tortoise, decides he has time to rest, falls asleep, and wakes up in time to discover that the tortoise had passed him by and has won the race. But in Benin, the story goes as follows; the tortoise and the hare are going to have a race, but the tortoise knows he can’t beat the hare, so he gets four of his identical twin brothers to hide all along the race course. The race begins and the hare zooms ahead and after a few minutes turns and calls to the tortoise, “I am way ahead of you now!” At this moment one of the brother turtles emerges from the bushes and says, “No you’re not. Here I am ahead of you.” The hare jumps forward and soon passes the second tortoise. This scenario repeats itself until the last brother turtle appears at the finish line and wins the race.
Now let’s consider the morals taught by each of these fables. The one we know reinforces perseverance on the part of the turtle and the results of the brash overconfidence of the hare. The moral of the Beninese version seems to be to outthink your adversary by dishonesty and cheating. According to this missionary this is just one example out of many that follow the same pattern. What makes this even more interesting is the low tolerance for thievery by the natives; they will beat and humiliate to the extreme anyone caught stealing. Their cultural mindset seems to be that it’s OK to try, but don’t get caught. Come to think of it, despite our own fable about perseverance I still know a few around here who like the Beninese way better.
But it is all a reminder to us that the effects of sin on people are universal; thieves and cheats know no national boundaries. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) It is the reason missionaries go forth spanning the globe. It is the reason people go out street witnessing in your hometown. And if you think understanding a foreign mindset is challenging, you should talk to an American who’s bound for hell and thinks he’s alright. He has the confidence of the hare and believes he has all the time in the world.