JAC Online

Biblical Justice, Human Rights, and Advocacy
by Major Robert Evans

While studying Cultural Anthropology during my undergraduate degree I was given an observation assignment to observe people reading to determine the cultural rules that applied specifically to reading on a suburban train.  At first I didn’t really understand the exercise and struggled to identify any such rules as I awkwardly watched people reading their iPads, newspapers and books on an hour long train trip during the morning rush in Melbourne.  It wasn’t until I switched roles from observer to reader on the return trip that the exercise made sense and the ‘rules’ became very evident when my personal space as a passenger trying to read my book became violated by music playing from mobile devises, intrusive conversations, phones ringing and unruly school students nearby.  This simple exercise revealed unconscious cultural rules or values that determine what acceptable and unacceptable behaviour looks like in everyday situations.  Living and working cross-culturally in a foreign country for an extended period of time, where you are a cultural minority, also has a way of exposing deeply rooted cultural values that are intrinsically a part of who you are as a culturally conditioned person.  Often without any real conscious awareness until those values are challenged or violated by your new environment.  When your perception of what is normal or right or just is confronted by a contrasting worldview, it is natural to push back against the offending values or attempt to impose the way things should be from your point of view.  Our respective cultural backgrounds shape the way we think and respond to the same stimuli and can cause people who have the same information to arrive at very different conclusions (Livermore 2013, 78).  For the past three years I have been serving in the Solomon Islands as the leader of The Salvation Army, where my cultural reality has been challenged by very different cultural values.  As a cross-cultural worker I find myself almost daily having to discern when to accept the way things are, when to give the culture a bit of a nudge and when to draw a line in the sand and present what I consider to be a ‘better way’.  In most cases, this cultural tension has little consequence to my personal values or to those of my host culture.  However, when conflicting cultural values result in the violation of ‘universal human rights’ the consequences of action or inaction requires very careful consideration. Anthropologist Charles Kraft states, “At the core of culture and, therefore, at the very heart of all human life, lies the structuring of the basic assumptions, values, and allegiances in terms of which people interpret and behave.   These assumptions, values, and allegiances we call “worldview” (Kraft 1996, 11).  Our worldview forms the interpretive framework for how we see ourselves and interact with the world around us.  It provides a set of lenses through which we view and interpret reality (Kraft 1996, 56) and respond to or within the indigenous structures where cultural values are manifested through traditions and customs that conflict with alternative worldviews.  This often presents a gap between local cultural values and universal human rights, as listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Such a gap can cause enormous conflict for cross-cultural workers attempting to advocate for human rights by challenging the cultural structures that violate those rights.  In the scope of this essay, I will endeavour to unpack the nature of this cultural gap, and offer a biblically informed pathway towards addressing the associated complexities and challenges for those endeavouring to work in this dynamic space. 

Identifying such a gap infers that “the inherent dignity and … equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights” 1948) is not a value universally embraced or expressed by all cultures.  Even though the United Nations asserts, “all United Nations member States have ratified at least one of the nine core international human rights treaties, and 80 percent have ratified four or more, giving concrete expression to the universality of the UDHR and international human rights”  (“Human Rights Law” 2015, emphasis mine).  The aspirations of the thirty articles outlined in the UDHR may be shared by all 193 member states and even ratified in part, but their application is far from universal.  For example, in my current cultural context, the Solomon Islands has only ratified five out of the eighteen International Human Rights Treaties  (“- OHCHR Dashboard” n.d.), despite being a signatory to the UDHR.  The treaties not yet ratified by the Solomon Islands Government are areas where attention to basic human rights is notably lacking; in particular, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (People With Disabilities Solomon Islands 2015).  The Bangkok Declaration hinted that Asian states considered the imposition of alien values interference in their internal affairs and included a controversial statement that the Asian states “recognise that while human rights are universal in nature, they must be considered in the context of … national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds” (Cerna 1994, 743).  A round table discussion on human rights in Amman in 1993 recommended that “the universality of human rights requires respect for the diversity of faiths and cultures” (Cerna 1994, 744), evident by a number of Muslim states that express specific reservations about the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the grounds of incompatibility with Islamic Shari’a law (Cerna 1994, 748).  The clear gap that exists between cultural values and human rights is a complex space that plays into the concerns of Western states that the absolute universality of rights and freedoms is at risk of being diminished by conflicting regional, religious and cultural variables (Cerna 1994, 741). 

This gap exists in part due to the lack of understanding of the indigenous structures that form cultural values and a resistance to integrate international standards that inform human rights.  When one worldview is elevated above another, without seeking to genuinely understand the underlying assumptions behind both, it is difficult to make sense of and engage with the cultural norms from either side (Kraft 1996, 46).  Whether this leads to an impasse or conflict within the gap, the outcome is often tokenism and tolerance at one end of the scale or isolation and imposition at the other end.  Another contributor to this gap is the incompatibility between some deeply held cultural values and universal human rights.  Even when there is a clear understanding of the underlying assumptions, there are times when the two spaces simply do not and cannot coexist without serious compromise from both sides.  In this case, there is limited opportunity for change and any attempt to alter the indigenous structures runs the risk of cultural instability, as international standards may not fit that particular culture, no matter how much we want them to (Englehart 2000, 564).  This does not mean we should abandon these people to the abuse of their fundamental rights as human beings made in the image of God, but acknowledges that bridging this gap will be much more complicated than culturally sensitive dialogue and diplomacy.  Furthermore, this gap is fuelled by unequal power relationships where both internal and external funds are used as a tool to ensure conformity to indigenous structures or coerce compliance to international standards.  In Honiara, the concern about future funding being used by donor countries to coerce Solomon Islands into changing its position on same-sex marriage was controversially expressed by the Governor General during his Queen’s Birthday speech in 2018  (“SAME-SEX MARRIAGE COMING - Solomon Star News” 2018).  The Governor General’s speech was strongly condemned by the Australian High Commission, who called upon the Solomon Islands Christian Association (SICA) to publicly denounce his comments, without any real understanding of the cultural values that actually supported the offending comments. The starting point to understanding why this gap exists is mutual and respectful dialogue that is equally committed to self-discovery as it is to learning about the other, while avoiding the temptation to come to the table with all the answers or manipulative ultimatums. 

“Christian workers should exegete organizational culture with the same passion that they exegete the host culture. Such studies should result in better understanding, better adjustment, better communication, better critical contextualization, and most importantly, better relationships.”  (Steffen and Douglas 2008, 197) 

It has been very interesting to engage in this space in the Solomon Islands where the human rights priorities of diplomatic missions and NGO’s are focused around developing gender equality and ending family violence.  Having originated from a culture where these issues have a very high importance, it is quite confronting to observe indigenous attitudes, customs and behaviours that seem to violate the basic rights of women in this nation.  The occurrence of domestic violence, sexual assault and depravation of education and employment opportunities for women is alarming and demands a response.  However, some of the approaches by cultural outsiders to address these important issues, especially in the area of gender equality, illustrate the complexities and challenges of working in the gap between the rights of women and the cultural values that violate them.  Local women gather to attend workshops and conferences where an alternative cultural vision for gender roles and relationships is presented, elevating individual rights above cultural values.  These women are captivated and inspired by such a vision, only to return to their indigenous family and social structures that elevate cultural values above individual rights and view equality as somewhat of a threat.  When cultural insiders feel that international standards are being imposed upon their indigenous structures, positioning ‘rights above values’, it evokes a reaction that can cause these indigenous structures to become further isolated from international standards in order to reposition their ‘values above rights’ and preserve their social order.  When cultural isolation occurs, it only serves to further perpetuate human mistreatment and deprives indigenous people of the opportunity for cultural transformation.  Whereas, when international standards are imposed it causes cultural displacement for those who have stepped outside of cultural norms because the espoused human rights have not been fully embraced and integrated as a cultural value in everyday life.  Engleheart makes a related observation that cultural differences can be claimed as justification of human rights abuses, while deflecting criticism by labelling it as cultural imperialism (Engleheart 2000, 566); thus widening the gap between cultural values and human rights, and perpetuating human mistreatment and cultural displacement.

When it comes to addressing the appalling rates of domestic violence in the Solomon Islands, the same process is required to avoid the manifestation of Engleheart’s astute observation.  An exclusively human rights driven approach to domestic violence risks avoiding the necessity of wrestling with the underlying cultural values that drive this behaviour and defaults to simply declaring it to be wrong.  Yet, slogans, campaigns and legislation alone are making little difference in changing the behaviour of men in this country.  After eleven rape cases in four months in 2018, the then Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) Commissioner Matthew Varley, an Australian expat, lamented, “I really don’t know what else to say to the men of this country” and suggested “I think we really need to be serious on our conversation about the culture and the mindset of the men in this country – 11 rapes in 4 months is unacceptable” (Ragaruma 2018).  In response to the concerning trends in domestic violence, World Vision has developed a powerful program called ‘Channels of Hope for Gender’ that targets men in particular and churches in general with the purpose of changing flawed cultural and religious beliefs about women; because belief drives behaviour.  This is where bridging the gap between cultural values and human rights through a robust dialogical relationship is critical to achieving cultural transformation!  The authors of ‘Crucial Conversations’ assert that “People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool – even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs” (Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler 2012, 24).  Participating in this type of dialogue “does not mean that we tread softly and do not engage each other on the roots of our failure as societies” (Maggay 2005, 90).  Instead, it is a strong form of internal advocacy that endeavours to engage the local population in reframing their cultural thinking to understand, that in this case, “neither gender possesses the divine image in isolation from the other” and that “when the dignity and rights of women are denied, the divine image in men is diminished (Marshall 2001, 60).  Mutual engagement has more hope of stimulating ‘aha’ moments that challenge and change beliefs than imposing standards that judge behaviours through a foreign cultural lens. 

The role of the cross-cultural worker in this context is somewhat prophetic in nature, insofar as “the prophetic task is to unmask the current paradigm … while also providing an alternative vision” of the possibility of a different future, instead of enforcing another worldview (Bergsma 2020, l. 863).  One of the ironies of engaging opposing ideologies through open dialogue is the more convinced you are that you are right and the harder you push your view, the more likely others will become resistant to it, especially if their contrasting convictions are as strong as yours (Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler 2012, 144).  This is a particular challenge for someone with my personality and temperament, as I am a passionate person who finds it difficult to temper my indignation against injustice.  However, my previous experiences of interfaith dialogue and current involvement in cross-cultural mission and ministry has taught me that the deeper my conviction is about an issue the more guarded I need to be against imposing my point of view and the more willing I need to be to build bridges of mutual dialogue that deepen my own understanding of the other point of view (Pinnock 2015, 204).  Therefore, a posture of humility is an essential prerequisite to entering and bridging this challenging and complex gap.  I saw this powerfully demonstrated recently during an interview between Peter Vander Meulen and Jack Dekkinga, an American Evangelical Donald Trump supporter.  Peter’s posture of humility in this interview opened up a respectful and insightful dialogue with a man whose cultural values clearly conflicted with his own.  Yet, he skilfully navigated the gap between opposing worldviews in this context to reveal the underlying assumptions and values behind an Evangelical Christian’s support of arguably the most divisive US President in my lifetime.  It is essential that anyone wanting to engage in transformational dialogue is open to learning, having their own biases challenged and even the possibility of changing their views.  Jim Ife reminds us that “dialogue, by its very nature, is a two-way process, and anyone wishing to engage in an issue as this cannot start from a non-negotiable position” (Ife 2012, 112). 

As previously stated, working in this gap begins with mutual dialogue.  It then requires finding common ground to feed into the conversation in order to begin bridging the gap. 

“Mutual purpose is the entry condition of dialogue.  Find a shared goal, and you have both a good reason and a healthy climate for talking”  (Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler 2012, 77).

Despite the diversity of cultural values, religious beliefs and political views that contribute to this gap, we share a common humanity as human beings created in the image of God that transcends our differences.  This is especially true for the three major monotheistic world religions that have common roots in the Abrahamic faith.  Judaism, Islam and Christianity share a belief in the Creator God, who created humankind in His image and whose love and justice extends to all people.  Though these shared beliefs and their ethical implications are expressed differently and are frequently the source of much conflict (Hollenbach 1982, 99-100), there is still enough common ground to engage in meaningful dialogue.  I experienced this first-hand when I was invited to attend The Conference of World Religions in 2015 by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association in Langwarrin, Victoria.  The purpose of the conference was to bring together religious leaders from different faith traditions in the spirit of peace, mutual understanding and respect.  It was our shared values that brought us together not our theological differences.  Hollenbach asserts that in all three religions, “there are strong scriptural mandates for a universal respect for the dignity of both those inside and those outside the community of shared faith” (Hollenbach 1982, 99).  Even those outside of any faith tradition still share a common humanity as global citizens with the UDHR offering a kind of creed or manifesto in place of Scripture as a secular foundation for the inherent value and dignity of every human being.  This is our common ground, creating a point of connection for mutual dialogue to affirm the dignity of humanity and address issues of mutual concern when that dignity is violated (The General of The Salvation Army 2018, 21). 

Building on this common ground through mutual dialogue requires digging a little deeper within the culture to discover specific shared values, beyond our common humanity.  Are there deeply held cultural values that we can connect with?  What are the underlying assumptions of these cultural values that intersect with the human rights issue under discussion?  Referring back to my current ministry context in the Solomon Islands, the cultural value of ‘wantok’ offers a helpful illustration of a potential shared value that can build on our common ground.  Wantok means ‘one talk’ and refers to a group of people who share the same local language and tribal roots.  A Solomon Islander’s wantok provides them with interconnected social, cultural, religious, economic and ceremonial networks, that, “based on collective responsibility, traditional practices include obligation by the community to look after the needs of all; a social security provision coined “one common basket”” (Ward 2020, l. 2808).  Unfortunately, over time the idea of wantok has strayed from its cultural integrity and has become a source of corruption with indigenous people exploiting their wantoks for personal gain instead of the collective good.  For example; some politicians favour their wantoks with government funds to secure votes, instead of open tendering processes wantoks are awarded development projects and grants, and wantoks provide a form of nepotism for employment and education opportunities.  Wantok and corruption have almost become synonymous terms in the Solomon Islands, particularly from the vantage point of expatriates observing these corrupt practices while serving in this country.  The indigenous structures elevate this distorted cultural value of wantok above the wellbeing of the community through the misuse of resources and exploitation of the local population.  Responding to this human rights issue could involve the punitive enforcement of international standards to directly address corrupt behaviours, which certainly has its place.  Alternatively, finding common ground in the gap between the abuse of the cultural value of wantok and exploited human rights by corruption opens a doorway for mutual dialogue to rediscover the original cultural intent of wantok that can be embraced as a shared value and used as a platform for cultural transformation.  Instead of dismissing the value of wantok outright, development and cross-cultural workers can easily identify with the original cultural value of “a social security provision coined ‘one common basket’” that looks after the needs of the most vulnerable.  This could be an influential shared value that has the potential to empower indigenous leaders to reframe and restore a cultural value that could address a number of social and economic issues for Solomon Islanders, including the prevalence of corruption. 

I recently discovered a further example of how shared values can bring two deeply divided cultures to a place of mutual dialogue and allow a shared vision of peace to shine a light of hope into a significant gap between cultures where human rights violations have been immense on both sides for generations.  While travelling in the Middle East last year, I attended a lecture at the Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank given by a Palestinian Christian named Salim Munayer.  His lecture presented powerful insights from a book he co-authored with an Israeli Messianic Jew named Lisa Loden, titled ‘Through My Enemy’s Eyes – Envisioning Reconciliation in Israel-Palestine’.  Throughout this book, an open dialogue emerges that builds on common Christian values and beliefs, while seeking a deeper understanding of each other’s pain and suffering, in order to move beyond their cultural and political differences towards a theology of reconciliation.  The author’s state, “the goal of meeting with one’s perceived enemy is not to do away with distinguishing characteristics, but rather to be enriched, challenged and humbled by the differences of the people whom God has called to his kingdom” (Munayer and Loden 2014, 229).  While affirming each other’s cultural distinctiveness, they emphasise their mutual identity as children of God to define how to interact with each other as “equally valued members in the body of Christ” (Ibid 2014, 229).  I suspect that such an approach to working in this very complex and challenging gap between opposing cultural values and conflicting human rights will have more chance to bring lasting reconciliation in Israel-Palestine than any foreign peace plan.

However, it must be acknowledged that finding shared values in some cultures is not always easy and may even be beyond reach due to the outright incompatibility between some local cultural values and universal human rights.  Clear examples of this can be found in cultural values that include the practices of child marriage, genital mutilation, honour killing, slavery, torture, just to name a few.  Finding shared values with zealous advocates of these types of practices to contribute to mutual dialogue would seem insurmountable.  Nevertheless, our shared humanity still provides common ground to cast a vision of shalom into this gap to appeal to cultural insiders who are open to dialogue or desire cultural transformation.  A vision of shalom adopts a relatable Hebrew term to describe a state of being that succinctly embraces principles of God’s justice found in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament and the Qur’an (Hollenbach 1982, 98), as well as in the universal standards outlined in the UDHR, to promote the dignity and rights that span the diversity of our common humanity.

“Shalom is a state of wholeness and harmony within a community which exists when all the relationships within that community are good. It is a good which is promoted by acts of justice and mercy, love and compassion. It is a good which is about each person being able to participate fully in the community, not a good in which each person is able to express themselves individually regardless of the cost to the community.” (McIlroy 2014, 4)

McIlroy highlights relationships that are good and whole, which are characterised by justice and mercy, love and compassion.  This is a state of being that echoes the words of the prophet Micah who declares God’s desire for the covenantal community, “to act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  These ethical standards define the essence of true religion, which encompasses compassionate care and concern for the poor, orphans and widows (James 1:27).  It also means walking in constant fellowship with God whose very nature personifies these characteristics of justice and mercy.  Relationships that promote the intended order of creation, which was declared by the Creator to be “good” (Genesis 1:31), foster a state of wholeness where the value and dignity of all people is protected and the beauty of the earth is preserved.  They provide an environment where all people can participate in the fullness of community and enjoy the abundance of creation, regardless of gender, class, religion or any other cultural barrier that diminishes the universal application of shalom.  In the New Testament, Jesus put flesh on this vision of shalom when he stood up in the synagogue and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).  The teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ manifested these values and laid the foundation for a ‘shalom culture’ that shaped the mission of the Early Church (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35).  Burnett asserts that today, “God is wanting his people in every generation to work out shalom in their own cultures, working for justice and freedom and ministering to the whole person” (Burnett 1996, 31).  This vision of shalom is good news for those whose human rights have been suppressed by misplaced cultural values because it restores within them the image of God so they can experience a fullness of life that reflects God’s shalom in their own culture (Ibid 1996, 31).

A vision for the way things could be is a powerful motivator to engage people from different cultural backgrounds in mutual dialogue, especially when there is internal dissatisfaction with the way things are.  This was true for an Iranian Muslim couple named Ashkan and Mitra (names changed for privacy) I met in Adelaide in 2012.  Ashkan and Mitra, with their ten year old daughter, arrived in Australia with work and education visas looking for an escape from the oppressive cultural and religious values that governed every area of their lives.  They said to me, “we are tired of the violence” and expressed that they were seeking a life of “peace and freedom.”  Their vision for a better life opened up a life changing space for mutual dialogue that ultimately led them to embracing Christian faith as an alternative set of values to give them the life they were seeking.  A report published by Plan International in 2019 gave a group of 60 Solomon Islander girls a voice to express their dissatisfaction with cultural values that deny them equal access to education because of the culturally defined roles for girls and women.  Together, they embarked on a participatory project that identified the cultural barriers they face and the type of future they desire.  The advocacy work of Plan International Solomon Islands for children’s rights and equality for girls cast a vision of hope to bridge the gap and empower these girls to put forward specific recommendations in a formal report to the Solomon Islands Government.  This generation of girls have an opportunity to reshape cultural values that could change systems and structures that mean their children will have opportunities that their parents could never have imagined (Maggay 2005, 89).  It opens the door to the possibility of cultural transformation that nurtures an environment of human flourishing for these girls, instead of just giving lip service to vital gender equality initiatives like Oxfam’s ‘Side by Side Movement’ and World Vision’s ‘Channels of Hope for Gender’.

When we understand that culture is not set in stone and is open to radical change, if it means improving the quality of life for indigenous people, the pathway to mutual dialogue can become much easier to tread.  Instead of international standards being dismissed as a threat to indigenous structures, they can be discussed as a stimulus for cultural transformation to promote human flourishing.  However, cultural transformation can only every truly occur from within.  Cultural outsiders can facilitate a Citizen Voice & Action (CVA) style of workshop; cast a vision of another way; or even hold up a mirror to help cultural insiders to see what others see; but they cannot instigate cultural transformation with any lasting effect.  Talking with a number of Solomon Islander locals who remember the transition to Independence from being a British Protectorate, revealed that while colonialism had a strong influence and impact on indigenous culture, for good or ill, it fundamentally did not change deeply held cultural values. Some even argue, from their perspective, that Solomon Islands has not advanced in 42 years of independence as there are problematic cultural attitudes that hold the nation back from achieving their aspirations for development.  One indigenous leader lamented, “Our dependency on foreign aid means that we are not yet truly independent” (Envoy Wency Ramo’oroa).  This is a culturally and politically sensitive space that I have no intention of critiquing, except to say that it illustrates my point that lasting cultural transformation needs to be driven from within the culture.  It also needs to be said that cultural transformation should not be imposed, even if the motive is a genuine attempt to create an environment conducive to human flourishing.

“No one should be forced to accept the other person’s faith or worldview – rather, we find each other through our differences, not by being forced to accept the most powerful group’s definition of human rights” (The General of The Salvation Army 2018, 21).

The Salvation Army has a strong history of advocacy and social action that has boldly challenged systems and structures that violate human rights in 131 countries around the world.  I think it would be accurate to suggest that our most effective social action that has brought about cultural transformation has been driven by indigenous Salvationists, who are cultural insiders.  A good example emerges from The Salvation Army in PNG that has played a key role in a ‘Guns for Bibles’ exchange as a part of its Restorative Justice Program. In 2009, this program was first initiated by local Divisional Commander Major Sere Kala in Lae, who negotiated the exchange of guns for Bibles at ‘4 Mile’, a notorious place for violence.  It was a culturally meaningful and transformational experience at a place that was well known for armed holdups along the road from the airport into Lae.  Another well documented example in 2010 was in Misapi in the Highlands that has a very remote but strong presence of The Salvation Army.  The guns were received by a Dutch Chief Secretary, but the entire exchange was initiated by locally based national Salvation Army Officers (“The Salvation Army International - News Feature: Salvation Army Helps Tribes in Papua New Guinea Exchange Their Guns for Bibles” 2010).  The most recent ‘Guns for Bibles’ exchange was at Enga in 2019, which was funded by the Australian government who sent a news crew to cover the event.   The Territorial Commander Colonel Kelvin Alley participated in the ceremony but this exchange was again initiated by two local Salvation Army Officers who came from the two main villages that had been fighting and killing each other for years (Loop PNG 2019).  Indigenous Salvation Army Officers Major Buka Misia and Captain Ekali Yalip led their respective communities down this pathway to peace after suffering their own personal loss from gun violence.  During his keynote address at the Peace Keeping Ceremony, Colonel Kelvin Alley congratulated the community, “For saying ‘no more’.  For saying ‘we want a better future’ for ourselves.  For saying ‘we want our families to live in peace and to feel secure and safe in our villages and communities’” (Alley 2019).  This restorative justice program was strongly supported by expatriate leaders, but the mutual dialogue that declared “enough violence!” is what led to cultural transformation and a preferred future where human flourishing can take place.  The entrenched cultural violence gave way to peace and reconciliation through the initiative of these indigenous leaders who stepped into the gap between cultural values and human rights.

As an Australian leading The Salvation Army in the Solomon Islands, the challenge of maintaining our international social justice impact in this context, while keeping within the boundaries of my role as a cultural outsider working in this gap is very real.  There are social justice issues I feel compelled to speak into directly and cultural values that I instinctively want to challenge head-on, but I am acutely aware that I must engage in this space very carefully.  My voice as an expat may evoke a receptive response in some circles but in others it will definitely cause a negative reaction, as my position of relative power and privilege can be a blessing and a curse.  There is an online forum that I follow called ‘Forum Solomon Islands – International’ where social and political concerns are discussed publicly by Solomon Islanders.  The tone of this forum is antagonistic towards any perceived foreign interference in national affairs, even by in-country diplomatic missions or NGO’s working to improve conditions for human flourishing.  Whenever an expat critiques an issue being discussed in the online conversation (even if their voice is consistent with majority opinion), they are more often than not met with resistance and even condemnation.  Therefore, instead of my voice imposing cultural transformation, I need to equip and empower indigenous social justice advocates in The Salvation Army Solomon Islands to effectively stand in the gap and be the voice that initiates change from within their own culture.  I cannot be the one standing in front of a camera challenging a cultural value or pushing a human right.  My role is in the background, stimulating the space for mutual dialogue, expounding the Word of God to broaden knowledge of biblical principles and casting a vision of shalom that connects with a cultural yearning for a better life.  Since being in the Solomon Islands I have endeavoured to embody Henry Venn’s missiological vision for the indigenous church that “saw with utter clarity that the goal of a mission was the emergence of a church out of the soil and soul of a people” (Shenk 1985, 32–33).  I believe the same goal to be applicable for cross-cultural church, community and development workers who find themselves working in this gap – ‘the emergence of cultural transformation and human flourishing out of the soil and soul of a people’.


The diagram that has unfolded throughout this essay is a visual representation of the pathway I have outlined in detail for use as a tool for group presentations to equip anybody working in this gap.  It is also available in an interactive PowerPoint format, complete with animations, to assist the presenter in explaining each step of the process.  The diagram provides a useful summary of this complex and challenging space discussed above:  Common ground needs to be sought to facilitate mutual dialogue to understand and address the conflicting issues between cultural values and human rights.  Indigenous structures that form cultural values risk isolating culture when they place values above rights, potentially resulting in human mistreatment.  International standards that inform human rights risk imposing upon culture when they place rights above values, potentially leading to cultural displacement.  In either case isolation or imposition widens the gap between cultural values and human rights and diminishes the opportunity for mutual dialogue to wrestle with the conflicting issues.  When common ground is found, shared values and/or a vision of shalom provide a dynamic platform to engage in a dialogical relationship that can work towards cultural transformation in order to nurture an environment that fosters human flourishing.  Participation in this process is hoped to lead to more informed human rights advocacy and more inclusive community development that fully engages indigenous communities in evaluating their cultural values and international workers in the application of human rights as a mutually transformational partnership.  





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Burnett. 1996. The Healing of the Nations: The Biblical Basis of the Mission of God. Carlisle: Paternoster.


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McIlroy, David. 2014. “The Problem of Human Rights.” The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Ethics in Belief, 19 (3): 4.


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