I had just arrived and my new friend, Faith, was taking us around, introducing us to people and showing us the campus where we would stay for the next several days. We came across a man with a beautiful countenance and age that spoke of wisdom and gentleness. But the introduction was a bit odd. She paused, “What is your first name?” “Daylight,” he answered. “Yes, and he is married to um…my…my…my sister” she explained.
It was all I could do to refrain from some comedic remark in my slightly twisted sense of humor – because it struck my funny bone that she had to ask his name and seemed a little unclear about their connection, though he was married to her sister. I withheld the sarcasm, but did later ask. Maybe the sister was estranged? Maybe Faith was just stuttering a little – they pause more here in their speech and get to things in a more round about fashion…so maybe that was it.
Later I asked her about that interaction and found out that “sister” didn’t mean sister, but cousin – or maybe even distant cousin. He was in the family, but not immediate. Still, to them, he was married to her sister. Family is family. They don’t distinguish between degrees of family, degrees of closeness. In fact, they don’t even have words for distant relatives – there is no “cousin” in their culture, only brother and sister.
So, when a family member dies and leaves kids orphaned behind, they don’t go to the state, another family member steps in. There are orphanages, but it’s extremely common to ask someone how many kids they have and then to find that “their” kids are often about half theirs and half another family member’s that they have taken in.
In America we value individualism. We take care of our own and expect others to take care of their own. We are self-made, and expect others to make themselves as well. In Africa, they value relationships and the family. They expect to work together. They expect to help each other. They don’t expect you to be self made, they expect you to need each other, to be together-made.
I love my country, and I think there are great things about our mentality. But when it comes to relationships I have to wonder if the Africans don’t get it right. I have to wonder if maybe they aren’t closer to the way God intended us to live in the church. Together-made. Interdependent. All brothers and sisters, equally. Look at what the Bible says:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love… 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. …
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. I John 4: 7-21
Who are your brothers and sisters? Well, when Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he responded with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-ff) – and redefined “neighbor” such that it encompassed total strangers, the lost, the wounded, those in need. I think it’s safe to assume when he speaks about loving your brother or sister, he’s not defining it in literal, biological or legal terms. Broadly, I think you could say he’s talking about our fellow man. More narrowly, Mark 3:35 says, “whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” In either case, it’s certainly not the American way of looking at family—it’s so much broader.
What if we followed the African example and got rid of our words that make distinctions of relational distance, words like cousin, great, grand, step, half, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, etc.? What if we started using more liberally words of connection like brother or sister, mother or father? How would that change how we felt about each other? Is it just a matter of semantics, or might it change something in our hearts as well? If I began to view my fellow man as my brother, my elder as my mother, how might that change the way I treat them, care for them, respect them, respond to them? 1 John 4 says that, “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” Perhaps a good place to start is to begin with considering them my brother and sister in the first place.