Learning Cultural Sensitivities in Roman Cliches


Less than 3 days ago I arrived home from a short 2 week stint in the Mediterranean.  Although I would love to say that it was solely a study trip, I have to admit that it was really more for leisure and tourism.  Even so, the group I went with from my seminary did spend a significant amount of time learning about the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul and we did see some of the most important sites like Ephesus, Vatican City, and Athens.  Our first few days were spent in Rome and the Vatican City where we were first exposed to the ancient Christian history up to present day happenings in the Roman Catholic church with Pope Francis I, and then we also spent our last day in Pompeii – thus Italy was the bookmark of our trip.

When we were in Rome, I was surprised to hear our tour guide using many of the cliches that we use in day to day life such as “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and “When in Rome do as the Romans”.  I have no doubt that at least part of the reason for her using cliches had to do with the fact that she was catering to tourists.  I have traveled enough places in the world to know that tour guides thrive on these kinds of colloquialisms.  At the same time, these phrases began to have much more meaning to me, as cliche as they are, when said in the atmosphere of Roman ruins and when eating pizza in the piazza.  I would like to unpack them here:

Rome wasn’t built in a day – The places that I visited (Greece, Turkey, Italy, Vatican City along with my trip 2 years ago to Israel) all have very deep and rich histories and cultures.  Whereas when I was in South America or when I travel around Canada or the U.S., these countries also have their own stories to tell, there is something extra special about being in some of the oldest cities in the world which have roots in antiquity and are indeed mentioned in the Bible and in early church history.  It is every church historian’s dream to be able to relive history among the likes of the Popes or to relive the tension of the reign of such people as Constantine, Diocletian, and Domitian.  Anyone who has been to Rome can see the ruins spanning from several centuries (and even Millenia ago) all the way up to present day.  By looking at the radical ways that Pope Francis is already starting to shape the world we knew that even as we were standing in Rome history was being made.

In the same way as Rome had times of flourishing and times of decline, times of religious freedom and times of persecution, we are able to see God’s hand in it all.  We are able to see how the legacy of St. Peter and St. Paul remained even though they went through such trials and difficulties during their lifetime.

There is something that we can take from this in our personal and devotional life.  Our faith is not built up in one day.  It is a process and it can also be painful.  Many of us have not faced persecution or it has been a very mild form of persecution.  Perhaps a few of us have faced persecution in more extreme ways, but regardless, all of us have met people who are not friendly towards the Christian faith and might go out of their way to let you know that.  I have lived a very sheltered life.  I grew up in the church, went to a private school my whole life, went on to study at a Christian university and then at a seminary and have worked in only Christian jobs.  To some extent, it bothers me that I don’t have more of an understanding of what goes on in the world and that I really don’t have many friends to “reach out to” simply because all of my friends are Christian and many of them are even more devoted to the faith that I am.  I always wanted to be a pastor, since I was very young so even vocationally I didn’t have much of a struggle.  It’s always just been a natural fit for me to be the “good little church girl.”  Even though I seem to be sheltered, I’ve had my fair share of people who disagree with my theological viewpoints and let it be known in very obvious ways – sometimes in ways which do more harm than good.

As we grow and mature spiritually we are able to learn from these difficult experiences, though.  In fact, the more you read the Bible, the more you fill find promises of hope to those who face struggles and trials.  James 1:2 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds”, and Romans 12:12 tells us to, “Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.”  Additionally, Paul writes that “We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8).  We know that things always work out for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28) so even though things might not look promising at the beginning, in the future we might be able to look back and have it all make sense.

The fact that Rome wasn’t built in a day also encourages us to keep working even in the face of disaster.  To keep “building our spiritual muscles” and fighting the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12).  It means to keep reading our Bibles, engaging in prayer and spiritual disciplines, and continuing to meet in churches and small groups even in a culture which says that this is passe (Hebrews 10:25).  The more we are able to keep building our strong foundation on Christ, the more we will be able to keep building our heavenly city and allowing for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

When in Rome Do As the Romans – Who doesn’t like gelato or margherita pizza?  These are two of the most common delicacies to indulge in in the modern Roman world.  Additionally, every time there was a chance to do something “Italian” there we were taking up the opportunity.  When in Rome do as the Romans to me as not simply a way of saying “experience life here”, but it’s also an invitation to cultural sensitivity – to learn to be part of a group of people who we might not share much in common with and whose roots and origins we are not a part of.  When I think about the 3 years I spent living in the most multi-cultural city in the world (Toronto) and my “homecoming” in only 5 days to this lovely city where I hope to remain for one year and possibly longer for work, I know that there is a need to be culturally sensitive to other around us.  There is a need to do as the Somalians, the Chinese, and the Iranian.  There is a need to eat Japanese food, learn Spanish, and do a Turkish dance – maybe even all in the same evening.

When I was in my second year at Tyndale I did an internship at a local Lutheran church.  Although I am Mennonite and don’t share much in common with the Lutherans (theologically or otherwise) it was a wonderful experience of grace.  The Lutherans invited me to take part in everything they were doing and honestly we never got into petty debates on theological matters.  They were all really supportive of my desire to be a pastor even though their church itself did not allow this.  They also were the most wonderful example of hospitality to newcomers that I have ever seen.  Through offering conversation classes to students learning ESL, Asian tea-time, having a multi-cultural choir, having a pastor from Africa (as well as a Canadian and an American and a Korean Deaconess), and having church services in French, Persian, Serbian, and a host of other languages – I thought to myself, “this church really knows what it means to be culturally sensitive.”  They even hosted Chinese New Year celebrations with the red envelopes and everything.  They are a perfect example of learning to be “all things to all people.”

I believe that there is a need for us to embrace deep ecumenicity and multiculturalism rather than simply to turn everyone into us.  Really, if the world was full of Deborahs…well let me just say… I think I would RUN AWAY.  Plus, it would be really boring.  In that way, perhaps the whole “when in Rome do as the Romans” thing should be done away with – if by that one means that there’s no room for other nationalities and that they just all need to become Westernized.

Through my time in Toronto in various multicultural capacities (for internships and otherwise) I have learned that the reason that Canada is so special is precisely because we learn so much from the different nationalities around us.  From the Africans I have learned a deep respect for purity before marriage and a love and care for families that is not always evidenced in the white culture I’m part of.  From the Asians I have learned a sense of dignity, hard work, and respect.  From the Middle Easterns I have learned true hospitality.  Canada is after all – a nation of immigrants.  Who of us can actually say that we are truly Canadian?  Except for the First Nations people, my guess is not many people.  Even those who have been in Canada for over 100 years probably have roots somewhere to Britain or another part of the world.

The phrase, “When in Rome do as the Romans” also brings out a bit of caution for me.  The area that I wrestle with is this whole  living in the world but not being of it thing.  What exactly does that mean and how do we go about that?  Some people look at the world very skeptically – they think it’s a bad place to live.  I’ve even heard people my age saying they don’t want kids because it would be bringing them up in such dangerous times.  Personally, I have seen a lot of improvement in the last several decades and think our country has made leaps and bounds in how we treat the marginalized and oppressed (people with disabilities, those who live on the street, and those who do not learn in traditional ways).  I have seen us become more accepting towards people with mental illness and treating our animals and environment better.  I have seen us take our health more seriously and create more social programs.  Of course we still have a long way to go, but I’m hopeful that we are at least working towards where we need to be.  At the same time, there is a lot wrong with our country and our world.  People still are mistreated because of their colour, race, or sexual orientation.  People still are denied jobs because they are a woman or because they are too young or too old.  People still look the other way when they see a woman begging on the street corner or think that people with developmental disabilities are “dangerous.”

Our culture is very sex saturated, very “me-centered” and climbs ladders even at the expense of best friends.  Our culture idolizes drugs, alcohol, and having children before marriage.  What should our response be to this type of a world?

When I was on my cruise I was very disappointed with the attitudes toward alcohol that the young adults had.  They would order drinks simply because they could get them at 18 (instead of 21) and then would leave them untouched.  Conversations would focus on how they chose their school because it is a party school or about drunkenness.  It was hard for me to know entirely how to relate – how to do as the young adults on the cruise ship did without giving into unnecessary vice.

I think that the Bible does give us some clear guidelines as to what is acceptable and what is not.  The problem is that many of us believe there to be room for interpretation which creates grey areas.  Nevertheless, I think the Bible is clear about the attitudes we should have towards the world and how to live as Christians even when it is hard to do so.  We are reminded to stand firm and not give into temptation.  We are reminded that if an action would cause someone to stumble we should not engage in it.

When I was at Tyndale there was a rule against drinking alcohol which was very ambiguous and many of us had a hard time deciphering it because it was so unclear.  When rules which are meant to be kept are not understood it can create problems.  On the other hand, I agree with what Tyndale was trying to do in theory.  I don’t think that there is anything wrong with drinking wine or even hard liquor – Jesus turned water into wine after all.  BUT the Bible does repeatedly warn us against getting drunk (especially for deacons, elders, and church leaders) and the Bible also tells us not to cause others to be led into temptation.  Thus, whenever I drink with friends I always make sure that the friends I’m with are ones who are responsible and mature with their attitudes towards alcohol and secondly that there is no one in the group who would be opposed to it.  If one person in my group has problems with alcohol (theologically or otherwise) no one at our table will drink and we definitely will not head to the bar.  To me, it is simply common courtesy.

To sum up: My trip to Rome taught me to look at cliches with a new lens.  To realize that Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is my faith.  If I mess up, God’s grace exudes to me and allows me to keep going and that When in Rome, I should do as the Romans.  That I need to be culturally sensitive, but also able to swim upstream in a world that tries to push me downstream.  I hope that you have enjoyed these thoughts and that they have brought something out for you in terms of your daily walk with Christ.


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