I had an interesting experience. I was in Singapore at the BWA Youth Conference and invited to do a break-out session, but it was really just a break-out session of conversation with the President of BWA.
I had no idea of where the conversations would go but for an hour, hour and a half really, we talked about whatever anybody in the group, about 200 came, wanted to talk about.
But the thing that dominated our conversation actually came from Africa. And this is how they introduced what they wanted to talk about.
They said, “What does autonomy mean to those of you who live in North America, because your understanding of autonomy has such a cultural wrapping around it that when you bring that to Africa, you are destroying the churches in Africa with that concept. And as we study North America, it looks like its destroying the church of North America as well.”
So we unwrapped that for a good while in our conversation. And Asia joined in that conversation and South America joined in that conversation. It was really one of the most interesting conversations I’ve been in because I’ve never thought that as a Baptist that my understanding of autonomy was culturally wrapped.
But as we discussed it dawned on me that Baptists in North America, particularly here in Virginia, we got our birthing right in the middle of the American Revolution. So our understanding of autonomy has a very independent feel to it; that I can independently do whatever it is I want to do regardless of anybody else. I use the word autonomy but I use it, as my African friend said, almost synonymous with the word independent.
Now in Europe it’s a little softer because their concept of autonomy got birthed in the French Revolution, where you had liberty, equality and fraternity as the theme of that revolution. So it wasn’t quite as independent; it had some fraternal aspect to the understanding of autonomy.
But in the US our understanding of it is “Don’t tread on me,” while in Europe it had a sense of fraternity. But what that has done to us, according to my African friends, is all it does is fragment us.
I said, “Well, what does autonomy mean to you in Africa? How is that culturally wrapped for you; because we all live in culture.”
He said, “Well, in my culture I am autonomously free to the degree that you’re free, and to the degree that you’re free, I’m autonomously free. My autonomy isn’t independent. My autonomy is interdependent. And when you bring that independence in, you fragment our churches and we lose our community, something we’ve held as a treasure for hundreds of years.”
I came away wondering if maybe we in North America, we need to look at what does it mean to be autonomous. Because all we’re doing is fragmenting into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces as the Body of Christ.
That is not scriptural. There’s only one Body of Christ. How do we find ourselves in community again? Autonomous but united. I think that’s a challenge for dialog that we need to reengage.