I had a favorite pair of flip flops that I took along to the Middle East. Being a college student at the time, and one who had grown up in an island-type culture, I had indulged on an expensive American pair of preppy leather flip flops. One summer day I wore them to a house church, depositing them outside the door with all the other shoes and sandals. After the gathering was finished I was dismayed to find that my favorite flip flops had disappeared. Apparently someone had mistaken them for their own – but no, footwear like that wasn’t available in this country, so no one could confuse them for their own. Had someone stolen them? And at a church meeting no less!
A few weeks later a local believer came to our house. And lo! He was wearing my flip flops. As it registered that he was the thief, I sat pondering how and if to bring up this awkward topic. Yet something was strange about his bearing. He wasn’t acting guilty or conscious at all of his infringement upon my personal property. There he was, wearing them right in front of me. I let it slide until I could figure out what was going on and how I should navigate this situation. Somehow I eventually came to realize that my friend wasn’t showing any signs of remorse because he hadn’t even committed a mistake, let alone a theft, according to his culture. Flip flops and sandals were simply considered communal property.
To have special ownership over a pair of sandals was utterly foreign to my host Middle Eastern culture. Shoes, yes, but sandals? Everyone knows that sandals belong to everyone. You wear them to to enter the squatty-potty, to walk to the corner store, to go out on the dusty roof. No one thinks twice about utilizing them however is needed. Once I realized this part of the culture I strategically wore a different pair of sandals to the next house church meeting. I managed to reclaim my cherished flip flops with a subtle switch during a trip to the bathroom. My friend never seemed to notice that I had successfully reclaimed them. Yet given the extent that I had been bothered by the loss of these flip flops, it felt like a hollow victory. As I recall, the leather later shrunk and curled under the merciless Middle-Eastern sun.
Cultures vary in their understanding of communal property. Certain items or spaces are understood as belonging not to individuals, but to the community. In Melanesia, grassy lawns were viewed this way. It was not uncommon to emerge from a missionary’s house to see clusters of locals sitting and enjoying the front yard. And yet when my friends and I tried to hike different mountains, we kept getting in trouble for not first consulting the “owners” of the mountain. Lawns belong to the community, mountains are private property. Got it.
Every culture has communal property, those things which are simply understood by insiders as justly being available to all. We even have this in the West in spite of our heavier emphasis on private property. Just drop a group of American tourists in a foreign context with no public restrooms and see what happens. And yet this is another area of culture that tends to go unspoken. It is caught rather than taught. One grows up and learns by osmosis what is private and what is communal. As such this area poses a real danger for culture stress.
Frustration with a foreign culture often builds slowly, akin to death by a thousand paper cuts. I think that the “trespassing” of our private property is one area particularly irksome to us Westerners. Whether it’s time, space, or belongings (or hair or photos?), we tend to have a harder time overlooking the oft-unintentional violations of what we have learned belongs to us. We need to have eyes that are open and looking for these differences so that we are better prepared to overlook them in love when they do occur. Count on it, when crossing cultures we will have opportunity to practice not counting anything that belongs to us as actually our own (Acts 4:32). Not that the scriptures are against private property at all – on the contrary, it is assumed to be part of the world God has created. But when necessary for the sake of the gospel and the community of believers, these private rights are surrendered for the sake of love.
One of the best examples I have seen of this came from an older Korean couple who worked among a mountain-top tribe in Melanesia. Knowing that the tribe would understood their tools as belonging to the community and not to themselves alone, they decided to proactively own this fact, rather than fighting it as many other outsiders do. When they moved into the tribe, they appropriately asked that the villagers build their first jungle house for them. In return, they publicly announced at their welcome ceremony that their tools were for the use of the whole village, as needed. So when a tool was inevitably stolen later, they gathered the village leadership and told them that the village tools had been taken. The tribe was accordingly alarmed and put together a search party which soon hunted down the culprit and punished him appropriately. The tool was returned and all was well.
Had this Korean couple not contextualized their personal belongings in this way, the village may well have justified the theft because of the vast wealth disparity still present between the average villager and the modest missionaries. In a subsistence culture where survival depends on sharing tools, these missionaries appropriately put away their own culture’s understanding of personal property and put on their host culture’s. They have lived in peace in that remote tribe for many years now.
What is your culture’s understanding of communal vs. private property? Every culture will have both, but the particular arrangements tend to vary. Are we preparing our hearts to respond lovingly when our understanding of private property is violated in a cultural sense? Do we know what private property means in our host cultures so that we can still call theft theft in the biblical sense? These are not simple questions. Yet they are the meat-and-potatoes of living with a good testimony in another culture.
Some days we will find ourselves deeply annoyed that something of ours has been treated as communal property. But it would tragic to lose our witness among our focus people group because we clung too tightly to our own culture’s property preferences. Let us rather be known as those who cheerfully give up our possessions for the sake of others. In this way we can point to him who though rich, became poor for our sake (2 Cor 8:9).