The Orlando attack & the culture clash behind it

The horrific assault on Pulse Orlando and the 50 or so deaths caused by one man with guns brings up all kinds of questions.

For some, this is a question about access to guns and the ability they provide to kill many people in a short amount of time.

For some, this is a question about homosexuality and violence toward those who practice a homosexual lifestyle.

For some, this is a question about Islam and especially the radical parts under its big umbrella.

Those are all important questions and they will all be rehashed many times and from many angles over the next few days. We need to be engaging with those conversations. They’re important, and quick and easy answers should be avoided.

My question, however, has to do with how cultures clash and the basic understandings about how the world works that the two clashing cultures have as presuppositions.

First of all, let’s make this clear: This attack arose from Islamic faith, but that doesn’t mean it’s the kind of Islamic faith practiced by all or even most Muslims. Islam isn’t monolithic. It can’t even be bifurcated into Sunni and Shiite. Islam (like Christianity) is a big umbrella under which many brands have arisen and thrive. There are more than 10,000 denominations of Christianity, each with their own reasons for being their own denomination. We should expect the same of Islam. And any attempt to suggest that radicalized Islam isn’t actually Islamic is both arrogant and foolish. Just like you can’t tell a Christian she isn’t a Christian, you can’t tell a Muslim he’s not a Muslim.

With that out of the way, the point I want to spend some time with is the basic cultural differences between Western and Eastern approaches to the world and what it means to be human.

Western culture is based on individualism and the freedom that comes from being an individual. Eastern culture is based on community and the honor that is due to the community. If we don’t get this basic distinction, we’ll never understand the clash between the two and never reconcile the two with each other.

In Western culture, the one is the most important. The individual stands above the crowd.

We value independent thinking and creativity that sets an individual apart from the crowd. Innovation and newness receive our greatest rewards. A clever new product. A new blend of genres in music. A new filmmaking style. A new hair style. A new clothing style. We are always pushing ourselves to evolve, to progress, to move forward, to abandon the past and embrace the future.

This emphasis on creativity and innovation requires large amounts of freedom. Freedom to question. Freedom to ditch the way things were done before. Freedom to experiment. Freedom to fail. Freedom to be different. Freedom to offend.

That freedom to offend, interestingly, only goes one direction. We grant freedom to offend to those who innovate. But we don’t grant it to the establishment. Those who are established aren’t allowed to offend the creatives. The new can’t be criticized, only the old. This is what an experimental culture requires.

OK. That’s us in the West. How about the East?

In Eastern culture, the many are the most important. The community’s needs supercede those of the individual. Individualism is a threat to the community. It fractures the community into factions, tearing apart the unity of community.

We see this in a bunch of different ways:

Honoring the elderly who have gone before us and who have given themselves for us. Honoring the tried and true traditions that have stood the test of time. Honoring the single story that unites us. Preserving the past into the future. Maintaining the community against the threat of undermining thoughts and practices. Working together for a stronger future. Sacrificing for the glory of the community, whether it’s a family, a country, a faith, or even a corporation. Protecting the reputation of the community (often represented by the leader of the community) since it protects the reputation of everyone within the community.

These two very different approaches to the world have been clashing over the past few decades with the rise of globalism. What had been kept apart for centuries are now living in each other’s neighborhoods because of globalism. In some cases, Easterners adapt to Western worldviews and become Westerners. In some case, Westerners adapt Eastern worldviews and become Easterners. But more often, globalism has us living in each other’s worlds as foreigners.

The problem with being a stranger in a strange land is coming to dislike the people of the new land for challenging my worldview and making me feel uncomfortable and even threatened.

I’ll never forget listening to non-Canadians grumble about Canada during the five years I lived in the Great White North. They grumbled about French words on packaging. They grumbled about different weights and measures. They grumbled about different taxes. Different speed limits. Different spellings of common words. Different accents. And so on. Most of the differences were subtle; others blatant. But subtle or blatant, they were differences. And the accumulation of all these differences created a divide between them.

So, what we’ve seen in the terrorist attacks in Paris and Orlando are push-backs by a conservative communal culture of honor against a progressive individualistic culture of freedom.

The attack against the Charlie Hebdo satirical paper in Paris was an attack on the freedom of the press to offend core religious beliefs and figures. After years of intentionally offensive cartoons and articles that dishonored the Prophet, Muslim terrorists had had enough and attacked.

The attack against the two Paris venues in 2015 were likewise an attack on icons of Western freedom: musicians and athletes. While the attack on the sports venue fizzled, the attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert was horribly successful (from the terrorists’ perspective, not from mine).

This morning’s attack on Pulse Orlando was an attack against the sexual freedom offered by the gay bar and popularized in Western cultures in recent years.

So, again, what we’ve got going on here is a clash between freedom and honor. We have different people’s values going head-to-head and sparking violently.

As we look toward the future, what will not work is a further shoving of freedom in the face of those who value honor more than freedom. What will work is honor, a show of respect for those things they value and a voluntary restraint from offending their honor. Another word for this propriety.

In his landmark book on Trinitarian theology, The One, The Three and the Many, Colin Gunton noted the difference between Western and Eastern cultures and suggested that both offer a truncated view of humanity. We are both communal and individual and any attempt to lift up the community or the individual over the other is doomed to failure and to an impoverished human experience. The Trinity, on the other hand, offers us a model of how three unique Persons can live in the ultimate form of community, through mutual love, respect, and submission.

Within the Trinity, both honor and freedom dwell without conflict. Therefore, it is to the Trinity that we look and learn how best to live as humans.

We reject honor-fed violence. We reject freedom-fed impropriety. Instead, we choose the way of love. Love does not kill to protect its honor. Love does not run over others with its freedom. Love engages. Love embraces. Love prays. Love blesses. Love makes friends out of enemies. Love prevails.