Understanding ‘WHO, not WHAT’

When I first returned to America, I often asked new acquaintances their last name and age.  After a few funny looks, I realized those are the introductory questions for conversations in Central Asia that I was transplanting into English.  When American’s introduce themselves, they state their first name and work title.   The fundamental difference?  Your age and your family name (Asian intros) indicates WHO you are, your job (American intros) is WHAT you do. Last week’s blog about police stops in Kyrgyzstan introduced the “WHO, not WHAT” concept.  This week we explore the anthropological underpinnings – why are they ‘who, not what’? Abdul (jacket) with his family, in the family's field, next to family-built house.
Abdul (green jacket) with his family, in the family’s field, next to a family-built house.
In Eastern cultures, physical needs are met primarily through the community: food comes from the family plot and is preserved by grandma, housing is built by the village, money comes from relatives, safety comes from being bonded together with neighbors, and education is the trade learned from the elders.  To maintain access to the goods and services in such a culture, you must remain part of the group.  You follow the expectations and ideals placed upon you from the community, lest you bear shame and are excluded.  You have to BE the right person.  WHO you are determines how good you eat!   This reality struck me 10 years ago when I first visited a Central Asian village with my friend Abdul (above), and observed how local and community-oriented village life is. In Western cultures, physical needs are met primarily through institutions: my food comes from a grocery chain, my money from my employer, my housing was built by a construction company, my safety is comes through the police and legal system, and education is government provided.  So to maintain connection to the goods and services those institutions provide, you follow the rules and policies in the 187-page manual outlining right and wrong institutional behavior, lest you be found guilty.  You have to DO the right thing.  WHAT you do determines how well you eat! If identity were a chair, the legs upholding that chair vary quite differently among cultures.  In HonorShame cultures, a person’s identity is maintained by family, ethnicity, and culture – all community-based realities you are born into.  But in Western guilt-justice cultures a person is defined by work, hobbies, and interests – all things you do. Anthropologists commonly use the terms ‘ascribed status’ vs. ‘achieved status’ to explain this reality.  Ascribed status means your community reputation is inherited  based on realities outside of your control, such as birth family (“The birth of Jesus – son David, son of Abraham”, Mt 1:1) or city of origin (“I am a Jew, from Tarsus of Sicilia, a citizen of an important city!” Acts 21:39).  This status is ascribed based on WHO you are. On the other hand, achieved, or earned, status is based on WHAT you do.  In professional sports, one’s status (as reflected by salary) is achieved entirely by WHAT you do on the field.  The Chicago Bulls don’t continue to pay Michael Jordan! What do you think are some theological and missiological implications of ‘WHO, not WHAT’?

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2 Comments on “Understanding ‘WHO, not WHAT’

  1. I find myself and other American Christians sometimes responding to tragedy with, “All we can do is pray,” as if we would rather frantically DO something ourselves than rely for help on that holy relationship with our God who loves us and the afflicted ones more than we can know.

  2. Yes, that is a good point Cathy. It is interesting to me that when Christians choose to pray instead of do something, they are considered “fatalistic.”

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