This deserves a bit of exposition, because there is a good deal of misunderstanding between cultures in this situation. Let me share another story as an example. Karri and I went to see a Burundian friend graduate from his Bible school a few weeks ago. We weren’t speaking or doing anything other than attending as friends of the graduate. As we arrived, the head of the program greeted us and ushered us to the front of the room. We explained, as politely as we could, that we wanted to sit with the rest of the friends and family. The gentleman looked slightly confused and urged us again to take one of the seats of honor. We then explained that we wished to take photos and sitting in the front would prevent us from doing so. He gave an understanding and relieved nod, and let us seat ourselves.
From the Westerner’s perspective, there is an awkward tension in constantly being seated in places of honor. Most of the expats I know in Burundi are here to serve the Burundian people, to stand beside them and give them dignity and value. When we are paraded to the front of a gathering, we feel separated, scrutinized. We feel that we are being singled out for our status, our wealth, our education, at times even our skin color, and these distinctions carry negative connotations in our cultural framework. We don’t agree with elevating the rich above the poor, the educated over the non-educated, and the white over the non-white. So we fight against these distinctions on the battleground of the seating order. We cluck our tongues when asked to sit in the front, and refuse to participate in this discriminatory cultural practice.
But as we have processed this with our Burundian friends, they find our refusal to sit in front just as offensive. As I’ve said before, their customs of “Karibu,” of welcome, mandate that a guest receive the best the host can offer. This includes food, drink, seating, and anything else the host can provide. Receiving a guest is a tremendous honor for a community, and a guest who has traveled far to be with them especially so. When we refuse to accept this hospitality, we are ignoring their cultural practices and robbing them of the opportunity to honor their guests. So when Karri and I reframed our refusal to sit in the front of the graduation by indicating that we would be more comfortable and more accommodated by sitting where we could take pictures, the host immediately understood and accommodated our request.
It’s also quite common to be asked to stand and introduce yourself in a Burundian church, so if you have the chance to visit, be prepared to say a few words of greeting, no matter where you’re seated. There’s a standard portion of a Burundian church gathering where all guests are invited to stand and introduce themselves. Some churches do this for all guests, some only for more “important” guests. This brings me to the caveat in my explanation. I wanted to make clear that there is some legitimate cultural value in the practice of seating dignitaries and important people before I talked about the dark side of that practice.
Burundians deeply value authority and title. While this is appropriate in the sense of respect, it becomes a source of conflict and exploitation at times. Many will fight (sometimes dirty) to obtain and to keep authority, and once they get it, they wield it with vigor. And the community has a need for these roles to be defined, who is higher, and who is lower, so they encourage these distinctions to be drawn. Some westerners are seated in places of honor because they are seen as above everyone else. (That or the community wants them to be seen, that it might bring honor to their church or their pastor in the eyes of others.) This perpetuates a thinking that has been in place since colonialism, that come people are higher than others, that might makes right, that money means power, and power should be elevated. It perpetuates a thinking that the normal Burundian is low, unimportant, like sheep without a shepherd. And many Burundians see this classification of lowliness as a security blanket. They don’t have to think for themselves or stand up for themselves. They’re slow and unimportant, so they leave those things to the people in the seats of honor.
Now, the one place where this should be turned on its head is the church of Jesus Christ. We follow a Rabbi who reached out to the lowest, most marginalized people around him. He touched lepers, spoke kind words to prostitutes, redeemed tax collectors, and exalted little children. He talked about foxes having holes and birds having nests, but not having anywhere himself to lay his head. He took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed the feet of the people he was leading. This servant king then spoke these words,
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” (John 13:14-17)
The servants of this Jesus should be the ones who wash the feet of their neighbor. They are ones who know that the great must be like the servants of all, willing to shed their garments and dirty their hands for the people they lead. Jesus’ way is the path of descent, the upside-down Kingdom, where the one in the seat of honor is the least among you.
As I stood to introduce myself, I looked out at the people squeezed into the school desks. Shirts with holes, hand-me-downs from the affluent West, covered undernourished and thinning torsos. And I’m sure if I could see and count their feet, I would not count the same number of shoes, maybe not even half as many. Then I turned to look at the well-dressed gentlemen who had already stood. Over the top of their copious bellies, they wore suits with the sheen of a televangelist, tags bearing Western name-brands still sewn into the sleeves of the jackets like badges of merit. And one each foot was a well-polished, patent leather dress shoe.
I don’t know these pastors personally, so I’m not sure how they lead their communities. I do know many pastors here who simply joined the ministry so they could wear suits like that while they told the shoeless people in front of them how to live their lives. As I sat back down again, I wondered to myself, would they take off those shiny, tagged jackets, scuff their European shoes, and wash one of those unshod feet in front of them? Would I?