The question, if I may take some liberty, is, what role does culture play in determining right and wrong? Emily Post once called this the basic question of “etiquette.” Are there certain acts that are sinful in one culture but not in another? Yes. God has given “culture” a role in determining what is right and wrong. For instance, Scripture teaches us that men and women are to dress distinctly (Deut. 22:5). In many cultures, adherence to that principle means men wearing pants and women donning skirts. It is culture that spells out this particular application of a biblical principle. Another example is what a culture observes as a “bad word.” In fact, I am thinking now of a word that is considered a curse word by British-English speakers but not so by American-English speakers. So there is such a thing as a “cultural sin;” culture influences ethics.
An American’s view of ethics is through the lens of freedom. Sometimes what we see as a dilemma would not even be considered a decision in other cultures. Here are real conditions in certain countries: Teachers are ordered to give good grades to children from wealthy families. The government sets all work days and sometimes requires Sunday work. You must “hire” a judge to consider your case. Nobody passes the driver’s license test without bribing the examiner.
Sometimes family values control the decision: A manager thinks it would be terrible to hire the best qualified applicant instead of his cousin who wants the job. A mission employee gives mission money to a relative who has an emergency.
While we consider American culture to be generally Christian, it is also emphatically individualistic. Many other cultures are relationship oriented, which can make huge differences in ethical understanding.
If we lend a tool to a neighbor, we expect him to return it; in some cultures, he expects the lender to retrieve the tool when he needs it. We expect Christians to attend church, no matter who might be visiting; Christians in some countries wouldn’t dream of sending away a visiting family member in order to satisfy their personal desire to attend services. We expect students to work alone, especially taking tests; in some places, helping one another, even at test time, is expected. A treasurer here wouldn’t think of using his organization’s money personally; in some societies, if one has control of funds he is obligated to respond to family needs.
Different cultures create different concepts – and create sensitive missionary puzzles!
Does a fish know he’s wet? Even without our knowing it, our culture affects our perception of everything, including ethics. A person living in a place where bribes are viewed as a kind of “tip” may not perceive the practice as unethical at all. It’s just “the way to get things done.” However, killing a deer and keeping the entire thing for yourself (which according to American Christian stewardship would be normal and acceptable) would be seen as unethical and selfish in many cultures.
All cultures have been affected by sin and self. As a result, we need to examine our ethics in light of Christ and His Word to find the truth. The culture of the Kingdom is what we should be advocating as Christians - to act, to think, and to speak as Jesus would.
We are all products of our culture. We embrace unquestioned assumptions of life. For example, in many “primitive” cultures, death, funerals, etc. are very traumatic. In the West, we “dress up” death based upon our cultural values. Often during viewings we hear, “He looks so natural.” Pause and think about that statement…and then chuckle in a grief-filled manner.
There are certain ethical things which we accept or reject based upon the foundations of our culture. For example, some of us use lights on timers inside our homes when we go away on vacation. We endeavor to give a false impression of occupancy, yet we accept that falsehood as good and appropriate. Ethics in the field of medicine? Within our conservative churches we have a spectrum of ethically-related issues which even include some “snake-oil” (but profit-based) remedies. Yes, our culture helps to mold our ethics; sadly, at times, perhaps more than the Scriptures do.
The culture in which we are raised dramatically affects our understanding of what is morally acceptable.
For instance, in many "warm cultures,” relationships trump everything. "My house is your house," is more than a cliché; it’s an inescapable reality of their culture. Many in such societies may not experience one prick of conscience for telling a friend an "inconsequential" untruth, if they believe that speaking truthfully would damage the relationship. Why? Because their culture colors their ethics.
Before judging them rashly, however, let me pose another scenario: In American culture it is morally acceptable to ignore beggars on the streets of our major cities, whereas most of our “warm-culture” friends would give their last peso to help a needy person in a similar situation. We are chagrined by their want of truthfulness – they are dismayed by our lack of compassion. Our cultures have influenced our ethics.