The Flight of the Swans: Discerning Hidden Values in Global Cultures

by Benjamin Lee Hegeman

Global workers must discern, learn, and affirm values in a Christ-like way.

You may well be familiar with this scene: four Christian teams from four global nations meet in, say, Durbin, South Africa, to launch a vision for a new NGO ministry. It begins correctly. They start with worship, scripture reading, and prayer. They all participate. Business opens with the American delegation outlining both the proposal and the NGO’s foundational agenda. Their strongest challenge is that this unique ministry become truly fruitful, dynamic, and successful for the Lord. Everyone agrees this ministry must go ahead. The African delegation feels strongly led to underline the importance that this ministry be promoted with great respect and esteem for the Lord and especially in the careful selection of honored personnel. All members unanimously agree. The German delegation then stresses that the success of the ministry will depend upon how correctly, openly, fairly, and with genuine integrity their work is done before the Lord. Everyone is with the Germans on this. The British team concludes their vision-forming meeting with a clear request that the quality of ministry be an awesome expression of cooperation, delightful unity, and that all that would transpire would be pleasing and holy to the Lord. Everyone strongly agrees. What a meeting!

As each member Skypes or emails home to his or her colleagues, each reports how remarkable the Christian cooperation was in the meeting, adding that not only did everyone absolutely agree, but that his or her contribution was the key to the deliberations. Well, are they ever in for a surprise!

Values Drive in Different Directions
That surprise will unfold in months to come because in a very deep way, the four delegations were speaking in four very different value languages even though each group assumed the others endorsed them. As the NGO ministry unfolds, the different values will orient them in very different decisions inside the organization. This is like four teams in four cars who are told to quickly race north and see which will be the first team to reach “the most magnificent peak” in a mountain range. As they separately head out together, each team sets their GPS, but to a different peak, and the further they drive, the more they separate. The reason is simple: each team chose a different peak in the range as being “the most magnificent.” Can you imagine what the cell phone conversations between the four teams might sound like? Ah, yes, like many of our global teams. Cross-cultural workers gain much to realize that the values each people group or culture most diligently pursue are hidden and assumed as being the best for society. As students of values, global workers must discern them, learn them, and affirm them in a Christ-like way. It is of highest importance to study this field (called axiology) if we wish to work globally; however, we must first look at the root questions behind values.

Values Answer the Deepest Cultural Questions
Deepest cultural values answer two foundational cultural questions: What do we really seek and cherish most fervently as a people? and What do we fear and dread the most? These questions belong to each other as two sides of a coin and are best represented as an axis. The answers to these two questions are as old as Aristotle; however, only since Ruth Benedict’s 1946 study did anthropologists begin to compare and contrast how differently these questions were answered by different cultures. Their research consolidated on two axes. The first being that some cultures ultimately seek justice and being right, while dreading guilt and accusations of having done wrong. The alternate second axis was that other cultures are chiefly pursuing honor and dreading shame. My own missiological research confirms these two axes, as well as identifying two more, as follows in the rubric below.

These, you’ll recognize, were the four values axes expressed in our introductory NGO gathering in Durbin. And you’ll also recall that each group said a hearty “Amen!” when the others spoke; however—and this is key—each delegation also believed their value expression was deemed as the best articulation of the vision. If we know this, then it helps us underline the two most important relationships between these four axes. We observe, first of all, that one value axis dominates as superior for each culture group. We also see that the other three axes are always viewed as supportive values of the leading axis. That is why everyone agreed in the gathering, while actually promoting alternate values.

The Flight of the Swans
This relationship is beautifully illustrated by the flight of four swans, one usually being the lead swan, and the other three following closely in a flight pattern. This image is useful because swans fly together as closely as our values. When you look at the above rubric again, you’ll see that all cultures appreciate each of the four axes in their unique cultural way because all humans share a certain arranging of these four axes, but as the swan flight can tell us, there are at least twenty-four ways that four swans can fly by reckoning who is first, second, third, and last in the flying pattern. The reason is well known: the strongest leads and it saves aerodynamic energy to fly behind a strong leader. Cultures do likewise.

Redeeming the Axes
Now take this back to the study of global groups. Cross-cultural workers need to discern the “swan flight” of each culture, or sub-culture, by diplomatically asking the above foundational questions and by listening very astutely. Having discerned the “flight pattern,” they need to adapt to the cultures’ swan flights in a redemptive Christ-centered way. This is entirely possible in that there are two variants for each axis: a Christ-centered interpretation for each axis, and a sinful human-centered interpretation. People can seek justice and honor and success and delight in appalling ways, or they can seek the same values in very worthy expressions. The same values can be sought in very selfish, bellicose, lustful, and carnal ways, or they can be sought in very godly, noble, sacrificial, harmonious ways. If it helps you, think of the swans in three ethical colors: red, yellow, and orange. Red is Christ-like, yellow is evil, and orange is a motley mixture of the two. Total “yellow swans” (let’s use Nazism as an example) are as rare in global cultures as in real life; most cultures are a study in mottled orange.

The Value Flight Pattern of Jesus
The ultimate of the red swans is an image of Christ as summarized so poetically in the Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb (see below).

This is rather remarkable. In the Lord Jesus Christ we have all four value axes in brilliant unity, like four red swans flying in faultless unison. This is perfection unknown to human cultures because humans invariably favor a stronger lead swan. This observation should protect us from enshrining any cultural flight pattern as being more “Christian.” Even in church/mission circles, we may mistake justice-led values as more Christian than, say, glory-led values, or delight-led values. We must dismiss this. One “lead swan” is not necessarily more Christ-like than any of the other three, nor is one value flight pattern more spiritual than the other possible variants.

No Christian Flight Pattern
There is a corollary deduction here. We must try to imagine each swan as not only a potential leader, but even as a potential co-leader, if not a tri-leader, or ideally an equal leader to the other values. As cultural students, we not only first, discern the value flight pattern of the culture, and second, redeem the pattern for the glory of Christ, but now third, we also exhort them to promote the other values to equalize their lead axis. If glory is first, fine, we must now exhort them to also make Christ-centered justice, and Christ-centered success, and Christ-centered delight of equal importance.

Here our best discipleship will be key to any outcome. And we will not be far off from what Paul exhorts to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable if anything is excellent or praiseworthy think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).

Cultures Change and People’s Values Change
Above all, we must see the fluidity of this rubric and the possibility for great change in cultures. Cultures can and must change. Take France as an example. During the reign of King Louis XVI it was all about French glory. Then came the passionate era of French justice, equality, and fraternity during the French Revolution. On its heels, and lasting well through the colonial era, came the staggering Napoleonic successes and expansion of power. And yet, since World War II, what better leads the French culture than its passion for pleasure, beauty, delight, adventure, and aesthetics? The other “French” values do not disappear, but dutifully fly behind in supporting roles.

Notice again how this might even be true for an individual. He or she may start life very zealous for delight and adventure, then become passionate for power and success, then by mid-life be chiefly devoted to justice, right choices, and correct decisions. However, by life’s end, he or she may be chiefly focused on honor and esteem. Even in families, children may differ in which “swan” takes the lead in their axis of highest pursuit. Expect the same in churches, missions, mission teams, classrooms, and Christian global organizations.

Our Task
Allow me to conclude by what we must discern, learn, and affirm. First, discern the unique four value axes in each culture, in each group, and what we have called “the flight pattern of the swans” in this article. Make a careful analysis of each group with which you work. You do well to study your own flight pattern, that of others, and that of your organization.

Second, learn how to speak the dominant value language of each culture, sub-culture, or global group. This means that when we are with, say our American Pentecostal colleagues, we learn to value the spiritual success and Holy Spirit power expressions which are so dear to them. (We may well say “Alleluia” more loudly than in our home church.) When we are with, say, our Korean Presbyterian colleagues, we learn to value and promote scriptural honor, Christian respect, and godly reputations. (We may even dress better and speak more politely than we usually do.) When we are with our French evangelical colleagues, we embrace what they cherish most in their French variation of delight-pleasure-adventure axis in a Christ-like way. (We may even end up learning to drink red wine!) And when we are with, say, our Dutch Reformed colleagues, we may passionately discuss and dialogue over justice issues and world concerns. (We may even enjoy a wonderful debate.) We can learn to speak the language of other values as clearly as learning other languages.

Third, grasp that Christ took upon himself all that we dread and fear the most, and he calls us to pass by the same path of suffering when we bring him to the nations. He took upon himself our guilt, shame, failure, and pain and carried them so that we receive his righteousness, glory, holiness, and power. No one has tasted both sides better, and we must imitate Christ. When we study and learn these values, please understand that Christ will identify with the deepest fears of each culture and free its people from them by his good news. This is the shocking language of Matthew 25 where King Jesus said, “What you did unto the least of these, you did unto me.” This is where our development and compassion ministries must blossom, and where cross-cultural missionaries must strive to minister: where Jesus says “I am hungry, I am thirsty, I am a stranger, I need clothes, I am sick, I am in prison” (Matt. 25:35-36 summarized).

Finally, affirm the possibility of change in the unique value flight patterns of each culture. A culture is no more fossilized in its value choices than a person. We must exhort lesser values to join rank alongside stronger values. We must be adamant here: we want all cultural “yellow and orange swans” to morph into “red swans” by the Spirit’s transforming power, and as we are doing this, we also want our “red swans” to fly increasingly toward unison. Is this realistic or even possible for a culture? Let’s say it’s a destination. Let’s not imagine swans only fly in circles! Our final destination is the imitation of Christ in our deepest values. And is there a better way to promote all power, glory, holy worship, and justice unto him whom our heart so passionately pursues? Is that not the destination for which global ministry teams should strive? Let’s do this as our mandate to cause all cultures and nations to exalt him who is worthy of all praise.


Benjamin Lee Hegeman, an Islamic missiologist with SIM, teaches an Islamic Concentration each spring semester at Houghton College in New York. He promotes Christian worldview teacher training in Francophone Niger and Baatonu pastoral training in Benin each fall semester.

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 166-171. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use, please visit our STORE (here).


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