"American evangelicals in missions are enthusiastic, agressive, ambitious, slow to take no for an answer, quick to say yes to expansive projects, and quick to claim credit. Too often in East European ministry the American 'can-do' mentality runs roughshod over Slavic sensibilities...." So a West European visitor in my office recently explained to me. Even as I grudgingly admitted the truth of much of what I was hearing, I wondered about my guest's own cultural sensitivity. He knew the old East Bloc, and he had a point, but he was hardly endearing. All Western Christians ministering in East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union need to remind themselves of the futility of being right, without being winsome.
At present, one of the least endearing pastimes of Western Christian workers in the former Soviet Union is the trade in Russian jokes. Prior to the collapse of Communist Party rule, the element of bureaucratic blindness and stupidity, so often present in Soviet humor, could be attributed to the shortcomings Marxism. I think of the old explanation for the difference between capitalism and communism: capitalism is man's exploitation of man; and communism is just the opposite. But with party rule a thing of the past, system-bashing humor now can take on the coloration of ethnic jokes.
"Relax, Russians tell Russian jokes," humorists protest. My response is, "That is their business." But if non-Russians tell Russian jokes, they can be a subtle, even if unconscious, expression of racism. And whether racist or not, they unquestionably wound feelings. I have seen a new Christian in Moscow wilt in the crossfire of Western missionaries exchanging Russian jokes. It is high time non-Russians in ministry commit to a moratorium on Russian jokes.
The Best Russian Joke We've Heard
Missionary One: Have you heard the one about the Russian mechanic?
Missionary Two: I'd rather not.
For a thought-provoking and entertaining treatment of humor in the old East Bloc see: Gyorgy Dalos, "Is the East European Joke Finished?" The Hungarian Quarterly 34 (Summer 1993): 113-23
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© 1994 Institute for East-West Christian Studies