That Time I Was Ashamed

Several years ago, Shon & I enjoyed a short trip to Washington D.C.. I loved the National Mall, stood in awe in front of the statue of Lincoln, and wished I could spend a lifetime at the Smithsonian. It was the Holocaust Museum though that shook me to the core and left the most lasting impression. I did expect to be moved by it but I did not know that it wouldn’t be the photographs of starving children or the piles of leather shoes that would bring me to tears. What broke me down was a rather small paragraph of text close to the end of the exhibit detailing the American response to Jewish refugees. As bizarre as it sounds, I don’t think I’ve been more ashamed in my life than I was at that moment. I remember reading about a ship full of Jews being turned around and sent back to Europe (over a quarter of those on the ship ended up dying in the Holocaust) and about Dominican Republic willing to accept more Jewish refugees than any of the first world countries. Since then I have learned that even Japan, Germany’s ally in WWII, saved thousands of Jews. The US though? The self-proclaimed Christian nation? Well, both the population and the government felt that accepting refugees would be too much for the economy, the argument of “they’ll take our jobs” was rather popular, and, well, anti-semitism was no joke.

Does any of it sound familiar?

Today, many of the same people who would agree that the United States should have done more during Holocaust are those adamantly opposed to bringing in Syrian refugees. Without even realizing it, they are using the same arguments their parents and grandparents used 70-something years ago.

Friends, if you call yourself Christian, does your Bible have different footnotes from mine? Is there an asterisk next to Matthew 25:35 that clarifies that “I was a stranger and you invited me in” only refers to said strangers of the same color/nationality/religious affiliation?

I understand some of the fear, I really do. It’s hard to open your heart to someone you don’t know and don’t understand, someone who seems so different from you at a first glance. I know that the potential threat of terrorism can be debilitating. But while it’s potential for us, it is very real for the people fleeing Syria. They have lived through horrors we can barely imagine. They have taken risks we’ve never contemplated. They have made choices I pray I never have to make.

To me, the idea of a child being shot at school by his caucasian classmate is just as scary as the idea of being shot at a concert by an ISIS member. The scarier thing though? Allowing fear to rob me of compassion, humanity, and willingness to take a risk of getting to know someone different.

At the Holocaust Museum in D.C., there is a room called “Genocide: the Threat Continues”. Its purpose is to bring attention to people at risk of mass atrocities. Right now, this room is hosting an exhibit on what the Museum calls “one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time” – the crisis in Syria. And since these people know a thing or two about genocide, it may be worth listening to what they have to say.

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Looking Through Expatriate Lenses

Take a look at a Salvador Dali painting. Step up close, and scrutinize the details. Words like “weird” come to mind. In some cases, though, if you take a step back, or maybe two, or ten, thereby altering your perspective, “weird” is no longer the best adjective. Distance offers clarity. You find yourself looking at the same thing in a much different way.

It’s no secret that as you get older your perspectives on things change. Now that word, “things,” is the kind of word that us English teachers despise. It’s nebulous, and could refer to just about anything. But it’s precisely the kind of word I need here. Because what is it that has changed? Which thing is it that I look at differently? Well, lots of things, you see. But I’ll focus on two for the sake of time and at least a modicum of precision.

Politics and religion. You know, the heavy and polarizing stuff. Stuff that makes enemies of friends and friends of enemies. Stuff which we often look at through extremely biased and partial lenses.

Points of view on these matters change naturally. This is the ebb and flow of life, of course, but it’s also more. It’s also the shifting of perspective that comes from not just age and experience, but the impact of life abroad in different cultures and different types of governance.

So what has changed about my political views, anyway? As an American, dear friend, I was a Republican with pronounced leanings toward Libertarian ideology. Now, I’m not. I don’t identify with any party these days. Paint me an independent. Why the shift? Because neither party has it right. The Republicans stand in the way of sensible legislation such as Net Neutrality, and they seem to be preventing the best aspects of Obama’s Affordable Care Act from helping the state of American taxpayers as it ought to. By the same means, it seems like Democrats object to everything that Republicans do. As a result of these political shenanigans, there are preposterous events like government shutdowns.

I’m not saying that another system in the world is better, and I’m not saying that the American one is doomed. I don’t pretend to be an expert on any system in particular. But I can see more clearly now that the American one needs improvement. Let me dwell on Obamacare for a minute. In the UAE, I’ve got great health insurance, thanks to my employer and the country’s laws. The best and most notable effect of it: living stress-free when it comes to health care. And let me tell you, it’s vastly superior to putting off trips to the doctor because you can’t figure out how the hell you’re going to pay for them. I’ve been there, and it’s not good. I’m on the opposite side now, able to go easily for medical care when the need arises and not think twice about it. There’s no reason why the excellent American healthcare system can’t be this accessible, too.

In essence, having some distance from ingrained ideas about political parties and about what the government should or shouldn’t do (such as stipulate insurance for individuals) has made a big difference in my viewpoint on the matter. Another area that my point of view has changed, thanks to travel, thanks to the expatriate experience, is religion. Now don’t misinterpret my remarks as anti-religious, or anti-anything. That’s the wrong way to take them. As a rule of thumb, I’ve always approached my religion from a fairly critical standpoint. If it defies reason, I have to question it. I could ramble on with a story or two, or perhaps offer a way that I’ve personally done this or that, but suffice it to say I think logic should be applied to everything in equal measure, and since religion shapes our perception of each other and the world, it’s especially important to consider in this way.

Salvador Dali’s “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean” becomes a picture of Abraham Lincoln when viewed from a distance. Try it–step back a few feet from your screen and have a look.

Besides mere logic, I can now see travel informing my beliefs. As I stood in front of the Buddhist shrine next to our hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, where the morning’s drink offerings stood, unconsumed by any sort of god except perhaps a touch of evaporation, I thought to myself, “This is absolutely ridiculous.” And then I wondered how ridiculous my church’s proceedings might look to uninformed Thai visitors. I’d say it’s pretty likely they’d shake their heads in bewilderment, just like I was doing, as I was pondering their religious customs. As I drove past throngs of Muslims descending upon the local mosque, all summoned by the loudspeaker-broadcast call, I thought that the crowds were like mindless worker bees swarming the hive. And, in all fairness, I wondered if my Christian brethren looked any different from this to the average non-Christian passerby as they gathered for services on a Sunday back home. On another occasion, I watched Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer and I contemplated the act. Muslim prayers are more about submission than anything else, as the word Islam suggests, whereas Christian ones can take on any number of forms–petitions, supplications, arguments, requests for forgiveness. In my life, some prayers seem to have been answered, but others vanished unheeded into the great abyss. What is the role of God in our day-to-day lives, I wondered, and what really draws us closer to Him?

This leads me to the conclusion, rather obvious, I know, that the larger things matter more than the small ones. What I do matters more than what I say, and what I say only matters if what I do supports it. Why do we quibble over so many little things, when the broader strokes make the most difference? I can apply this question to politics, and I can apply it to religion. Little things matter, it’s true, because they’re part of big things. But the big things should be the focus. Instead of dwelling on differences, we should seek similarities. We have much more in common than we have to fight over most of the time.

Drink offerings at a shrine in Bangkok.

Drink offerings at a shrine in Bangkok.

One of my buddies here in the UAE, Randy, talks about traveling to the greener pastures of life when one leaves the complacency of home behind, taking on the expat life. He hits on something important there, I think, because it takes distance to help us see some things clearly. Not unlike staring at one of Dali’s bizarre paintings up close, then stepping back to a distance and taking in the larger picture, experiencing other places and systems alters our perspective on things. It helps us see that there’s more to a thing than we first thought, and recognizing the greatness–the size and complexity–of things, as well as considering alternative ways of dealing with them, well, that’s worthwhile, isn’t it?