Untied State of Ambivalence

 

"The stranger who comes home does not make himself at home but makes home strange." --Marion Zimmer Bradley

It's an old theme in literature: a young person leaves home to sojourn in other parts of the world or, if it's science fiction, on another planet, another star system, perhaps a different time or dimension. After a prolonged absence, the protagonist returns, transformed by the experience. Not only is he or she a different person, but through those differences, the home town or planet is also changed.

I left America in 1988 to be a student pastor in Cheadle, Cheshire, a suburb of Manchester, England. I went with my wife, and while we were there, we had a child, Sarah, who will forever carry the distinction of an irregular birth certificate. (And no, she does not have dual citizenship; that possibility was shut down by the British a few years earlier to keep foreigners from having babies in Britain just so they could come back and take advantage of National Health. More's the pity.) We traveled extensively while we were there, touring most of Britain (our favorite parts were Scotland and Wales), as well as spending nine days on the continent and a week in Ireland. All told, we were there for two years, and it changed me so much that, for many years, I was homesick for England.

I know one of the things I missed most was the acceptance I felt after my first year. We rescued our church from a difficult situation by volunteering to stay an extra year; otherwise, they would've been without any pastoral leadership for that year, possible for another, as well. It gave them breathing room, time to find another pastor to take place of the man who was supposed to follow us, but who resigned shortly before our original departure date. (At the time, I couldn't imagine doing what he had, though a quarter century later, with my own ministerial career receding, it's far less of a mystery to me.) There was so much good will for us for what we'd done, as well as love for our baby, that that second year was the highpoint of my career. I felt so supported, so connected to those people, as well as to our colleagues in the Bramhall Methodist Circuit, that leaving was like being pushed out of an airlock into a vacuum.

I came back to Perkins School of Theology, the seminary of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. It had been three years since I'd set foot on campus. None of the students I'd known during my previous two years there was left, and several professors were gone, as well. The library had undergone a massive renovation. Off campus, several of our favorite eateries had closed. But overall, it was the same place I'd known before--though it felt very different.

What had really changed, of course, was me.

There's no better cure for a narrow mind than living in another country. I went to England naïve, curious, with no real idea of what I'd find. The places I visited, the sights I saw, all impressed me with their elegance and beauty, but especially with their age. What really changed me, though, was the people: the friends, parishioners, colleagues, hosts, cashiers, waiters, guides, salespeople, letter carriers, doctors, dentists, strangers. Everyone I met and interacted with, and even people I only observed in passing, expanded my consciousness.

I'd been a stranger many times before. At 27, I'd already been across the United States a dozen times, had made many trips to Canada, and been to Mexico twice. I felt no insecurity about being a foreigner. What was different in Europe was being an American overseas, representing the world's greatest superpower in a part of the world that really had no use for superpowers. Europeans had, after all, invented the democracy of which my nation was so proud, had created the music and art that I loved, the language of my thoughts, the very substance of my identity. The USA may exist as a rebellious schismatic offshoot of Europe, but just as Protestants would not exist without the Catholic Church they originally protested, without Europe, there would be no America. Europeans look at us, perhaps envy our guileless optimism and assertiveness, but for the most part are very happy not to be us.

So Europe put the squeeze on my essential American expansiveness. At the same time, it yanked off my American blinders to the rest of the world: to the sheer jaw-dropping ancientness of Western civilization (thousands of years next to our mere hundreds), the spectacular diversity of cultures within a single small nation, not to mention the tossed salad of languages one encounters on a European rail trip. Exploring countries that had existed in some form since prehistory gave me great perspective on how relatively infantile my own culture was.

After two years immersed in this rich milieu, reentry into American culture shocked my system. We began by flying to my family home in Oregon, where everything seemed fresh, naïve, immature. We then flew to Brenda's home in northern New York, an area that had once impressed me with the age of its farming culture--and which now seemed only slightly less infantile than Oregon. The rudest shock of all was Dallas, a place of bourgeoisie excess, brassy pride, and mindless jingoistic patriotism. All these tendencies were heightened as the Gulf War began and ended. Peace activists his for fear of media lynching. Bright yellow ribbons went up on every freestanding tree, pole, column, signpost, and those ribbons were not just about bringing boys home safely. They were pro-war symbols, pro-American symbols, and not to embrace that message, not to wear a ribbon on one's lapel, was to be considered anti-American.

At least, that's how it came across to me. I'm sure I'm reading much of my European cultural withdrawal into the atmosphere of 1991 Dallas; but I'm also drawing on what my more vocal seminary classmates were saying at the time. I wasn't hearing a lot of globalism. I was hearing pro-American propaganda, and it sickened me.

The day the war officially ended, I heard a figure on NPR: as many as 100,000 Iraqis had died in the conflict. Comparing this figure to the number of American coalition troops who had died (less than 200), and hearing my President (George H.W. Bush) insist that this had been a just war, I cracked. I walked out of the married student dorm and over to the university chapel, where every column was festooned with a huge yellow ribbon, and pulled down those ribbons, stuffing them in the nearest trash can. For the next week, I continued my campaign of ribbon removal, doing my best to do it surreptitiously--no matter what I believed about the symbolism of the ribbons, the last thing I wanted was a confrontation--until I was caught in the act by an undergrad who threatened to turn me in. We had an argument, and he eventually walked away; but I was undaunted. I continued to pull down the remaining campus ribbons until they were all gone.

We finished out the year, received our MDiv diplomas, and drove up to Oregon to begin our post-seminary ministerial careers. It was a muted homecoming for me, and the beginning of the end of our marriage. Four years later I would be ordained an elder as I was in the midst of my divorce from Brenda. I would preach often in the next few years about the narrowness of the American mind and the importance of opening one's heart to the wider world around us. Progress would be made, administrations would change, and ten years later, a terrorist attack would provide justification for a far bloodier campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan. During this second Iraqi invasion, I would make no attempt to hide my disapproval, and I would be in good company: most of the city of Portland was with me.

But back then, 22 years ago, I felt alone in my sense of the wideness of the world, the beauty of its diversity, and the wrongness of American exceptionalism. We are a great country, founded on democratic principles, and those principles have continued to be hard-fought at the cost of many lives; but we are far from perfect. This nation would benefit from more young people traveling overseas, coming back home to make home stranger, vaster, more welcoming to new people, more accepting of those who are different from the mainstream.

I do love my country. There is much about America that is admirable. I'm sure much of the antipathy I experienced overseas toward Americans grew out of the oblivious boasting of Republican presidents. President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize came not as a reward for accomplishments, but as a symbol of the hope he embodied that somehow this nation could practice what it preached for a change. I shared that hope during the first years of the Obama administration, but have felt it fading in the face of conservative opposition to a globalist foreign policy, and in the president's reluctance to make such a policy a priority.

As a nation, America has been stomping around the world in heavy boots when what the world needs most is leave-no-trace tip-toeing. As a people, Americans have the resources, the ingenuity, and the generosity to heal much that is broken; unfortunately, we lack the humility to acknowledge that it is our bumbling that has done much of the breaking.

There was one thing I did in England as an American that I am unashamed to boast about. Many British churches have a "flag service," a Sunday on which whatever youth organization is sponsored by that church (Scouts, Guides, the Boys' Brigade in the case of our church) processes a British flag during the opening hymn, and hands it to the pastor, who posts that flag. As Americans, we had an issue with this: we believed it represented submission to the Crown, and beyond that, it violated our belief in the separation of Church and State. This was extremely hard for our congregation to understand; in fact, modern England had been founded on the principle of church submission to the state, which was itself a rebellious act against the church of Rome. We held to our beliefs on this, but agreed to a compromise: we would stand at the front of the sanctuary, respectfully greeting the color guard, but they would themselves have to post the flags. That seemed to appease the patriots in the church, and I hope they learned something from us in the process.

That's how I would like my country to present itself to the world: quietly but firmly holding to the principles of democracy that are our greatest gift to the world, while respectfully acknowledging the incalculable contributions of others to the diverse beauty of humanity. 

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