Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Render unto Caesar...

You know how some people use Facebook, blogs and text messages to quote what they are reading? They put great thoughts out there, but I feel cheated. “What’s on Brent’s heart that led him to send that verse? How does Steve relate to this author? Does Krista relate this philosopher with the different one she quoted last week? What is happening in her thinking?” I want to hear what the person I care about, the one who wanted others to see that quote, is thinking and experiencing.

So, you friends with the quotes, this is for you. Steve, in Turkey, posted something a dead journalist called Sydney J. Harris said a long time ago. I copied the quote and have been kicking it around in odd moments ever since. What started as a quick essay three weeks ago has turned into a meandering ramble. If you are in the mood for it, keep reading. Steve, you had better read on, AND say something back. Because you got me started.

The other day, at a gathering of expatriates in Gökseke (Turkey), a woman asked about life in the Middle East. “Do you have many friendships with locals?” I tried to describe Abu Dhabi where maybe only13% of the population is local and the rest are expats from everywhere. “I have a few Emirati friends, but it is difficult. Curt has more through work.” I talked about cultural differences: how most nationals do not socialize as couples, and women do not venture out unaccompanied to meet foreigners for coffee or visit the home of someone outside of her family or tribe, about the focus on family and extended family.

My questioner’s shocked voice: “But I would have thought that at least some of the women are educated, modern, working in careers!”

UAE nationals, male or female, that I meet are well-educated and in careers. That does not mean they have adopted western patterns of dress or socializing, which is, I guess, what was meant by “modern.” With those women who do pursue friendship I dance a delicate dance of exploration as we visit the other’s home or attend weddings and other festival gatherings. We chat by email or text messages--flowery greetings and loving thoughts. Rewarding, but a lot of work with willingness among all to be confused, to feel awkward, and to forgive faux pas.

Why assume that ways different from my own are wrong, or that local women are chaffing to be more like me?

Take the covering. In the West it stands as a symbol of oppression. But where I live the shimmery black abaya is a mark of self-respect and decency. And a fashion statement that may bear a Parisian designer label. Sometimes I interrupt my bustle to sit in a coffee shop and watch the kaleidoscope of people amble by. White dish-dash and gutra, sandaled feet, flowing shirts and baggy trousers. Indian women in bright shalwars and saris, Filipinas in simple jeans and t-shirts. And, invariably, frumpy and flushed Westerners like me in wrinkled tops and crop pants. Local women glide by in elegant black. Anything could be underneath! I wonder whether they might be on to something.

Of late, Turkey has been in the news. Prime Minister Erdogan had the audacity to speak forthrightly against Israel’s attack on a Turkish flotilla bringing humanitarian aid to Palestinians in blockaded Gaza. Nine Turks were killed. America’s response: “How dare you, Turkey! Don’t you know we like Israel?” The US objects to Turkey’s growing relationships with its Middle Eastern neighbors, especially Iran, supplier of energy second only to Russia. The tone is deprecating, as though Turkey was not the fifteenth largest economy in the world and the sixth largest in Europe. As though Turkey is dependant on the US for aid, which it is not. As though Turkey’s application to the EU has not been vehemently opposed because most of Turkey’s 75 million people are Muslim. Turkey is a secular democracy with strong historic and cultural ties to Europe, but it shares borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Is it not the most reasonable thing for Turkey to cultivate political and economic ties with all its neighbors?

Which brings me (at last) to the quote Steve posted on Facebook:

"Patriotism is proud of a country's virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country's virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, 'the greatest', but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is." Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author (1917-1986)

Provocative. I come from a nation founded on concepts like the equal dignity of all human beings, inalienable rights, democratic self-determination. I love that! These ideals form part of what has enabled us to thrive and to lead in the world. The American system of law and justice that protects rights, of reasonableness that overcomes corrupt oppression—well, some days I long for those tools of my home place to set wrongs right in other dominions. But there is a dark side, too. Is the US not the nation that conspired to overthrow Iran’s duly-elected government to re-install the Shah in 1953 and protect our oil interest? Did we not arm, train and otherwise resource the people who later became the Taliban and Al Qaeda when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979? Have we not repeatedly intervened in the affairs of sovereign nations to further a US agenda with little regard for the consequences to those peoples? How many hundreds of thousands (much debated, with figures ranging from 100,000 to 1,000,000 Iraqi casualties) have died in Iraq because the individual terrorist Osama bin Ladan, former ally of the US in Afghanistan, flew commercial jets into buildings and killed 2,995 (including the 19 highjackers and nationals of 70 other countries) on US soil? Where is nobility in that? What will fill the vacuum?

Perhaps I oversimplify, but Harris compels me. Convicts me. “Greatness is not required…;” he whispers, “only goodness is.” He speaks to nations, to our political allegiance. But his truth echoes for me in arenas of culture and ethnic identity, political party and denomination. How easy it is to take such pride in our nation, church or human family that we forget humility, truth, wide-eyed delight in diversity, and generous equanimity; so that we seek only to be first, and forget to love.

“Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and unto God that which belongs to God.” (Collective gasp! Words so profound that all three synoptic gospel writers record them.) Jesus spoke in response to one of those “trick questions” that was supposed to trap the Lord of the Universe into either declaring against Caesar (sedition) or against God (blasphemy). (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26.) Allegiance to state, social group or institution is never co-extensive (nor should it be allowed to compete) with faithfulness to the Lord of the Universe.

We who follow Jesus sometimes forget that our overriding loyalty must always be to Him—to love what He loves, to hate injustice, greed and a self-protective spirit that runs roughshod over others and over truth—wherever we find it. For Jesus, “If anyone wants to be first (great), he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35.) “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you,” He explained after he washed their dirty feet. “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:1-17.)

Harris has much to say to me as a follower of Jesus who is also American, expatriate, and someone others look to for direction or leadership. Am I honest about failings as well as virtues of my nation, culture, or faith group? Do I speak meanly about those with whom I disagree? Do I forget to listen before I tell people what “should” happen? Or how things are done where I come from? Do I consider their interests and needs? How often to I teach when I should free another to make her own discovery? Do I forget to listen, period? Am I open to something different than my habit? Do I seek and celebrate beauty wherever I find it? Or ever wonder whether their way might actually be better, worthy of imitation, or at least worthy of respect?

O Lord Jesus, I confess that I critique, condemn, compete, and seek my interest even though You modeled and called me to mirror Your benevolence, charity, equanimity, and delight in the dignity of all people. I am of an arrogant and complacent people--nation, church, social class. We assume our ways and interests are superior. We strive for greatness more than we pursue goodness. O Lord Jesus, teach us gratitude that values your good gifts of heritage and identity while granting legitimacy, respect, and grace that opens doors of relationship with those not like us. Grant us longing to bring glory to You.


BigMitt said...

Jeri -- I didn't chew on Harris' words so long, but they resonated as true and thus worthy of embrace and public posting. Thanks for working through this for my (our) benefit. I have seen the ugly side of patriotism (actually nationalism), and know that such attitudes are unbecoming to a follower of the Christ. But those attitudes are insidious and poison silently, progressively. I need the continual reminder that I am an alien and stranger -- a citizen of heaven -- first, and a US passport holder

Sharon said...

Dear Jeri,

Thanks for this thought provoking piece. This part resonates especially with me:
"Allegiance to state, social group or institution is never co-extensive (nor should it be allowed to compete) with faithfulness to the Lord of the Universe."
In the last few days I have been thinking about the fruit of the spirit and how important it is to exhibit it in any and every situation--maybe the extent to which we can do that is a way to check if we are truly walking by faith?

Kathleen Overby said...

I want to comment on your opening lines. Dr. Jeff Keuss
spoke this morning on 'ipod, youtube, wiifit' and how young people communicate. He said we are willing to be vulnerable, instead of intimate. Intimacy is a risk and costs us something. I loved how you said you feel cheated when you don't know what was behind the quote or why it meant something to someone. It's because people are statusing vulnerable things, and we all want invited into intimacy. It's cool how your post across the world connected with me and what was presented this morning. Dot to dot to dot.....

Jeri said...

So good to hear from you, Steve. You always post such interesting stuff, and I love conversation. Still musing over your comment, Kathleen. For me, FB is like being in a huge room with lots of people I know, all chatting away. I catch snippets of what they have to say, interact a bit with what catches my interest, and move on. I've never been good at cocktail parties, though, unless I find someone to get into something more with.