On cruising and colonialism and Christian ideas of community

I’ve learned a few things on my cruise of Greece and Turkey so far:

1) Much of the area that we call Athens is actually 43 distinct municipalities.
2) The national drink of Turkey is Raki (thus confirming the argument my parents’ Libyan friend in the 1960s consistently made that the Q’uran prohibits getting intoxicated, not drinking full stop, please pass the scotch).
3) I talk about colonialism and slavery a lot more than the average cruise passenger.

It’s as if I have enough social awareness to know that what I’m saying is impolitic, but not enough social override to be able to stop myself from saying it anyhow.

I really thought that the reason I talked about issues like colonialism and slavery was because of the context in which I work. It’s a well established fact that I’m a nerd and cannot shut off the systemic portion of my brain that sees in every situation something of global history and national history and power analysis. As a Christian (and particularly a Protestant) I can’t shut out issues of personal choice. However, unlike a lot of American Protestants (maybe it’s because I was raised in slightly more community-oriented and slightly less up-by-your-own-bootstraps cultures), that’s never the end of the story or even the bulk of the story. I love the reading of Christianity that says Jesus was about the work of building the realm of God on earth, which is a communal act, and that our central prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, is NOT written in the first person singular (My father…give me today my daily bread) but in the first person plural (OUR father, OUR daily bread). I convinced myself that this was all context driven. I even deceived myself that on holiday I might read nerdy books and write nerdy blog posts but my social interactions could be light and functional. By the pool in Acapulco where my Spanish covers the phrases, “Hello! How are you? Is that food good? Mexico is beautiful!” I could sustain this mythical self-perception, unless I met someone who spoke a lot of English and didn’t worry that talking politics would lose them their jobs–but even then, I mostly just listened and asked questions. But my parents got a killer deal to bring me on this cruise–$300 for two weeks–and the social niceties of cruising have disabused me of that story.

On cruises (unless you’re very anti-social and choose to defy this increasingly antiquated tradition and sit on your own), you are seated with other passengers at meals. You can stick to the safe subjects, and often people do–what other countries have you visited, where are you from, what brought you on this trip. However, even then people say things they believe to be innocuous that I can’t help but hear as lacking the systemic analysis that would help them see things through a different lens. (So now you know–whenever I annoyingly bring up politics when you were just trying to have a light and friendly conversation, in my head I’m trying to be helpful!)

At breakfast one day, this lovely military vet from Washington state said that on her third day, all sorts of misperceptions she had were being broken, in really good ways. One was her surprise, in flying through Charles DeGaulle airport, that French people could in fact be very nice. The other, in the same airport, was that Black people could be elegant and educated and sophisticated. (Yeah; I get why that’s a problem. At the same time, if you lived in Washington, how many images of Black people would you have besides what you see on TV. And in her defense, she understood that it was awful to realize she had that perception.)

Rather than offer some platitude about travel broadening our perspectives, guess who had to say “We continue to live with the spectre of slavery in America, don’t we?” and chat (non-judgmentally, I hope) about how we pretend that centuries of slavery had no impact on the Black community and how opportunities continue to be limited in the Black community as part of that legacy and how when despite those limitations, we blame any Black people who remain poor or uneducated, even while so many of us completely unconsciously discriminate against Black people in hiring and other opportunities because we have been taught all our lives about the inferiority of the Black community without even realizing it, and until we can honestly admit to that we will never overcome it.

It genuinely surprises me that she continues to sit with me at occasional meals.

So while I’ve learned a great deal about amazing and beautiful places, I’ve learned something about myself that, if you know me, you were already fully aware of: I have no off switch.

And a large part of that is intertwined with my spirituality. I had a New Testament Professor who described the Apostle Paul as having “All Jesus Radio all the time” in his head. Just yesterday I got to see Mars Hill, the spot from which Paul delivered perhaps his most famous speech, the sermon of the unknown God, in which he says to the Greeks that he has seen the depth of their devotion to many gods, including a temple to the unknown god (their catch-all for any gods they may have accidentally left out of the pantheon). “What you worship as unkown,” Paul said to them, “I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath and everything else…God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.” (The full story is Acts 17:16-33.) Mars Hill stands in the shadow of the Acropolis, which honors something else I treasure: democracy and the concept of a nation-state with full rights for its citizens.

I’ve been reading today, on our at-sea day, the book Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary about the history of Islam. It has described the distinct reformations of Christianity and Islam and makes some very true points about the Christian reformation that make me aware of what Christianity lost by becoming a western-shaped tradition: the reformation had in it the seeds of inividualism because the European nations were saturated with religious intermediaries connected to governance. The reformation may have intended itself to be a religious movement but it had profound political ramifications because it was connected to a driving sense of the need for personal salvation and how that was mediated. Islam, Ansary points out, did not orient itself towards the individual so much as the task of creating a faithful community. I believe this was also Jesus’ purpose as someone teaching in a middle eastern context particularly to a people who knew themselves first and foremost as a chosen people collectively, not as individually chosen people. But when Paul seeks to expand the message of Jesus, he has to take random individuals as they come, in all sorts of port towns all over the Roman Empire. (At Mars Hill, he recruits his first non-Jewish convert, Dionysius, a member of the Mars Hill council–a solitary if significant convert.) Paul nurtures community but has to place priority on recruiting converts one by one, never imagining nor putting forth the model for a Christian community as Jesus envisioned.

Perhaps all of my systemic chatter and incessant focus on issues like colonialism and slavery and my community orientation have something to do with this dream of building up a community instead of saving individual hearts and minds. And yet my chatter often happens one-on-one, because I’ll take every convert I can get to the vision of equity and human dignity and the possibility of each person, regardless of what society has taught you about “people like them.”

But a fairly glorious part of cruising is meeting other people with views that sometimes puzzle piece with your own. I went to the DIY Protestant service this morning, and two retired Church of Scotland pastors had taken the lead. One of them, during the community prayer, said, “God, we are here on a holiday and for us the Mediterranean is a fun and joyous place, but we remember that for many, it has become a graveyard. And so we pray for the refugees and for the countries that are receiving them. We pray that you would be in the hearts of these nations’ leaders that they may act on your compassion and your will, remembering your love first for the poor and the marginalized. We pray for the thousands of staff on this ship and we pray that as we interact with them and with each other that we would embody Christ in our actions.” And so we prayed for our individual actions and for the actions of a region that, in several different faiths, claims God as their reference point and guide.

Amen.

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