At Odds With AmericaEssays, Featured — By jessicaleighhoekstra on August 20, 2012 at 7:03 am
We have quite a story. Quite a history. Do you ever wonder how you are contributing to the history of the world? I believe in a world of wonders, and I believe that all of our lives contribute to the world’s story one way or another. Maybe it’s just naivety, but I like to think that my life makes a difference and that we truly can change the world for the better. This doesn’t come from a lack of knowledge, experience, or insight. I may be young, but I have seen a bit of mess and horror in the world. I have seen poverty more closely than most of my neighbors, and I am humbled by it. It plagues me and the land of luxury surrounding me. It is all too easy to sit in despair and judgment. Knowledge of the world can be so real, so raw, you can hardly imagine beauty and goodness. Reality is just that – real, tangible, experiential. I want to experience the world in all its fullness. I am thankful for these raw and startling experiences of wretchedness. They keep me grounded, humbled, and simple. But I am incredibly grateful for the interruptions of wonder, of being surprised by grace, and that hope makes its way into my spirit in some magical way.
I recently finished reading John Steinbeck’s account of travels across the country with his dog, Travels with Charley. He embarks on an unusual journey of wandering intention, with an ambition to learn something about America and the nature of humanity, ultimately wondering, “What are Americans like today?”
Near the end of his travels with Charley, a French standard poodle, Steinbeck makes his way through the south. It is 1960, when the turmoil between races was at its peak. Despite his best efforts, Steinbeck encounters racism in its most raw form when compelled to see firsthand the so-called “Cheerleaders,” a group of white women protesting the integration of black children in a New Orleans school. Steinbeck’s account of the scene is chilling. He recounts the milieu of “Cheerleaders” as “bestial and filthy”, unable to repeat the language used in jeers and shouts at the children. He describes the arrival of a “small, scared black mite,” a little girl who must make her way to school through a crowd of hate. Following the little black mite, Steinbeck recalls the appearance of a white man in a gray suit, who walks alongside his little white child through a sea of even greater contempt.
I do not consider myself a patriot. More often than not, I struggle with the elements of division, superiority, and blindness that have inundated America. Most conversations surrounding politics or religion make me want to turn in my citizenship for all the misunderstanding, disrespect, and division. I do not care to be grouped in that category of “American.” You might think that the violence, oppression, and genocide we have witnessed around the world is reason to believe America is excluded from the “inhumane,” but Steinbeck’s account from New Orleans is a testimony to the fact that we, too, are capable of losing our humanity for a moment.
Despite all of that, I do know this: we are blessed. We live in a nation of incredible abundance and progress. The more time I spend outside of the US, the more thankful I am for the seal on my passport. I find myself judging my neighbor and my nation, until I remember the incredible meal I just had, the college diploma on my shelf, how cozy my bed is, or that I have a job and a bank account. Sometimes I carry shame and embarrassment for how lavishly we live. Walking around the streets of Kolkata, I felt like royalty, but I was more sad than proud.
For the past few years, America and I have been at odds. I have been trying to reconcile myself to her, much like Steinbeck. Along the way, I have discovered hope, transformation, and humility. I know that we’ve got a lot of work to do yet, but I also know that we’ve come a long way. Rather than gain pride, I am more humbled to be an American. I have found a renewed sense of responsibility. Rather than try to shrug off the smell of America when I am in another country, I am compelled to embrace who and what I am, sharing my resources, knowledge, and experience.
Appalled at the hatred of the “Cheerleaders”, Steinbeck remembers that he has met good people in New Orleans, as well. There are others, who live lives of integrity and grace, who contribute to the advancement and creativity of humanity.
“But where were the others – the ones who would be proud they were of a species with the gray man – the ones whose arms would ache to gather up the small, scared black mite?” (p.196)
Such people had left New Orleans “misrepresented to the world.” He concludes that Southern people were afraid to change their way of life, afraid to encounter the inhumanity that had slipped past them. It always comes back to fear. Fear of who and what we don’t know, that which makes us uncomfortable and forces us to change. Fear can make people forget who they are. Furthermore, it has the power to cause people to forget who they were created to be.
Me. You. The “Cheerleaders.” John Steinbeck. The scared black mite. The gray man. It can overwhelm any of us.
My question is, what kind of story are we living? How do our lives factor in to the history of the world? If someone like John Steinbeck were to travel across America with his dog now, what would he find Americans are like today? Would he find that we’ve changed much in 50 years? I think it is the belief that we have changed that keeps me going. I believe that we have a responsibility to be the best possible representatives to the world of this little pocket of humanity.
One of my favorite things about the New York Times is the single image they select for the front page. Usually it’s something simple, poignant, perhaps overtly joyful or overtly painful. I wonder what would happen if we took all the images from the front page of the Times and lined them up. Would we see much of a change in the way the world works and the way humanity lives?
I can imagine a juxtaposition of images from the recent protests in Libya and a group of African American protesters from the Civil Rights movement, or an image of a mass grave from the genocide in Rwanda next to a group of scraggly men in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. What’s the difference? How are they similar? What have we learned? What are we doing about it?
What do you suppose God thinks of it all? Can you see him in these images?
I think Donald Miller is on to something when he says, “Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in. We think God is unjust, rather than a master storyteller” (p.31-32 A Million Miles in a Thousand Years).
I am sorry that this “bestial and filthy” record is a part of our history. I do not want to be a city or a nation or a people misrepresented to the world. I am grateful that we are a responsive people, with the ability to remember, acknowledge, confess, and forgive.
These days I have more questions than answers. I still can’t fully reconcile these images, these events, these people with the all-powerful, loving God I spoke with this morning. But I’ll end the day with my faith intact, knowing I’d rather go it with the Master Storyteller I don’t fully understand than with no one at all.
There are three things I believe to be true about all this: First, that God weeps with us.
Second, that God is weary of being called down on both sides of an argument.
And third, love wins.
Perhaps if we consider ourselves ambassadors of peace, we might be able to share our dream with Rwanda, Sudan, Libya, and Haiti. And if we come together with openness, in brotherhood, I believe they can teach us something great, too. Let’s do away with the us and them. We don’t need it. Because that’s not really us, and that’s probably not really them either. When heaven crashes into earth and we all come around the table, I’m not so sure the passport, flag, or political position will matter so much. I do not wish to sit at that table able to speak only of myself, nor do I wish to sit in shame. I only hope that I already know my neighbors and that we have joy in being different, together.