Oh, to be a Hedgehog or a Fox?

I’ve had Dietrich Bonhoeffer on my mind a lot lately. If you’re not sure who that is, Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian who at the cost of his life had the courage to speak out against injustices of the Third Reich. He was eventually accused by the Nazis of his participation in a plot to assassinate the Führer.

Bonhoeffer really throws a kink into how I understand what it means to be a Christian. Here was a guy who had every reason to denounce the religion altogether. In his context, Christianity had become a silent supporter of the Nazi Party. So, there’s obvious heroism in Bonhoeffer’s willingness to speak openly against the Nazis, but what I find perhaps more shocking and heroic about Bonhoeffer (looking back from my 21st century context) is that he remained Christian, that he never allowed the culture to determine what Christianity meant to him.

I’m not sure we live in a world that affords us that courage anymore. Culture overpowers us. If we don’t like the culture of something, we run from it rather than confront or change it. We attempt to divorce ourselves (and others) from that identity and take on something new. Bonhoeffer confronted Nazi Christians; we run away from Christianity over homophobia and bigotry. Lately, I’ve caught myself doing just that – trying to distance myself (through language) from “Christians” I don’t like. In the midst of Obama saying that “ISIL is not Islamic,” I’ve agreed: ISIL is no more a part of Islam than West Boro Baptist, or the KKK, is Christian. But then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life seems to say otherwise. That is, it makes it a lot harder to say that “ISIL is not Islamic” simply because they’re extremists. In a way, Bonhoeffer was an extremist, too, just the kind of extremist we happen to agree with today.

My working theory up until now has been that as one’s ideology approaches an extreme on any given ideological scale, the likelihood increases that he or she ceases to adhere to their claimed ideology to instead favor a new set of principles altogether. Seems logical enough, right? But the kink in the theory is that it relies entirely on cultural perception. Who defines ‘extremism’? Who defines the “norms”? Some of the most renowned religious figures throughout history might well be “extremists,” or at the very least counter-cultural enough that they questioned the norms of their religion and traditions. Kinda like Jesus.

So, does it all just boil down to self-identity? I am who I say I am and, for each of us, that’s final? We may choose to say “ISIL is Islamic,” because they say so, but judging by their actions it seems that they’re just really, really bad at being Muslim. Or, perhaps the KKK is Christian – simply because they claim to be. They’re just really terrible Christians (in the opinion of many). To say as much is a commentary on their actions – the how, not on their identity – the what. To put that another way, if we were to separate the how from the what, we’d be saying that a person’s “true” identity is not really our judgment call. Or that we can judge a person’s actions based on the evidence of harm but cannot judge their inner reasoning or their heart. To make that argument is ultimately to say that a person’s identity is left to themselves – or to God or to Allah. But I don’t find that satisfactory. I want to believe we can strip people of the labels (and, thereby, the power) they claim lest we devolve into some kind of Sheilaism, or new age relativism. But who am I to strip anyone of their label? What a shame it was those who silenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or those who tried to silence Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to say we want to strip people of their identity when the people we’re talking about are beheading innocents. But what happens when we’re the ones doing the beheadings?

And yet, ironically, Bonhoeffer had no qualms calling Hitler the antichrist, because to him, that’s how Hitler lived. Perhaps because of his encounter with social justice movements of American Christianity, the young theologian didn’t separate the inner identity (faith or “the what”) from the action (practice or “the how”) the way some of us might today. On this note, one author writes:

…as an undergraduate, Bonhoeffer joined a university fraternity, the Hedgehogs. The Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided the world, intellectually, between the ‘Fox’ and the ‘Hedgehog.’ While the Fox’s worldview draws upon a diversity of ideas and experiences, the Hedgehog claims to know one big, supremely important thing. Theologically, Bonhoeffer may have had the Fox’s broadmindedness, but in his highest convictions, he was a Hedgehog. His one big thing was that Christianity is not merely a matter of what one believes, but of how one lives.”

And that seems to be my dilemma here. It’s said that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing),” and those are the two worlds I juggle. Am I to be the Fox proclaiming, “To each his own,” the way our postmodern world beckons us or the Hedgehog melding faith and works with a set proclamation that “right is right,” and “I know it when I see it“?

The truth is, I fear, even if I could find some way to be a fox, I’d probably be a hedgehog about it.

Language as Culture

For most places in the world, you can tell what culture someone’s a product of by the language he or she uses. On a grand scale, that’s really basic and makes plenty of sense. A native Arabic speaker, for example, is probably Muslim, whereas a native speaker of Mandarin has probably been immersed in the culture of China. I realize there’s plenty of exceptions to those rules, especially in America where we’re a hodgepodge of cultures. But as a general rule, the language that we speak speaks volumes about our cultural knowledge. Even on a smaller scale, and this gets to the heart of my point, people in the corporate world use words like “digitization” or “globalization” or “Six Sigma,” whatever that is. People who are part of governmental agencies are fluent in a long list of acronyms like USAID, NGO, NSA, RPCV, etc. So, it’s not just the culture of a country. Organizations, institutions, religions all have their own language, and if you know and engage the language fluently, then it stands to reason that your identity is related to whatever that culture might be.

If all of that sounds a little too common sensical, I figured I’d lay out the problem: There are certain languages that I know but choose not to speak because I don’t want to be associated with that culture. Christianese, for example, engages in a language of Evangelical Christian culture. You won’t catch me saying something like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” or “Let’s get the prayer warriors together.” And yet, the fact that I know the language as well as I do, on some level at least, suggests that the Evangelical cultural identity is one that I understand and will never fully shed. Even if I was never completely immersed in that culture as someone who came from a more liberal church, it’s part of growing up in the Bible belt. Like a comedian who pokes fun at something, you are (at least somewhat) what you critique. Or put another way, if a Moroccan who speaks fluent Arabic moves to France, wears French clothes, and only speaks in French, are they still a Moroccan? Of course, and they always will be.

One of my favorite stories from college came from a professor who was making fun of new age religious folks. He told a story of a young man – a Westerner – who traveled to meet the Dalai Lama desperate to figure out what to do to achieve enlightenment. When the youth finally met His Holiness, he explained, “I meditate and meditate but nothing ever happens. What am I doing wrong?” The Dalai Lama looked at him, chuckled in his usual “everything is funny” sort of way and said, “You want to achieve enlightenment? Go home and be a Christian.” I both love and hate that story. I love it because it says something true to me about how we are what we’re raised to be and will always carry that with us no matter where we go. I hate it for the exact same reason. Some languages we need to shed, forget, or ignore no matter how much a part of us it is. And yet, at the same time, it raises important theological questions for me –

Who decides what language is appropriate or what identity it carries? What magic box does that derive from? Remember several years ago when everyone wore the “WWJD” – “What would Jesus do?” – bracelets? That’s a good example of someone jumping on a decent marketing idea without ever actually theologically-engaging what they were doing. What would Jesus do? Probably not wear this stupid bracelet. In our modern era where everything is driven by competition, capitalism, and money (the modern triune god), I guess I’m far more skeptical of religious language, because I don’t trust the culture – a culture often obsessed with being relevant for the sake of increasing membership. Maybe there was a time where the language was more honest, searched out, tested, and maybe even during that time, I’d just as easily have questioned or eschewed that language and the culture it entailed.

But to push back on this notion that we are the language we engage, try as they might have, no one decided at the Council of Nicaea what being a Christian was. Did they issue creeds that had a lasting impact? Sure. But to say that what it means to be Christian has been remotely uniform since 325 CE would be incredibly naive. In fact, to say that being Christian means the same thing in 2014 that it meant in 1914 is just as untrue. There’s not some magic box or succinct, clear language that provides one answer throughout history for what it means to be a part of any religion, because there hasn’t been one language or one culture driving the narrative or how it was told. To me, on some level at least, that means that the language I choose to use to describe myself, the culture I engage in or maybe even create from scratch, is wholly mine. That’s not to discredit tradition; it’s to value that we’re just as capable of making our own traditions out of the ones we’ve been handed by our forefathers and foremothers. So, while I value tradition and the power of it, I believe each one of us are just as capable of deciding what our language means and how we should carry it into the future. But that doesn’t happen without community, without challenging one another on what we mean, or without creatively looking both backward and forward at the same time. Because we want our language tomorrow to be better than the language we used today.

Everything is Perception (except what’s not)

I know a lot of Americans (family members included) who sometimes say that if you’re not from America, you don’t really have a right to criticize or speak badly of America.  Of immigrants who aren’t American citizens, I hear it said, “If you don’t like it here, then go home, but don’t stay here and just complain.”

I suppose you could say I sort of approach Morocco with that mindset.  I mean, I realize it’s an entirely different scenario.  After all, Morocco isn’t bombing Canada, Britain, or other American allies, one factor that might make it more difficult to approach Morocco with such respect.

But I still try to view my experience here as humbly as possible, remembering this isn’t my Kingdom, and it’s incredibly gracious and welcoming of the Kingdom of Morocco that I’m even allowed to be here doing what I do.   I remind myself: I might live here, but I’m not Moroccan.  It’s not really my place to criticize Morocco or Moroccan politics or Moroccan culture.  If you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Morocco, and you decide at some point that you don’t like Morocco, go home.  Even the Country Director will tell you that.

And yet, the more I love Morocco, the more willing I am to openly criticize the things about this culture that make me uncomfortable.   That makes sense, right?  As an American, when we challenge the status quo and criticize the way things happen, we do so because we want things to be better or because we know things can be better.  You cannot form a “more perfect union” without understanding what about the union needs to be perfected.  

I think part of living and working in a different culture automatically implies that you’re bound to encounter whatever needs perfecting.  The question is, how long do you have to live there before it’s okay to say, “Yeah, this is messed up”?  That’s where this gets really sticky for me.  Because when you’re a foreigner, it’s so easy to step into an unknown place and misdiagnose whatever you might think is an “illness.”  Or just to speak in more general terms, one mistake we often make as foreigners is to view everything in “foreign” terms solely because it’s “foreign” to us.  But just because something is different from me doesn’t make it wholly different.

Let me be more specific.  One phrase I catch myself saying too often is, “Wow, that was so Moroccan.”  It’s as if to say that almost anything I see that’s different from my American mindset fits into a nice category I can conveniently call “Moroccan.”  Just to illustrate how absurd that is, can you imagine a foreigner showing up at an American restaurant and remarking, “Wow, Philip just used a fork to eat his meal.  That’s so American.”  American, relative to what?  To that foreigner’s experience of eating habits in other cultures or in their own culture?  Maybe.  But while “eating habits” can certainly describe one aspect of a culture, eating habits are not the sum of that culture.  That I eat with a fork is not what makes me an American.  And even if it was, what about Americans who eat with chopsticks?  Sporks?  Their hands?  At best, your eating habits only offer a very small glimpse into a cultural experience.  It doesn’t offer the kind of glimpse that gives you the right to then make a blanket generalization about what that eating habit might entail.

And let’s be honest.  Eating habits are a relatively mundane topic.  What about dating styles?  Sexual harassment?  What about religious or political beliefs?  To properly understand and define a culture, you have to understand first that culture is really a kind of smorgasbord of everything from religious ritual to eating habits to language to, well, the works.  I could live here the rest of my life and never understand Moroccan culture fully.  Because every time I return to the smorgasbord, it’s a little different; there’s always a new food to try, or maybe even different cooks this time.

And yet, while I’m okay with admitting that I’ll never fully experience the buffet (to keep running with the metaphor), I didn’t like broccoli the first time.  And I’m not going to like it now.  There are just some things about Morocco, just as there are some things about America, that I do not like, and I’m in the slow process of figuring out how to be honest about those things without either generalizing or offending.  It’s a matter of figuring out how to be honest about those things, not because I want Morocco to be more like America or more Westernized, necessarily, but because I want Morocco to be a better place for Morocco.  

I’ll spare you (for now) in listening to any complaints I might have (you should thank me, considering I just got evicted from my house, am constipated, and dropped my phone in my turkish toilet earlier [at least I was constipated]), but I’m hoping as this next year unfolds, I can find a graceful way to speak honestly about what I sometimes find uncomfortable in a culture that’s not my own, and in the meantime, I’ll try to appreciate more when American immigrants (or really, anyone who lacks an American passport) might have complaints about my own culture.  I’ll not be quite as quick to dismiss what they have to say, because they might have some good advice that’s worth hearing.  And when it comes to forming more perfect unions, advice from those we disagree with or from those who are foreign to us should be just as important as advice from our own citizenry.  We can learn a lot about ourselves from those who are not us.

Summer Camp, or Fat Tony’s Taste of American Culture

I guess when I think of “summer camp,” there are sort of grandiose images that pop into my head with s’mores and campfires, long hikes through the woods, boat rides and swimming pools, lots of hard work, laughter, and love.  But the El Jadida Summer English Immersion Camp I worked through Peace Corps didn’t quite fit that description.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a positive experience.  I think many of the Moroccan youth who came to “summer camp” will go home tomorrow wishing they could stay.  Listening to them this morning describe their camp experience, they used words like “respect” and “patience” and “fun,” so I feel assured that this has been a good two weeks for them, and I take real pride in that fact, but I also have this overwhelming sense that English camp is not my forté and that I belong in a different realm when it comes to leading camps.  Or rather, I just don’t work as well when there’s a language and cultural barrier (I’m yet to decide how much of that stems from the fact that I’ve never worked a camp in a secular setting before now).  I could go off on a tangent about those thoughts for hours, but instead, I’d rather offer you a few questions that really hit me this past two weeks that I think are worth addressing:

1. What is poverty?  

I think we have this tendency to think of poverty as purely economical.  I mean, sometimes, you’ll hear theologians or philosophers talk about poverty in more abstract terms, as if to imply that even monetary wealth doesn’t guarantee emotional or spiritual wealth.  That’s a no-brainer; the Beatles had that much figured out.  But this week of camp pushed it beyond that for me.

The El Jadida Summer Camp is funded by the United States Embassy, which puts forth scholarship money for youth who are living in rural communities to be able to afford to come to camp (about $120 per camper covers lodging and food for a week).  That means half of the camp is chosen by Peace Corps Volunteers.  The other half of the camp consists of youth who are living in bigger cities, namely Casablanca and Rabat, and are very capable of affording camp and bringing their iPhone with them.  That mixture of classes creates quite an interesting dynamic (that plays out in many different ways right down to what languages people speak and how those language might be used to empower certain individuals).  In many cases, the “rich kids” and the “poor kids” (and I think that dichotomy is a real one) just didn’t interact well, and all the judgments were pretty typical of what you’d expect to see in a public high school in America where cliques form around socio-economic class.  So, no huge surprises there.

After all, economic inequality is an issue across the world.  In the United States, the income gap between the poor and the rich seems to be growing wider and wider all the time – to the point that it’s been dominating conversations in the political sphere as of late, and Morocco, being a developing country, deals with its own levels of economic inequality.  But the difference between economic inequality in a developing country and inequality in the United States is worth mentioning, because measuring that inequality solely on income figures misses something huge: opportunities.

A family here might be “wealthy” with a large home, fields upon fields of olive trees and plenty of livestock (and they are tied to that land if they wish to keep that wealth).  That family might even be wealthier than a family living in Rabat or Casablanca.  But the family whose wealth is attained through business happening in the big city has far more opportunities for their children (and themselves), because they live in a developed place.  The smaller your village, the fewer your opportunities.  Youth in Caity or Avery’s villages, for example, must travel almost an hour to my town just to attend high school.  In fact, Caity had been working diligently to try to find funding for a school bus for her village, so that girls in her community could actually receive an education.

Sometimes, the youth in the larger cities may not have as much money as some of their peers living in rural communities, but they have a wealth of opportunities, which changes the meaning of poverty entirely.  Wealth is all about opportunity.  And real poverty is a kid sitting on a desert rock with nothing else to do because his village has two, small “hanuts” (stores) and little else to offer.   And that’s not the kind of thing you can measure through the GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  It’s not something you can look at on paper and grasp with numbers and graphs.

What I saw this week at summer camp wasn’t wealthy kids and poor kids coming together and fighting  over economic inequality; rather, I saw youth representing nearly every region of Morocco, all of whom were cashing in on a very unique opportunity, an opportunity that even made Morocco National news — Click here and fast forward to 13:20 to see for yourself.

2.  What happens when a person is completely absorbed into Western culture without having ever been to the West?

Now let me tell you a little story or two about Fat Tony.  I’m not sure if his name was self-prescribed or if one of the Americans just started calling Abdellah “Fat Tony,” but the name was certainly fitting for the five-foot, eighty pound Moroccan kid who loved any American movie with an Italian-style mafia theme to it and whose voice when he spoke sounded a whole lot like that of a mobster from New York or Chicago.  When I first met Tony at the camp, I was used to most of my conversations at English camp consisting of broken sentences as simple as, “Hello, where are you from?” with kids who were still learning colors and numbers.  So when Tony asked me that question, and I told him I’m from Tennessee, I was a bit shocked when he then asked if I was from “Memphis or Nashville, the Music City, though both of them are music cities,” and then he followed it up by asking me if I had ever been to Beale Street.  To date, he is one of two Moroccans I have met who admitted to knowing where Memphis or Nashville were and one of the few Moroccan youth who have even heard of Tennessee outside of Jack Daniels Whiskey (yes, Tennessee, that’s what you are known for outside of America, even though the Whiskey is brewed and bottled in, like, Virginia or some place).  Still, it didn’t really hit me how odd this conversation was until a few minutes later after he told me that he wanted to move to Michigan, because that’s where Eminem was from, and he “never forgot his roots.”  It’s amazing how little phrases like that are so obviously American that we would never expect to hear something like that from someone who is not a native speaker.

So, when my shock subsided, and I began to talk more with Fat Tony, it became blatantly obvious how much of American culture and English language he had absorbed from watching movie after movie at home (I should add that he came with one of the PCVs and is from a very small town; Tony is also Berber, so Arabic is not his first language).  At one point, we were trying to convince him to give a speech in front of the other students, and I told him to “do that scene from that one movie where the guy is standing facing the mirror repeating, ‘You talkin’ to me?'”  Tony pointed out that the correct name of that movie was “Taxi Driver” and then began acting out that exact scene to perfection.

One of the best “Fat Tony” moments, though, came in the middle of the week when the U.S. Embassy visited camp.  One of the men from the Embassy brought a guitar to showcase American music and began playing John Denver’s “Country Roads:”

Here’s the conversation that followed:

Fat Tony: “Why should I take the country roads when I can just take the highway?”

Guy from the Embassy: “Well, those are the roads that take you home, and they’re very beautiful to see.”

Fat Tony (in his Mafia voice): “Well, what if I’m on a business trip?”

I’m not sure if the guy from the Embassy ever realized that Fat Tony wasn’t being told what to say by the Americans, but for all of us, it was a priceless moment.  And now that I’ve had more time to really dwell on this very cultured young man, it’s really forced me to think seriously about the impact of culture on a human being.  It goes back to the old nature v. nurture conversation; that whatever situation we may think we’re born into, our surroundings and experiences shape us in a powerful way, and in this case, you could argue Tony had been as deeply shaped by American television and movies as he was by growing up in a small Moroccan village.  In fact, in some sense, Fat Tony is more culturally American than I am, even though he has never left Morocco, but he’s so fueled by the stereotypes that movies and media have drawn of America, he might as well be American (or at the very least, begs us to think about what it actually means to be American).  His brilliance and his ability to absorb our culture from movies and the internet has left me wondering what our culture says about us, whether its good or bad or accurate or fair or appropriate.

Part of my job in sharing cultures, it seems to me, is to curb and correct false stereotypes.  A lot of American films leave behind this objectified picture of women, if not also a hypermasculine, macho picture of the gun-toting male.  I think there were several volunteers this week, just in correcting his foul mouth, who helped show Tony what a real American is actually like.  And when I really let what that means sink in, it hits me that, perhaps, the biggest task I carry as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to be American, or rather, to be myself.  Sometimes, volunteers can get so caught up in integration and learning about Moroccan culture, that we risk forgetting who we are, where we came from, or as Fat Tony put it, we run the risk of “forgetting our roots.”  All desires to show respect in a different culture aside, and we can’t stop being who we are, or we’re missing the whole point to this shindig.

And in some sense, isn’t that also a major goal of any camp: to teach kids to be comfortable with being themselves.  Some of the best camp moments of my life were spent watching some youth decide to be comfortable in his or her own skin.

I don’t know where Fat Tony will go beyond camp, if he’ll venture off to America one day and see what it’s really like, but if he ever does make that trek, a part of me hopes that some sense of pride and love for who he is as a Moroccan will well up inside of him and eventually lead him back home, to his roots.  No matter how much he might “fit in” Stateside, and no matter the degree to which America could be a land of opportunities for him, there’s just no replacing who you are, and there’s nothing richer in life than accepting and loving that for what it is.  So while poverty may be a lack of opportunity, I think the theologian and the philosopher is still right in saying that wealth isn’t just money or opportunities, that we need something deeper in life than that.

And wherever he goes, I hope Fat Tony will find just that.  Himself.  Beyond Morocco.  Beyond America.  Somewhere in the Cosmos beyond all those lies of culture where we’re told to be something different than what we were born to be, than what was good enough already.

For the Good of a Slightly Controversial Topic.

I’m fourteen days or so away from moving to Morocco as a Peace Corps Trainee, a country that is around 98% Islamic.  While there, I will be learning Moroccan Arabic and immersed into a community of people undoubtedly devoted to their faith.  My responsibility to love and to serve this community includes the obligation to respect their religious customs and traditions.  To be honest, I couldn’t be more excited about that.  Having studied religion for ten years or so, I still feel ignorant about Islam, largely because no book or television program can compare or do justice to living with a people and learning about them firsthand.  If that’s not enough reason to encounter Islam on its own turf, the current political climate here in America is rather sickening with regard to how it treats this religion, and it’s time that the truth was told.

Here in Tennessee, the Jackson Sun recently published a poll where 69% of its readers believe that Barack Obama is Muslim.   I’m not going to rehash the facts, especially since most people who believe that don’t care about facts anyway.  I’m more interested in pointing out the absurdity of the poll in the first place.  When you ask, “Do you believe the President is Muslim?” I think there are three big assumptions embedded in your question: first, you’re essentially asking whether or not you think the President has repeatedly lied about his deeply personal faith; second, there’s an underlying assumption that anyone other than an evangelical Christian won’t be able to adequately serve as Commander-in-Chief; and finally – and most worrisome for me – there’s something deeply negative being placed on Islam as a religion.

So, of course, I don’t think Obama is Muslim.  But what if he was?  Why should that be such a big deal?  Is it about morality?  That doesn’t make sense.  As a future Peace Corps Volunteer, I expect to meet and encounter many wonderful people who are Muslim, many of whom are probably more “moral” than some of my Christian friends.  In fact, I’m certain to meet many of whom are more “moral” than me.  So, is it about Jihad or September 11 or Al Qaeda?  As I’ve said before, that makes about as much sense as judging Christianity via the Crusades or the Ku Klux Klan.  I don’t understand why that kind of sweeping generalization can stand any ground.

I came across this graphic a day or two ago and thought it was brilliant.  It depicts the size of Islam vs. the size of America and asks, if Islam were truly a violent religion, why has America not been obliterated yet given the population difference?  Further, the graphic makes an excellent point regarding the size of Al Qaeda vs. the Muslim world – the two should not be equated.

All that said, the media here in America is so obsessed with sensationalizing and entertaining that the true story about Islam goes untold.  That’s why I’m writing this and why I see one of my major responsibilities as a volunteer (and as an American Christian) is to educate people.  As I’m immersed into this culture and meet these people and their faith face-to-face, I hope I’ll be able to make a tiny dent into the bigotry and idiocy that currently consumes our country.  At the very least, it’ll be nice living in a place where I don’t have to hear Glenn Beck brainwashing the country anymore.