Sunday, October 11, 2009

Make Mine Mustard

Hutu and Tutsi children at a Kingdon Education Center Christian School in Rwanda
Can you tell the difference?

Who we are, what we believe we are, usually looks like a last minute school science project, staples and scraps and hopes that no one is looking too closely.  Much of it is illogical, some of it is just plain nuts.  Sometimes, it's silly: the Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie once observed that in the Seventies, every singer going claimed to be Cherokee, "even Cher."

Sometimes, it's poisonous.  A year or so into my service as bishop, I visited the home of a young mother, an African refugee.  I have cocktail party intelligence: I can speak with a reasonable amount of authority on any one of a wide variety of subjects, for about five minutes.  After five minutes I either move on to the next knot of party guests, or reveal myself as just another cementhead.  So when this young mother announced that she had come to the United States from Rwanda, I thought I'd show my stuff by asking, "Are you Hutu, or Tutsi?"  (At that point, all I knew of Rwanda was that the Hutus and Tutsis enjoyed killing one another, and that the national flag had a big black "R" on it.)  The woman smiled, and replied, "Oh, you know something of my country.  Can you not tell my tribe just by looking at me?"  I admitted that, no, I had no idea whether she was Hutu or Tutsi, that I didn't know the difference.  Her eyes narrowed, she stiffened in her chair, and said, "If you cannot tell, then you know NOTHING of my country."  That pretty much ended our conversation.  

I've learned a lot since then, much through the remarkable writings of Father Uwem Akpan, the author of Say You're One of Them.  Any differences between the tribes are incidental and superficial: for generations they intermarried, worked together, lived side by side.  When it became politically expedient for them to see each other as rivals, as outsiders, as enemies, they created the necessary reality.  And hundreds of thousands died.

We all do this, we all grasp something no one else sees, something completely subjective, completely arbitrary that we believe makes us, us.  Are you a Yankees fan, or do you like the Red Sox?  Protestant or Catholic?  Are you a ketchup on your hamburger Philistine, or do you eat them with mustard and maybe a little mayo, The Way God Intended?

There's nothing logical about this, this universal inclination to subjectivity.  No one, not even Christopher Hitchens, lives purely on Cold, Hard Evidence.  We're not scientists, not in the way we choose to invent ourselves:  We're more like lawyers, living in the shadows of Plausible Deniability, each of our worlds a mess of rumors and legends and half-remembered quotes from books we read in 10th grade lit class, all spackled over with a thin layer of Scientific Method, just to prove we aren't cavemen.  We choose the facts we want to share, embrace the implications that make sense to us, and we do our best to keep the rest from the jury.  

Here's a little example.  If you are a Christian -- even if you aren't a particularly engaged Christian -- you have in your head an idea of what Jesus looks like.  I did a quick search for "Images of Jesus" on Google, and after I eliminated the legion of blasphemous and disrespectful ones, the earnest, sincere remnant broke down into five categories: Roger Hogdson Jesus, in which He looks wan and wispy bearded, like the guitarist from Supertramp, very tired and possibly malnourished; Viking Jesus, a broadchested, fair-skinned fellow, robust and ruddy and seemingly ready to man the helm of a longboat (Mormons love Viking Jesus, as do upbeat Evangelical Protestants); African Jesus, in which He looks remarkably like a beatific Omar Epps; Byzantine Jesus, who skips right past Roman-ruled Palestine and sets up shop in 13th Century Constantinople;  and The Real Jesus, in which He looks precisely the way I think he looks (sort of a young Topol, if you can picture that).  Try it yourself.

This week, I am going to write about family legends, the stuff I've always believed, the stuff I never believed, and the stuff that I really, really hope is true.  Tomorrow, my grandmother, the preempted moll.

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