31 July 2014



About fifteen years ago, Retha McCutchen and I were visiting Kenya as Friends United Meeting staff. We stopped in Nakuru, near the famous Lake Nakuru National Park. We had some free time, so Retha suggested visiting the park. Half-joking, I said, "I'd just as soon visit it on the Discovery Channel."

(However, I did end up going to the park.)

As someone who had already lived in three countries by the age of five, I have strangely mixed feelings about being a tourist. I feel shy about taking up someone else's space simply by virtue of having purchased transportation there. I feel sheepish about reinforcing stereotypes of wide-eyed photo-snapping consumers whose most positive function is to enrich souvenir vendors. When work takes me onto less traveled paths and into places of extreme poverty or civil war, I feel ashamed of violating the privacy of those who have to endure our questions, our cameras, our awkward sympathy.

I don't doubt that someone from my own country should visit these places, but that doesn't mean we all should or that I should. We could experience wartime El Salvador through Joan Didion's essay, enjoy the kitchens and restaurants of France through the letters of Julia Child, and maybe we'd get just as much truth at much less cost to ourselves and others.

But my mixed feelings don't stop there. Here's the counter-argument: so what if I look like an ignorant tourist, so what if my camera, my smile, and my ignorance of local customs scream "I'm not from here!" What if the ignorance of those who design and guard the world's borders equals the ignorance of those who naively cross them? I'm a human being, and it is completely normal for us human beings to scrabble ceaselessly about the globe, subverting all the arrangements designed to keep us separated from each other. When we commit the inevitable cross-cultural blunders, is it the end of the world, or just an occasion to laugh and move on?

Today on the radio I heard a reference to "dark tourism" and at first I felt repelled by the voyeurism it seemed to represent. Never mind that I'd experienced something of the sort myself in Central America nearly 30 years ago; at least in my own eyes I'm now far too enlightened for such vulgar (not to mention expensive) sensation-seeking. But on the other hand, no war should occur without witnesses. Let some of those witnesses be professional journalists and human rights workers, but those "old hands" can't and shouldn't monopolize access to the world's agonies. Certainly, when tourists begin streaming to conflict zones, somebody will figure out how to exploit those agonies for profit, but greed is a danger wherever people gather. I'd like to believe that journalists and tourists alike will expose and document that greed.

To feel superior to the ordinary tourist might just be another form of that primordial social poison, elitism. The tourist's untutored joy is like the fun of dancing like an idiot at a blues concert. Both might look foolish to the cynic, but even with all their imperfections, both add more to the sum total of joy in the universe than the cynic can subtract.

Is there a Christian way of being a tourist? I think of Abraham Kuyper's famous words, "... there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" To me, these words support our authority over all borders and walls, but it also gives us a special obligation to stay sensitive to the presence and sovereignty of the God who is always already there.

An example of what a thoughtful journalist can do for us in a war zone: Anna Nemtsova, "This Is What a War in Europe Really Looks Like."

Unintentional witnesses (maybe): "Vanity Military Selfies Are Spoiling Russia's Attack in Ukraine."

U.N. envoy says, "Israel may be required to help displaced Gaza Palestinians."

BBC: "Conflicted UN struggles in global peace efforts."

Just a quick final note to acknowledge the tragic period we're living in right now. I'm not writing about it here because I can't imagine what to say that wouldn't simply be either repetitious or self-indulgent. It is becoming normal to watch children die, while the high and mighty of the world don't seem to want to take the risk of intervening bodily, if necessary, to restore sanity to Gaza, or to East Ukraine. The Pope has maybe come closest, but I wish he would actually travel to these places himself. (Is he perhaps tempted?) (Thanks to David Finke for the link.)

I'll close with Mavis Staples singing "Only the Lord Knows." What can you do, what can you do when you can't trust anybody to tell you the truth?

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