The United States may be a Christian nation, but we’re certainly not the Christian nation. Nor do our Christian values set the worldwide standard for Christian values. As a Lutheran, I was surprised to learn that there are more Lutherans in Namibia than in the US. Even though they wouldn’t know what to do with the standard American “green hymnal” and don’t bring Jell-O molds to their church picnics, they are as Lutheran as I am. They practice the same faith through a different cultural lens.
While European Christians have similar beliefs to ours, travel in the developing world opens your eyes to new ways of interpreting the Bible. An American or European Christian might define Christ’s “preferential option for the poor” or the notion of “sanctity of life” differently from someone who has to put their children to bed hungry every night. While a US Christian may be more concerned about abortion than economic injustice, a Namibian Christian likely has the opposite priorities. As for the Biblical Jubilee Year concept (where God — in the Book of Leviticus — calls for the forgiveness of debts and the redistribution of land every fifty years), what rich Christian takes it seriously?
Travel beyond the Christian world offers us invaluable opportunities to be exposed to other, sometimes uncomfortable, perspectives. As an American who understands that we have a solemn commitment to protect Israel’s security, I am unlikely able to sympathize with the Palestinian perspective…unless I see the issue from outside my home culture. In Iran recently, I watched an Al-Jazeera report on the American-funded wall being built by Israel around a Palestinian community. Politically, I may understand the rationale and need for this wall. But even without understanding the words of that TV documentary, I could also empathize with the visceral anger Muslims might feel — observing as, brick by brick, their fellow Muslims had their sunlight literally walled out.
I come away from experiences like this one, not suddenly convinced of an opposing viewpoint…but with a creeping discomfort about my confidence in the way I’ve always viewed the world. Whether reading the Bible through the eyes of other Christians, or having your hometown blinders wedged open by looking at another religion a new way, travel can be a powerfully spiritual experience.