Remember those pages in the activity books we had as kids that asked us to identify the object that was different (“One of these things is not like the others”), and the high school essay exams that tested our ability to compare and contrast? From our earliest days we’re taught to notice differences. It’s how we learn about our world.
When you travel, what intrigues you most? Is it the ways elements in your new location or culture seem familiar, or the ways they are different?
One of the best parts of spending the fall serving in Norway is that Mike and I are learning new things every day. It’s so much fun trying regional foods, for one! The women in my Tuesday night Bible study help me decode cooking instructions when Google Translate is hilariously off-base.
Norwegians of all ages are keen on outdoor activities, and it’s intriguing to discover new ways of getting around. The paved paths running alongside major roads are split into different lanes for biking and walking, and it’s amazing to see septuagenarians flying past us on roller skis.
If you're on Facebook, you may have noticed the many appreciative comments I’ve posted in my ongoing album of Norwegian culture, from its tidy homes and parks to the world-class engineering of its highways, tunnels, and public transportation systems. Despite the incredible beauty of the country, is it heaven on earth? Of course not. But as a guest here, I’ll leave any public criticisms to the citizens who’ve earned the right to express them.
When it comes to American travelers, there seem to be two extremes. You read about the “ugly American” who judges her new surroundings to be inferior to home (“Where are the ice cubes? Why are the appliances so small? Doesn’t anyone around here speak English?”) But in what you might call a sort of reverse nationalism, others adopt the attitude of being coolly critical of their home country, as if life in the US is consistently inferior to the cultural milieu of London, Paris, Tokyo, or Rome. Neither extreme is useful.
Appreciating differences is, however. When meeting new people, I generally need to hear their names several times before it sticks. The women in my Bible study, however, represent at least eight different nationalities: Polish, Nigerian, Dutch, American, Columbian, Venezuelan, Brazilian, and Norwegian! They are so delightfully different it’s been easy to learn names, and our varied cultural backgrounds enrich our study of the Scriptures.
The extremes displayed by some travelers, however, is not extremism. In the US we know what it’s like to have the very fabric of our country attacked by extremists who hate everything we stand for. Some, like the 9/11 terrorists, come from without. Others, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh or Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, were American citizens. Terror wears a thousand faces.
Horrifically, peaceable Norway has experienced this as well. On July 22, 2011, a fanatic extremist who admired Hitler and opposed multiculturalism set off a car bomb outside Norway’s Parliament buildings, killing eight, and then while dressed as a policeman made his way to an island youth camp outside Oslo where he murdered 69 young people and their counselors while wounding hundreds more. He was a native Norwegian. Hate can find harbor anywhere.
Yesterday, Mike and I visited a Nazi installation on the North Sea just south of Stavanger that was erected in 1941 during the German occupation of Norway. The remnants of Nazi pillboxes and gun towers stand in mute testimony to the horrors of occupation. My cousin Jostein shared stories with us about the clandestine work his uncle Trygve did with the Norwegian resistance during the war, and how Tryg suffered as a POW. Conversely, Norwegian Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling’s name has become synonymous with treason. In an ironic act of justice, Quisling’s stately former home in Oslo now houses Norway’s Holocaust Center.
Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once wrote that when it comes to world events, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
So it is helpful to compare and contrast cultures to determine “Which of these things is not like the other?” It is as long as we resist adopting an attitude of superiority or disdain. It is as long as we resolve to do whatever we can to work for the good of others and the glory of God wherever he has placed us. It is as long as we are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slower still to render judgment.
Perhaps John Wesley’s famous dictum about church doctrine can be applied to cultural differences as well: “In essentials, unity. In doubtful matters, liberty. In all things, charity.”
- Copyright 2019, Maggie Wallem Rowe. If you enjoyed today's thoughts, please add your name on my home page to receive one post per week. Velkommen!