I spent last week at Agape Centro Ecumenico, an ecumenical centre in Northern Italy with roots in the post-World War II peace movement. I attended last summer's conference series at Agape on Fundamentalism in Our Era, Body Theology, and The Ethics of Work and Voluntarism. Now I am a member of the planning committee for August 2011's summit on Violence in Our Era: Transforming a Culture of Violence into a Culture of Just Peace.
This is not a blog posting on Agape Centro Ecumenico, on the upcoming conference, or on the rich and urgent topic of the intersections of violence and religion. This is a blog posting about something that happened on the final night of my week in Italy.
I flew in and out through Milan, and had an early flight out the last day. So I stayed overnight at the Zebra Hostel, a scrappy den for tourists and travelers who are generally under the age of 22. I am over the age of 30, so I did not find the 5am booming of the discothèque in the Zebra Hostel basement to be super-awesome. But I’m a grad student and the price was right, so there I was in my crappy little bunk on my last night in Italy, staring at the underside of the crappy top bunk all night, enduring the thrump and buzz of euro-techno music up through the floor, waiting for my alarm to bleat at 6am so I could head to the airport.
At 5:15am two American boys came into the bunkroom. They were drunk as hell, foul-mouthed, spewing hateful bile about people who don’t speak English. They made jokes about bashing foreigners’ heads in, declarations about the great land of America. A display of great ape chest-beating and spewlish drunkery; disgusting. One of them told the other he should read his Bible more, “Haven’t you read the Bible, dude?” They went on and on loudly and one of our bunkmates pleaded for them to be quiet, to turn off the overhead lamp. These guys became vicious, threatening. Their vitriol was a poison in the air; it hurt to hear them talk. I had never heard that kind of hot, unbraced hatred. I lied there tense as a hunting cat, ready to spring or defend myself if these wildebeests neared me.
I had taken the blanket and pillow from the empty neighboring bunk as it was cold and I didn’t see any luggage suggesting it was occupied. Bad luck for me, it was the bunk of one of these meatheads, and as they’d turned the overhead light on to the whole entire room they could see me underneath a double portion of bedclothes. One of the ogres fumed, “She took my f*cking sh*t! No one takes my f*cking sh*t! F*ck her!” et cetera. I started to get worried that they might get stupidly violent, as drunk as they were, so I sat up and played dumb and profusely apologized and returned his duvet.
Wouldn’t you know, this brute—he was a child, I could see, once he leaned his brawny, shiny face down to my bunk—this kid turned his immaculate ruddy smile on me and he was as sweet as pie. He said to me, “Oh, you speak English, you’re American! Hey, it’s totally okay! I don’t mind. I just talk to hear myself talk. Don’t worry about it. It’s so nice to hear English! You’re good, you’re good.”
He was…so nice. So apple pie. Strapping, milk-fed, farm-tanned, bright-eyed, agreeable and…a racist, vulgar, menacing, self-absorbed, shit-faced bigot. He invoked the Bible. I lay in my crappy bunk and I felt deep shame for my country and for my religion. No doubt these guys call themselves Christians; they might even be pretty hardcore and well-versed Christians. And here I am on State of Formation writing heartfelt, nuanced blogs about my journey of peacemaking with Jesus, ‘cause it’s all about love, man. And yet here I am with my red, white and blue passport always rushing to say, “But I’m not like them.” Those aren’t my kind of Americans; those aren’t my kind of Christians. When abroad, when inquired as to my nationality, I present my American-ness very, very apologetically.
I remember that I came to Agape last summer with deep shame for my country, for its meddling with the affairs of other countries, for its largesse and the searing embarrassment of the George W. Bush presidency. One night at Agape we had an International Night, and representatives from every country were asked to present aspects of their cultures to the rest of the participants. The Americans present, all of us feeling awkward about the prospect, joked that the American table would have hot dogs, beer, a tailgate party and bullies. That we would take things off of other countries’ tables and call them ours. But once International Night kicked off, I saw how proud everyone else was of their culture and country—the Ugandans, the Mexicans, the Germans, the Georgians, the Kenyans, the Koreans—and I felt a different kind of shame. For not being more diligent about discerning what is beautiful about America, if only that it is my home and the people I love most live there with me. I realized too that the world gains nothing from me diminishing myself. I must remain humble, but not self-deprecate—because after all I may be complicit to American largesse, but I do my best to be a good, constructive ambassador for our strange and divisive country.
My shame for being American surged back when I heard these monstrous American guys in the Zebra Hostel. Even more when one of them was so ingratiating to my American accent.
There was nothing I could do. They were both enormous and wasted, I was half-naked, it was 5:15am, three other bunks were trying to sleep, the savages were belligerent. Oh but I bet they’d never hurt a lady. God, I bet they might even call themselves feminists. So I lied there, tense, until my alarm finally went off at 6am. I must admit I let it run a little too loud and long when it went off. It was my passive-aggressive gift of disturbance to the barbarians in the neighboring bunk.
I guess I have the same approach to America as I do with religion. It’s fascinating, infuriating, terrifying, beautiful, and seems more often to cleave to is instead of ought-to. It’s not going anywhere. I have to find a way to work with it. I just won’t get on my knees for it. And maybe, next time an oxbrain like that dude at the Zebra Hostel in Milan gets close to me, I’ll have the courage to remind him that he, in fact, has traveled to a foreign country, and a critical mass of Europeans and enlightened fellow Americans would be delighted to see him subjected to any number of penalties detailed in his precious Bible. May I suggest starting with Judges 5:23-27?
Picture: Jael Smote Sisera, and Slew Him, circa 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902). Found on Wikimedia Commons. This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.