On Travel and Prejudice, With Lessons From Rwanda

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

– Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

The world is a troubling place.  Pick up any history book, glance at newspaper headlines, or even read the stories in the Bible – there’s no denying that humankind has relentlessly waged war on itself and against the very things that sustain life since the beginning of time.  There’s also no denying that recent events have been a poignant reminder of the seed of fear, hatred, and evil that exists in man and can emerge even in the friendly neighbor next door who lent you sugar last month.  White supremacy, racism, sexism, antisemitism, terrorism, nationalism . . . all evidence of the sad irony that it is through our foolish, hateful, fear-based efforts at self-preservation that we actually self-destruct as a people.

I’m grateful for those who have offered helpful, practical steps that each of us can take to resist the darkness in the world around us.  There are causes to which you can donate time or money, petitions you can sign, legislation you can support.  As an attorney, I’m doing what I can to take on more pro bono work that helps children who have fled unimaginable violence and conditions in their countries and who are seeking asylum in the United States.

But I really do believe that the most effective solution to the self-destructive hate problem begins internally.  It’s a shifting of the mind and the spirit and the heart – pursuit of what I’d describe as the true heart of God, that loves and values all human life as the divine image-bearers that we are – that will bring long-term, preventative, genuine healing to the world, rather than a rise in charitable contributions immediately following world atrocities and a drop-off shortly thereafter.  This internal shift is two-fold: 1) recognizing that within each of us is a seed that, if watered or ignored, can grow into the atrocities that we condemn, and 2) recognizing that our perception is always biased, and what we easily categorize into black or white is likely a multitude of colors to those who are experiencing it on the other side.  I’ll dissect these both a bit, but first with a little history lesson.

In the hot, dusty summer of 1994 in Rwanda, a tiny country in East Africa, members of the Hutu ethnic majority turned against their neighbors and systematically slaughtered an estimated 1 million people, largely of the Tutsi minority, in just 100 days.  When I visited Rwanda for several months during the summer of 2011, I hoped to better understand the justice and reconciliation efforts in the years following the genocide.  What I ultimately learned was much more personally transformative.

Meeting with the Twa people (the smallest ethnic minority) in Rwanda to discuss their perspectives on politics, culture, and economic concerns.

Meeting with the Twa people (the smallest ethnic minority) in Rwanda to discuss their perspectives on politics, culture, and economic concerns.

It’s so easy to hear the facts, read the stories, and see the pictures of the genocide and respond with utmost disgust (as one should), along with a conviction that you would never be capable of such things; these were evil people.  But here are the facts: the Hutu majority consisted of 84% of the Rwandese population, generally peaceable, friendly neighbors, pastors, teachers, doctors, sons and daughters.  To be honest, I think it’s patently unreasonable to read about the Rwandan genocide and conclude that about 84% of the population just happened to be inherently extraordinarily evil.  I think that’s naive.  It’s also statistically ridiculous.

In fact, a combination of fear, prejudices, economic struggles, and other social and cultural factors (for details on the history of Rwanda’s ethnic conflict, exacerbated greatly by the white Belgian colonists whose ideas of “race science” developed ethnic superiority and ethnic ID cards as a means of controlling the country’s population, watch this helpful video) collectively watered the seed of hate that exists with deadly potential in each of us. While I hope I would have been the exception, the truth is that I can’t, in humility and with 100% confidence, say that had I grown up in the same Hutu families, hearing the same messages of prejudice, and facing the same economic fears and struggles, not also been capable of horrific evil.  It’s a scary truth to face, but my guess is that if you’re brutally honest with yourself, you might come to the same conclusion.

The troubling reality is that I am capable of evil just as the vast majority of the Rwandan population was in 1994, just as white supremacists and religious extremists and ethnic terrorists are today.  So too are you, along with your neighbors and children and friends.  Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount spoke to this truth: that the actions we condemn as a society all stem from brokenness and deficiencies in the human spirit of which each one of us is guilty.  This in no way excuses evil; in fact, far from it, it’s a call to be vigilant and relentless in identifying and suffocating the buds of evil in yourself.  And then to tell God you’re sorry and let Him transform you.  Recognizing this is perhaps the most important first step in cutting out evil before it grows into or contributes to more devastating newspaper headlines.

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The second step is simply acknowledging that there is no possible way that you are capable of going through life without bias.  You might be the most objective, experienced, tolerant human being on the face of the planet, but that doesn’t change the fact that as a straight white male you will never be able to understand what it feels like to be black, or female, or gay, or even another straight white male who had different parents or life experiences, or any other infinite combination of gender/racial/ethnic/socio-economic/experiential differences.  You just can’t.  That’s okay, that’s normal, I promise that every single human being around you suffers from the same limitation.  But while you can’t escape seeing the world through your personal lenses of race or gender or status or experience, you canmake an intentional effort to not let that lens be the end point of your interpretations of reality.

In order to simply function each day, it’s necessary that we apply some quick interpretations to our observations and make quick conclusions.  It would be absurd to deeply question every aspect of our surroundings and impossible to do so while still accomplishing anything with our time.  We’d be floundering.  And it wouldn’t be helpful to let the fear of drawing a mistaken conclusion prevent you from maintaining strongly held moral convictions or views.  The solution to evil is not to have a world of wishy-washy, morally neutral bystanders.  Nor should we excuse or justify evil in others or ourselves.  But please, please, for the sake of humanity and your neighbors and children and children’s children, let’s remember that we rarely (if ever) fully understand those whom we condemn or judge or dislike or fear.

Here’s where traveling comes in.  The more we can force ourselves into other people’s realities, to wear their lenses, the more we’re made aware of how limited our own lens is as an accurate and comprehensive representation of human experience.  And the more we expose ourselves to differences, the less scary those differences become (a recent study, inspired by Twain’s words, found that breadth of foreign travel correlates with higher levels of trust in others).

So, travel more, especially to the places that are starkly different from your normal, where the people look different and have different values and worship different gods and speak different languages and eat different foods.  Maybe go to the places that are so foreign that they scare you.  More so, befriend these places.  It’s not enough to set foot in another country and outwardly observe the culture, all while remaining enclosed in your tiny cultural bubble of safety and judgment.  Go make friends with the people.  Learn to like the food.  If necessary, eat the fried crickets until you like the fried crickets.  Learn to appreciate the culture and find value in the way they do things, even if you may ultimately prefer your way.  Watch your cultural judgments crumble around you as you realize that you may not have all the answers.  Yes, be strong in your moral convictions, but perhaps allow them to evolve or develop with a greater understanding of human diversity – like a diamond with more glittering facets – and with grace in realizing your own brokenness and limitations.  In sum, squash the seed of evil hiding in your own soul by learning to more fully know and love people.

This is a never-ending work in self-discovery and wisdom.  It’s painfully humbling and at times tiring and scary.  It certainly makes life more complicated.  But maybe you’ll find that checking yourself becomes more natural, even habitual.  Until then, keep fighting for good; keep supporting important causes and speaking out against hate; keep forgiving others and being quick to ask for forgiveness; keep seeking to embody God’s heart and love for all His children; keep praying and keep loving your very different neighbor; and finally – keep traveling.

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