We call them "foreign" countries because they're different.
I am in Oaxaca, Mexico for about a month. I'm out of drinking water at present, which means a walk down the block later this morning to buy a 20-liter garrafón for my water dispenser. Or, I could just boil water from the tap and let it cool. At least there's water pressure again. Last night I had to switch on the pump to refill the water tank on the roof. This morning, as I heated water on the stove for a cup of tea, the gas flame was flickering I'll need to change the propane cylinder today.
In a thousand little ways, the life of the average Mexican is very different from mine.
On a recent trip, I walked a couple of miles every morning through back-street neighborhoods. Each day I passed a crew of a bandy-legged men busy building a concrete street with only picks, shovels and wheel-barrows. By the end of the week, they had laid one-hundred meters of new pavement.
At a certain corner I detoured around a beached whale of a truck loaded 15 feet high with bundles of scrap metal. The behemoth was lifted up on jacks and stripped of its rear wheels as the owner labored to repair his brakes. After three days of sweat and toil, he was on the road again.
Brightly decorated concrete homes painted in shades of pink and yellow, mauve and sky blue were packed cheek by jowl along the quiet streets.
A man with a tray on his shoulder stopped to offer me homemade donuts. The rattling drone of a tortilleria filled the street with the aroma of fresh-baked tortillas. Clusters of school children dressed identically in spotless uniforms walked 4 and 5 abreast, chattering and laughing at the sight of a very tall gringo.
This afternoon I was passed by a wedding parade led by a loud brass band playing... Roll Out the Barrel?
Every day there's something new to see and hear, taste and smell. I find myself quickly adopting new rhythms, learning new ways, observing and adjusting my habits.
Every place has its own rhythms and rituals. We know we are home by the way it feels when we get there.
The trouble with familiarity is that it lulls us to sleep and numbs us to the possibility that there might be something better than this. It's in our nature to slavishly adhere to what we know best and to want what we have always had.
Beyond these surface differences, the keen observer realizes that Latin culture differs from mine in deep, substantive ways. Their view of history is more fatalistic and less certain of the inevitable march of progress. In fact, they tend to resist progress because it undermines something better tradition.
Their approach to education values teamwork more highly than individualism. Latins value relationships and the alliances they create more highly than almost anything else, which means that the bond of friendship, once established, is unbreakable. It also means that life revolves mostly around the demands of family and friends instead of career.
I'm not always comfortable with the differences here, but I realize that adapting to this culture (rather than fighting it) gives me a rare chance to break out of the deep rut of the familiar. If I am willing to question my own habits and try something new, I might discover some new perspectives on the common human challenges we all face in work, family and life.
Although Jesus was immersed in Jewish beliefs and practices from childhood, his public ministry was often a repudiation of the traditions he had learned. At every opportunity, he called on his audience to shake off their well-worn, comfortable Judaism and exchange it for a radical reinterpretation.
Six times in the Sermon on the Mount he used the construction "All your lives you have been taught X, but I am here to tell you that God requires Y."
He was constantly criticized for his carefree approach to the Sabbath, one of the most significant of Jewish holy days.
He frequently challenged the sincerity of Jewish religious leaders, accusing them of hypocrisy and woeful ignorance.
He was shunned for the friendships and associations he made, and for rocking the establishment boat.
And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the old skins would burst from the pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine is stored in new wineskins so that both are preserved. Matthew 9:17, NLT (Jesus speaking)
In other words, a radical remaking of society is a prerequisite for putting Jesus' message into practice. Or, accepting Jesus' message will result in a painful, cultural upheaval. Jesus came not only to transform us, but to transform the culture we have grown so comfortable in, as well.
If the American church was ever a radical agent of change in our culture, that time has long passed. The Gospel message ought to be a painful goad to popular culture. Instead, US Christianity has been co-opted by culture. When the majority of Christians, both left and right, cede their duty to be cultural change-agents to their respective political parties, you realize how far we have drifted from the radicalism that Jesus lived and taught.
The first century church was neither Roman nor Jewish nor Greek, though it was made up of men and women from all three cultures. Christianity became a fourth way, a fresh and original cultural movement that owed its values and practices to a careful obedience to the teachings of Jesus.
A few years ago, there was a popular phrase that soon became trite: "What Would Jesus Do?" It's actually a very good question, one that Christians should be asking themselves, not only about thorny ethical decisions, but about the foundational political and societal values we hold so dear.
Time is more valuable than people. I am more important than the group I belong to. Tradition can always be bulldozed into something better. The key to a good life is found in wealth, not spirituality.
These are some of the things Americans believe. Would Jesus agree?
What would Jesus say about the twenty-first century, and how might he upset the dangerously familiar cultural habits and assumptions that we hold so dear?
Photo credit: Street art on a wall in Oaxaca, Mexico. Charlie Lehardy