In the second half of the twentieth century, no nation has shaped the world of development as much as the United States of America. This would be an unalloyed good thing save for the fact that the shaping was heavily influenced by American world view's, political correctness and methods.
As in South Africa, I saw in the USA how insidious is the process of creating and maintaining a cultural reality. America was, of course, a lot different to South Africa. Yet similar processes seemed to be operating -- processes that invisibly created and reinforced beliefs about America's role as the definer of truth and justice. From this followed a sense of responsibility not merely to set the agenda for the world, but to police it.
More personally, my encounters with American culture made me realise that I carried prejudice in my own heart. This was an uncomfortable discovery since I didn't think I was a prejudiced person, nor did I intend to be prejudiced. I wondered where this came from.
Prayer and Corn Flakes
January 1990 was an interesting time to be in Washington. The US President, George Bush, delivered the State of the Union address one Wednesday night and the National Prayer Breakfast was the next morning.
Taking Credit For the Collapse of Communism
There was much talk there, and at the conference I had attended the week before in California, about 'the work the Lord is now doing in Eastern Europe' -- namely, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not for the first time I heard Habakkuk 1:5 misquoted:
Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.
I say 'misquoted' because everyone, including Billy Graham, applied this verse to the mighty changes for good in Eastern Europe. When the Lord said it to Habakkuk, he had exactly the opposite scenario in mind. God was planning to wreak havoc.
More than one Afro-American wondered whether what they saw as a disproportionate interest in Eastern Europe reflected a white racist orientation. I thought it a personally challenging comment. Overseas aid apparently took a battering in the US budget, although I did not see anything reported on the matter (which suggested it did). Furthermore, the ANC Chaplain told me that a reduction in Africa programs would be used to fund aid to Eastern Europe. Sounded distressingly familiar. Would the Australian government follow suit? I wondered.
Of course, the US was taking the credit for what was happening in Eastern Europe. They had been a 'shining light of democracy and freedom in the world', and now the darkness was fleeing. I smiled in a superior way at this boastful arrogance.
But if America was winning the war overseas it was clearly losing it at home. Washington was a good place to see that. A beautiful city with great charm and architectural character and a fine sense of history and place, it also had the highest murder rate in the country. Most of the deaths were young, Afro-American and drug-related. In a town half the size of Melbourne they were killing each other at better than two a day. I met more beggars on the streets of Washington than I had anywhere in Mexico the week before. Come to think of it, I hadn't met one in Mexico.
I like America. No Really.
The Prayer Breakfast scene was a stumbling block for me. First was the amount of jingoism in the event. I suppose this was not unreasonable; after all, it was the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast, and it was to be expected that every speech should end with 'God Bless You, and God Bless America'. That this grated on me was surely my problem. As one new friend commented to me after a day or two, 'I think your trouble is you just don't like Americans'. This judgment shocked me, but I had to agree it contained some truth.
I didn't feel prejudiced against Americans, yet I could see that my behaviour and reactions implied prejudice. On the one hand, I reacted against the lack of humility and modesty I often encountered there; yet was this because I resented just how powerful, important and successful these people were? On the one hand, I saw myself as part of a European culture in the South Pacific; yet the USA was the country, outside of Australia, that I felt most at home in. Why would I be so surly about people with whom I felt so comfortable?
Admit it. I'm Prejudiced Too.
I suspected the answer was partly internal. The other part seems external to me. It had something to do with how I had been brought up, how my values and beliefs had been shaped. It was a cross-cultural prejudice.
Because of the huge number of people from outside the US at the event, more than one speaker, and not just Americans, suggested it should be called the 'International' Prayer Breakfast. This would plainly have been wrong because it was such an American event. My prejudice forced me to notice how many ordinary national American events were given international titles they did not deserve. The World Series, for example. Even (think about it) World Vision.
You Can Really Enjoy A Prayer Breakfast
Having established the negatives, there was good news. The Washington Prayer Breakfast was a wonderful, inspirational event.
The program was of a consistently high standard, although the backup, largely volunteer administration creaked and groaned at times. There were official meals from Wednesday noon until Thursday night, with the actual Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning. The speeches were of a high standard, entertaining, thoughtful, inspirational and appealing in their statements of Christian conviction. More than once I wished our own politicians could (a) employ such good speech-writers, (b) use them so well and (c) say such profoundly important things about the Christian faith.
The line-up of talent at the Breakfast was impressive, including Miss America, Billy Graham, George Beverley Shea, the Vice President and the President. The Secretary of State, Jim Baker, gave the keynote address. It was the statement of a seeker, a believer who still needed to experience his beliefs in a profound, personal way.
They did so much so well. And I recognised envy in my own heart. I wanted to be this great. I wanted my country to be this great. But, I thought dishonestly, I would be more modest about it.