I want to celebrate a funny incident with you, dear reader.

A friend of mine, S,  asked yesterday whether I could help her figure out the story behind Muslim youth rioting in Denmark after a newspaper there reprinted an old cartoon illustration of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). I explained it as best I could and later told my husband about the conversation I’d had with S. As I was telling him about it, I realized that her questions would have elicited something other than my matter-of-fact response not too many years ago.  

Friends, I realized at that moment that I had reached a milestone in my life in the USA – I have found freedom from the pain I used to experience when I listened for and expected Americans to reveal bias. In the past, I would probably have been offended that S asked me about Denmark, when I am mostly Norwegian. It would have fit the pattern of Americans not knowing the difference between the three Scandinavian countries and failing to remember which one I am from once they knew me. Or thinking that the three countries are so similar that whatever is true of one country is also true of the two others.

One of the ugly fights my husband and I had early on in our relationship was over the question, “Is Finland part of Scandinavia?” This may sound hilariously trivial to you, but it wasn’t to me. What was at stake was the power to define and name. Who defines what Scandinavia is or isn’t, someone from Scandinavia or someone from the USA? Scandinavians and Finns do not consider Finland to be part of Scandinavia, and my position was and is that he as an American ought to defer to me on this. This was at a time when I experienced discrimination against foreigners as very painful and demeaning. For me, the right for myself as a Scandinavian to define Scandinavia was close to being a life-or-death issue.

And now, my husband and I tell the story of our first big fight as one of the funny stories about our relationship. And S can ask this Norwegian about Denmark without me taking offense.

The truth is that as a Norwegian I do know more about Denmark than most Americans, and S knows that. And S knows perfectly well that I am Norwegian, not Danish.

I don’t hear anywhere near as much prejudice as I used to, and I humbly confess that much of the difference is in me, not in what people say. When I was sensitized to prejudice, I heard a lot of it. Each time I heal a little more, I hear a little less prejudice and am wounded just a little less even when I do. And so I find myself a little more able to forgive when someone does make a discriminatory statement. It is also clear to me that, as I heal and find the ability to forgive, it is because of God’s grace, not my own accomplishment. I know experientially that, left to our own devices, there probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of forgiving going on in this world.

At the same time, it is still true that many Americans seem remarkably unknowledgeable of the world when you consider how much power this country wields in that same world. Another factor is that during the run-up to war and during election season, this Norwegian suffers through daily doses of media communication to the effect that the USA is the best country in the world, is the most free, the most democratic, has the best constitution, the best education system, and has sacrificed the most for the rest of the world, is the best country for women to live in, etc. The funny thing is, many Americans – including some of those close to me or in my community – also seem to feel perfectly free to tell me about an aspect of American life that they consider superior, knowing full well that I am not American. Since my experience is that Americans in most other respects are among the most socially graceful people I know, I can only presume that they are unaware that to citizens of other countries, almost all of whom DO love and miss our home culture, history, family, and traditions (whether we miss the socio-economic and political structures or not varies widely), those statements can be insulting – and we are exposed to them through one aspect or another daily.

In the spirit of “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”, I think internal US criticism of the war in Iraq has helped my wounds to heal. It is a paradox for me to lament the war and yet see that others’ resistance to the war gives me relief. As I heal, I am aware that I can’t neglect the suffering of others, even though my healing is not the cause of their suffering.

So I celebrate my new freedom, recognizing that part of it has to do with actually being subjected to fewer discriminating statements, and part of it is that God’s grace works to release me from the pain I might so easily experience. In the same way that I have freely received God’s spirit, I become responsible for doing what I can to bring God’s spirit to others who suffer. God’s Spirit makes me one with them.  

Query for prayerful consideration:

How does pain I experience in my life affect what I hear? Are there signs of improvement externally in areas of pain for me? Are there any paradoxes in that situation – is new suffering arising as one group’s situation improves? What implications does any of this have for me as I consider injustices in the world, in the Religious Society of Friends, and lowering the barriers that currently exist?