Baltimore, Ferguson, and “Africa”

I was reading coverage of Baltimore’s riots last night when I realized that “America” probably looks pretty scary in other countries’ news.

Maybe even as scary as “Africa” often seems to people over here.

Baltimore and Ferguson are parts of America, but they are not “America.”  There is no “America” as a whole that can be conveniently represented in a single thought, because part of the richness of our country is the breadth and depth of the traits and values and beliefs we hold dear.  We can not latch onto any one thing as “America,” because to do so would discount the value of those other things that make up America.  True, many people disagree on the traits that should be included in the definition of “America,” and many of them disagree even more strongly on her value and worth, but it’s simply not possible to see a nation of 50 states, 20,000 cities, 3.8 million square miles, and 319 million people in any one image, place, event, or concept.

…it’s simply not possible to see a nation of 50 states, over 20,000 cities, 3.8 million square miles, and 319 million people in any one image, place, event, or concept.

To try or claim to do so is inaccurate and unfair at best; it is even more so when trying to summarize a continent of 53 countries, 2,000 languages, 11.7 million square miles, and 1.1 billion people.  Yet our media often represent “Africa” simplistically and homogeneously, encouraging people to fear all of it whenever there is a problem in one part of it.  Last year’s Ebola outbreak affected about 20,000 people in 96,000 square miles (about 1 person in every 55,000 and less than 1 percent of Africa’s land), but people traveling to the US from unaffected areas as far from Ebola as New York City is from Ecuador were shunned, quarantined, or even denied visas.  Ebola was a problem that parts of Africa faced; it was not the core or total of what “Africa” was.

“Africa” is not Ebola or famine or corruption or Boko Haram or safaris any more than “America” is police violence or riots or school shootings or amusement parks.  We don’t need to be so afraid, even as we look closely, see clearly, and work diligently to solve the problems we find.

I sympathize with the communities of Baltimore and Ferguson and the many people whose lives have been torn apart by the actions of others.  I worry for them, but I don’t worry about them.  That is to say, I am concerned for those people and communities (and indeed, about the health of our nation as a whole), but I am not fearful that such violence will spread into the communities around me.  It’s not that it couldn’t, and it’s not that we don’t have related problems and tensions, but being sympathetic, inspired and motivated is very different from being fearful, disheartened, and paralyzed.  We should see the problems around us, but we should not think those problems are a total picture of all that we are.

I love America for its grand dreams and many merits.  I love it despite its shortcomings, and I know that they are not the essence of its identity.  I have not seen all of America and do not know it completely; to do so is simply impossible, both physically and mentally.  I also love Africa, even though I have seen only parts of it and have met only the tiniest fraction of the people whom God loves there.

Loving both, I pray for both, for their healing and wholeness, their peace and prosperity, their ideas and identities.  And I pray that we can learn to see ourselves and each other more completely, more accurately, and more compassionately.


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