Only a month ago, the United States completed the most expensive, (seemingly) longest election season ever. If you thought you could avoid this through international living, I hate to burst your bubble, but it just gets more complicated.
In this blog post I want to make a few practical recommendations on how to handle politics overseas as missionaries and Christian aid workers, and then open it up to your questions, comments, and stories. You can often learn these things later, but I also suggest these as a part of your preparations for going overseas.
Now let’s jump right into it.
1. Know your politics, or at least how the system works.
I spent part of the election schedule overseas, and then finished up here in Texas. In the States, it was a terribly divisive time where my family and friends had to remind each other, “I still love you.” Just like I’ve asked my Aussie friends what it means to be a commonwealth nation and what happens if you don’t vote in a country that requires it by law, they want to know what the heck an electoral college is and what the tuition is.
This is number one, because the people we build relationships with will not only want to know about us as individuals but also about us as ambassadors of our home countries. I’ve found it to be rare that people care about my particular political stance – 5 years ago, all of us were referred to as “hijos de Boosh” in Mexico – however, it is anything but rare to be asked questions about politics.
I won’t go into the theology of politics here; please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. Instead, I’ll jump to the next obvious recommendation:
2. Seek to understand the system where you are.
Over the last 9 years in Thailand, the “Yellow Shirts” and “Red Shirts” have dominated politics. In 2010, I was set to go to Thailand for the first time with my church. Next thing I knew, martial law had been declared, police and protesters were clashing in the streets, and one of Bangkok’s giant malls was on fire. As a result, embassies from around the world issued travel warnings and bans on going to Thailand. And then, just a few days later, the warnings were rescinded and I had to go before my church leadership to explain what in the world was happening in Thailand.
I learned a lot about the constitutional monarchy and the political divisions in Thailand that affected not only town halls but also churches and Christian organizations. In addition to my research, I added a Thailand section to my newsfeed. As a result, I was able to (a) understand local issues in case questions arose from supporters and families, and (b) avoid cultural faux pas that could cause more frustration.
3. Be aware of the cloud the USA casts, and the remaining storm damage from colonialism.
Many of the countries in which we work share an unfortunate history of being a former colony. And more countries than we realize suffered or continue to suffer from poor military decisions made by the West. Even more unfortunate, the process of domination was occasionally characterized as our duty to “uplift and civilize and Christianize them,” as U.S. President William McKinley said about his decision to colonize the Philippines. You may not remember these directives, but the people who were affected by them do.
My apologies to those readers who are not from the United States, but my home country casts a large shadow. With only 5% of the world’s population, U.S. headlines often occupy about 95% of the international headlines abroad. Often these headlines elicit negative responses to America and to those who appear to be American (this is why I stay up with my Canadian headlines, too).
When I was living in Uganda for a short time, I had been told it was a great place to be American because of the increased AIDS and malaria aid given by the Bush administration. That’s why I was shocked when a Muslim man I met asked the precursor to Kanye West’s infamous claim: “Why does George Bush hate black people?” Even when in “friendly” territory, it helps to know the history and cultural diversity that surrounds you. Just as the War on Terrorism crosses borders, sometimes our politics do, too.
Post-colonialism runs deep and can appear in strange ways. In Thailand, some organizations attribute their struggle in obtaining legal status to the country’s intense pride as a never-colonized nation. While some surrounding neighbors are open to missionaries and aid, the Thais take pride in their autonomy and are quick to say (indirectly), “Back off. We got this.” Understanding your countries’ relationships currently and historically helps avoid awkward pitfalls and works to support the mission of reconciliation Jesus calls us to join.
In her book The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God & World Affairs, Madeleine Albright emphasizes that we cannot understand a country’s politics without understanding their faith. As a group seeking to share our faith, I say that you cannot understand people from a religious standpoint without understanding their politics. In Christian missions and international living, we honor our host countries and the people we meet through this process.
Please join us in the conversation: How have you dealt with political discussions while living overseas? How have political convictions helped…or gotten in the way? What suggestions can you make from your own experiences?