I am not as well-travelled as many people these days. Susan and I have been to a few of the Pacific Islands and experienced the towns and cities (and islands) of Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and Tonga. It is an interesting and often confronting to walk amongst people of a very different culture and whose lives are so very different – especially in terms of economics.
I have ‘travelled’ into the lives and places of various other people through hearing their stories and experiencing them as people who are different from myself. I have sat with and listened to people who live with a variety of mental illnesses and heard how their lives are challenged and how they often perceive the world differently. I remember hearing the story of a young man who lived with schizophrenia. He was sitting in the office of a social worker who was providing assistance. She took out a pen and pressed the button on the end to expose the writing point and make some notes. As she held it up and flicked the end with her thumb, he dived under the desk. After a moment or two he re-emerged a little sheepishly and apologised. The social worker wasn’t phased, just curious and asked what was happening for him. He told her that when she pulled the pen out he didn’t see a pen but a laser gun and dived for cover. They then had an interesting conversation about how he often interpreted things so very differently and saw the world differently from other people. The social worker realised why many of the great authors, composer, artists and poets have lived with mental illness. They create out of perceptions of the world that are different and challenge how the rest of us see life,
I remember sitting with some indigenous ministers and church leaders and hearing their story, so different from mine. I was amazed at how differently they viewed life and the world. I was enlightened about how they had experienced Anglo culture and how it had dominated them and their people and how powerless some of them felt against the power of Western culture. They shared how they understood the world in which they lived and it was not only fascinating but illuminating and insightful. I felt that I/we could learn a great deal.
I have travelled with people into the world of West Papua, our nearest neighbours. I have experienced the world and lives of some of the indigenous people there, oppressed and persecuted by a foreign power and outside corporate interests who treat them as if they don’t exist and don’t matter. I have vicariously experienced their simple and difficult lives without most of what I take for granted – plentiful nutritious food, clean water, a secure home, clothing, healthcare, education and the freedom to live my life peacefully and well. I have been moved by their lack, along with their gratitude for simple things, basic things I take for granted. Through their stories and those of people who have lived with them, I have seen into their world and ‘visited’ their lives.
Through news media and good journalism I have seen into the horror of places like Syria, Sudan and Sub-Saharan Africa. I have been taken into places that are so very different and difficult, places that challenge the very reality of the world as I know it. As I sit with these images and experiences, these stories and the people at their centre, I am challenged and changed, confronted and transformed. It can’t help but be so. When we move out of our own framework of experience and look through a different lens in an unfamiliar and different place, we cannot help but to be changed.
In our Gospel reading this week (Matthew 16:13-20) we hear the story of Jesus walking north from Capernaum on the edge of the lake in Galilee to Caesarea Philippi. This ancient city had been through various transformations and had previously been known as Paneas (and is today known as Banias), after the Greek God Pan, who was the deity worshipped in this place. There is a grotto and spring that was a sacred place dedicated to Pan. There is also an escarpment out of which niches were carved and offerings placed to honour Pan. The city was remodelled the city and named it in honour of Emperor Caesar Augustus. In order to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, ‘Philippi’ was added – after Philip the King of the region. He used this as his administrative centre.
Jesus and his followers walked the 40 or so kilometres to this city of political and religious significance. It represented everything different from Jesus and the Jewish faith they practiced. Caesarea Philippi was charged with religious and political fervour that was in stark contrast to Jesus and the way he proclaimed. In the midst of this challenging, confronting city that represented the power and diverse religious life of the Empire, Jesus asked his followers who people thought him to be. They responded with some of the typical themes – John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet returned… ‘So,’ said Jesus, ‘Who do you say that I am?’
This is a central question that moves us beyond a conversation about who Jesus is or isn’t into pondering which world we will believe and choose. Peter, on behalf of the disciples declared that Jesus was the Messiah, Son of the Living God. This was an affirmation that contained a deep truth but was also open to common interpretation. The Messiah was expected to be one from God who would lead a rebellion against Rome and restore God’s nation, God’s people through military might and power. That said, Jesus stood amidst the very signs of Roman power and Greek religion. In this foreign place his disciples were asked which world they would choose, which truth, which values, which way. Would they stand with Rome and the traditions of the Greek world? Would they chose the ways of secular power and might? Would they stand in the ways of the status quo and the stories that defined the Roman world? Would they believe the truth the echoed through the public discourse and Roman Imperial Religion? Or, would they hear a different voice, one that emerged from the vulnerable places and silence of prayer and the traditions of their faith? Would they believe in the alternative story of Jesus, one of justice, love, mercy, peace and hope? Would they seek this way and live their lives in a transformed way or would they conform to power, might and popular opinion?
This is the challenge I feel when confronted by the people and stories that emerge from places outside the dominant culture I experience in public discourse, general media, political debate and corporate visions. When I listen to the story beneath the story, the story of people in different places wrestling with the realities of life that are tough and challenging, I am challenged to respond differently, not to be conformed to the world as I mostly know it but to be transformed into a way of life and being that challenges the status quo and believes in the way of Jesus grounded in love, justice and peace.