The American Abroad

This column was published on February 12 on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum.

Last month, in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, Senator John Kerry royally ticked off a lot of Americans, particularly those who are a little more red around the state, when he criticized US foreign policy.

The story caught my attention because by the time this column is published, I’ll be in Switzerland myself, and while nothing I say in Switzerland will make the news, still the response to Kerry’s comments raises an important question for the American abroad: to what extent should a person refrain from criticizing his or her country while traveling?

I’ve had some experience with this. The last time I was in Switzerland, Arnold Schwartzenegger was elected governor of the state usually I’m proud to call home. I was in Geneva learning about the work of the World Council of Churches, and I met a couple of pastors from Cameroon who mocked me over dinner because the Terminator was my Governor.

I was torn. On the one hand, I wasn’t the least bit happy about the election results that sent the Kindergarten Cop to Sacramento. On the other hand, it’s not like Cameroon is a shining example of what it looks like when a country has a well-oiled, highly functional government. Given the choice, I just might take Arnold over most of the politicians in Cameroon. I didn’t know whether to get defensive or join in the derision.

I took the easy out and laughed.

I’ll be returning to the city that gave birth to the tradition in which I practice the Christian faith for a few days of prayer and contemplation. Geneva is a city of great beauty. It will be a lot colder than California, and I don’t speak much French, but I’m going to Geneva precisely because it is a long way from my home in San Jose.

One of the reasons I find it important to visit other countries is that being abroad gives me a perspective that is closer to what God sees, namely that the world is bigger than the places I see and hear about every day.

This is a spiritual truth that keeps us humble and makes us strong. With vision corrected by distance we see our country, our states, our neighborhoods, our faith communities, our families, our own lives in clearer focus. And if we will look from afar, we’re more likely to see what is working and what is failing. This knowledge will help us strengthen what is functioning, fix what is broken, and set aside what no longer is needed.

So, in my opinion, it is natural that John Kerry found himself speaking critically of the Unites States while visiting the Alps, and even if we don’t like what he said or don’t agree with his conclusions, still we deprive ourselves of important voices if we will not listen, taking advantage of the perspective of distance.

Kerry’s speech has been criticized as giving comfort to America’s enemies, and that may be true. I’m not one of America’s enemies, so I don’t know what comforts such a person. However, I suspect that Kerry’s criticisms of American policies also gave significant solace to America’s friends, because regardless of politics or persuasion, everybody wants friends who are honest, reflective, and

So when I’m in Switzerland, if any one asks, I won’t refrain from criticizing my country’s policies or anything else American worthy of critique. Rather, I hope the distance of eight time zones will help me understand to be a better citizen, and more that that, a better person; and I hope to gain some perspective on how I can work to improve my church, my neighborhood, my city, my state, my country, and my world.
Author’s Note: I’m home now, and no one asked my opinion on American policy. I did, however wear my San Francisco Giants cap around Geneva because while there may be pleanty of reasons to feel sheepish about being an American, baseball isn’t one of them.

6 thoughts on “The American Abroad

  1. Nice article…. I wonder though how many people really think from a cosmopolitan perspective while travelling; I think that those who do are quite insightful/introspective, but I also know plenty of people who never thing of travelling from that perspective. I also find myself wondering if I ever consciously thought like this in my previous travels… when I was in France and Scotland, I imagine that my awareness of cultural difference might have been indicative of this, but i wish i had thought more sincerely of the implications of travel on ones’ worldview whilst doing so.

  2. Sarah,

    Thanks for the note.

    An interesting thing happened in Switzerland. On Sunday, I took a train to Chateau Chillon, on the far end of Lake Geneva. I went there because Lord Byron wrote a poem about a prisoner in that castle’s dungeon. It is a poem that I find to be spiritually meaningful, and I wanted to read it in the dungeon. It was the last stop on my pilgrim journey. After reading the poem I spent several hours checking out the castle, and being in awe of the Alps, which are spectacular down at the far end of Lake Geneva.

    It was weird, and a little bit uncomfortable to make the transition from pilgrim to tourist–so much so that when I got back into Geneva, I went back to the cathedral to reconnect with my sense of spiritual purpose and grounding.

    All that is to say, that I found that traveling thoughtfully and meaningfully takes intention. I also found that it is very much worth the effort.


  3. Well,… i can tell you that I will definetly be much more intentioned next time I travel… I appreciate the article. it got me thinking 🙂

  4. What makes you feel “Sheepish” about being an American? You have no reason to feel sheepish, especially in Switzerland. They didn’t have the guts to stand up for what was right during the war. THEY are the one who should feel “Sheepish” around YOU.

  5. Marshal,

    Thanks for the note.

    I have two thoughts in response to your post.

    First, I was a sheepish American in Switzerland because I find myself more inclined to confess my own sins then I am to confess the sins of others.

    Second, I agree that it was wrong for the Swiss to remain neutral during the Second World War, and it was criminal for the Swiss to use that neutrality to facilitate the laundering of valuables stolen from the victims of the Holocaust. Having said that, it seems to me that sufficient time has passed that we are no longer able to speak of THE war, as if there have been no wars since the 1940s. I’m not an expert on such things, but I’d be willing to be that since WWII, the Swiss have a better record than does the US.



  6. speaking of americans abroad…


    congratulations to them on 5 grammys, including top country awards!


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