As scholars, we constantly have to walk the fine line between being influenced by other thinkers, other methodologies, and co-opting those for our own purposes. Having lived in and spent time in Latin America, I’ve keenly felt the tension between allowing things to influence my work, to make me a better theologian and ethicist, and simply taking them as my own.
The first time I went to El Salvador, I came back shattered (and I mean that in a good sense, which I realize sounds odd). In trying to process through it all, I remember a good friend and member of my small group saying that I needed to do the work for myself, I couldn’t just embrace a place and a world that isn’t mine and lay claim to it, to (in my words) colonize it. At the time, I’m pretty sure I reacted somewhat flippantly to her words, but over the next few years, they formed the foundation of my personal reflection and my work.
Because spending time immersed in another culture, regardless of whether it is down the street from you or half a world away, does change you. Places and spaces and peoples have different operative theologies, different ethical systems, different customs, and different worldviews. When you encounter them, it’s impossible not to be changed: some people cling even more tightly to the things they know and love, some people reject from whence they come and grab onto the new, and others wrestle, day in and day out, with trying to figure out to live authentically, with disparate sets of experience, and to somehow still make meaning. Often, those things happen in combination and ebb and flow into each other. For me, that meant that I had to stop living in some imagined, utopian El Salvador that doesn’t exist (and I don’t mean utopian in the sense of not recognizing the many issues facing that society, I mean it in the sense of it being perfect for what I thought I was looking for at the time). I had to stop rejecting everything about being a privileged white college student and figure out what it meant to be a privileged white college student who knew that there was a world beyond my university, beyond my country.
As a graduate student, one of my mentors described this as “the grace in being pulled apart,” existing in a Twister game of life and having limbs in different places, pieces of my heart and my head here, there, and everywhere (where, sometimes, you’re not entirely sure how your left hand ended up on blue but you still can’t seem to move it without falling down).
It’s not an easy thing and, quite frankly, it’s often painful and sometimes unbearable. How does anyone live authentically when their paradigm has been challenged, when their worldview has been confronted with its opposite, when the problem of other minds isn’t how it’s possible that they exist, but that they think and act and conclude differently?
Watching the MTV Video Music Awards tonight, I was reminded again of this tension. I could write a lot about the things in the performance by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke that I found problematic (the perpetuation of rape culture and misogyny being just two of them), but mostly, I found myself really interested in the audience reaction. Reactions from the audience seemed to be of shock, horror, confusion, and anger (I’m sure there were others, but I can only comment on what MTV chose to air). People far more qualified than I am will weigh in on the cultural appropriation that occurred during Miley’s performance, and I am going to name it that, but it was an unexpected reminder that I still have a lot of work to do when it comes to walking that thin line between allowing myself to be influenced and shaped by people and places and spaces without stealing those things and claiming them as my own property.