During the recent conflict between Georgia and Russia, we learned an interesting lesson on the importance of perspective. My husband, one of our daughters and I were hosts to a Russian houseguest.
A little background: this particular daughter, a professor, takes a study abroad group to Russia every summer. Her students volunteer in Russian summer camps for about a month. The camps where they work are a 16-hour train ride from Moscow.
In the several years our daughter has been leading this group, she has developed a number of close friends in Russia, some of whom have visited in the states, and she brings them to our house for part of their visit.
This particular guest has a limited grasp of English. Our Russian is virtually non-existent, consisting of only two or three words. Our daughter, although making good progress in learning Russian, is still not really fluent. Thus our conversations with our guest, although aided by dictionaries (both electronic and paper), were rather basic.
When the conflict broke out, instead of trying to translate/explain what was going on, we pulled up the Pravda Web site so that our friend could read in her own language about what was going on.
When she finished reading in Russian, we would click on the button that allowed us to read in English what she had read in Russian. We were stunned to realize that the Pravda version was almost diametrically opposed to what we were hearing and reading from our various media.
Here is an excerpt from one article accusing the United States of hypocrisy:
“They have the audacity to complain about Russia violating Georgia’s frontiers, when the U.S. armed forces invaded Iraq and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians? They have the cheek to complain about Russian military operations, when cluster bombs were dropped into civilian areas in Iraq, when prisoners were tortured in Abu Ghraib, when innocent people were rounded up and sent to the illegal concentration camp at Guantanamo, where they did not even have access to a due legal process?
“They have the sheer, pig-headed arrogance to speak about the territorial integrity of Georgia, when Iraq was invaded outside any norm of international law, its civilian structures were targeted with military hardware and reconstruction contracts were doled out without tender to White House cronies?”
The article also contrasted Russia’s action toward Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili against President Bush’s and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s role in the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein.
“Suppose Russia claimed that it wanted regime change in Georgia, invaded the country, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of its citizens, deployed WMD in civilian areas, raped and tortured prisoners, caught Saakashvili and hanged him?” the article asked. “Morally, Bush, Rice and their entire odious and satanic regime would not be able to say a single word without the label ‘hypocrisy’ choking them in their throats.”
Accusations of war crimes flew back and forth between Georgia and Russia. One side asserted one thing and the other another. It was impossible to know where the exact truth lay. It was particularly interesting how Pravda used the Bush administration’s admitted lies on which the Iraq war was based to discredit the current American stance, at one point asking how the American people could be so blindly led astray again.
Because of our limited vocabulary skills, we were unable to have a discussion with our guest about the different perspectives, but were very grateful that the bonds of friendship transcended the political divergence as described by the two media outlets. The experience brought into sharp focus how our viewpoints are influenced by the lenses through which we look at what is happening around us.
Whether we are looking at situations, political or otherwise, through American eyes, Baptist eyes, regional eyes, cultural eyes or the eyes of personal experience, we need to be careful about the assumptions we make. Paul reminds us that we “see through a glass darkly,” especially when we forget to use the corrective lenses of God’s love.
Our friendship with our guest eased what could have been an awkward situation during the conflict between Russia and Georgia. Just so, we need to build bridges of love, understanding, faith and trust, based on the depth of God’s love for each of us.
Sara Powell of Hartwell, Ga., is a member of the Baptist Center for Ethics board.
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