As Kingman steered the car through one of the many military checkpoints on the road running from east to west across the island of Sri Lanka, he mused, "I find myself in a very bizarre situation. All of my activist life I have been anti-American, but now I find myself saying very positive things about the role of the U.S. military in our post-tsunami recovery. My friends don't understand what's wrong with me."
Friends for more than 20 years, Kingman and I were meeting again after a long hiatus.
Traveling to the east coast to visit tsunami-affected villages, I had opportunity to hear him reflect on his years of experience struggling on behalf of the oppressed. This has often brought him into direct conflict with U.S. policy concerning Asia. Taking a cue from his statement about anti-American sentiments in Sri Lanka, I asked him why he, and so many others in Sri Lanka, had developed such negative feelings. He jumped at the opportunity to vent his frustrations.
"When the U.S. invaded Vietnam in the '60s, we in Sri Lanka watched with great concern and anger. Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist country as is Sri Lanka. In fact Sri Lanka is one of the most important Buddhist countries in Asia and it wasn't difficult for many of us to begin thinking that the invasion of Vietnam was partially an attempt of Christianity to destroy the Buddhist faith. Our conclusion, therefore, was that Sri Lanka could be next. So we became very vocal against the U.S., its war against Vietnam and the possibility of the war to also come to Sri Lanka. We didn't trust the U.S.
"When the war ended in Vietnam, the fears still remained, and as Sri Lanka was facing its own internal struggles, it was important to have an enemy which could stir up the people and unite them. Whenever you want change, it is good to have an enemy to unite people.
"Fire was added to the anti-American feelings when Peace Corps volunteers were sent to work throughout our country. The Smithsonian also sent experts to examine some of the many ancient sites found in Sri Lanka. People suspected that these Americans were there to spy and to create discord so the U.S. could gain control over the country. At the same time the U.S. helped build a new highway across the country and constructed the first tourist hotel on the coast. All of these activities brought fear of too much U.S. influence and interference in our affairs.
"Fear and misunderstanding of information were the biggest factors. That, along with the arrogance of many of the Americans coming to the country, stirred up and maintained the negative feelings many of us had for America. In truth we weren't against the people of America, but again the policy of the U.S. government which comes across as so aloof, insensitive and often very undemocratic.
"I was involved for so many years in anti-America campaigns. When the tsunami hit and we heard that U.S. military would be coming to help in recovery, we were extremely suspicious. Was this just another ploy to take the country? Would they leave after their work was done or would they end up staying in force? Were they really here to help, or were they here to spy? These were questions we kept asking and there were no clear answers.
"But things have been very different from what we expected. The American soldiers have been very helpful and friendly. Not only did they use their large bulldozers to clear rubble, but they picked through the debris for any unbroken bricks and other materials that could be used to reconstruct houses. They stacked these unbroken bricks neatly so villagers could use them. They played with the children, bought food from the local vendors and were very hard working. When their task was completed, they all left.
"If that is how the U.S. military acted all over the world, they would certainly have a better reputation.
"So now I question my friends who are still anti-American. I tell them that perhaps we misunderstood too many things in the past. Maybe we let fear manipulate us and keep us from responding to global issues in a more positive and useful way. Yes, the American policy still has very negative effects on our country in many ways and we need to be very careful and remain vigilant, but we should not let fear and misinformation lead us.
"I still have a great distrust and dislike for U.S. policy in this region, especially their military aggression, but I've been able to see U.S. soldiers now as people and I need to make sure that my anger and suspicion is kept where it needs to be - on the policy of U.S. national leaders and not on individual Americans."
Kingman's reflection is not only an important message for the people of Sri Lanka but for us in America as well. We need to understand that anti-American reactions by people in other countries have a cause. We may or may not agree with that cause and it may even be based on false assumptions in a few cases, but if we can understand why people feel and react as they do, we can more readily find ways to resolve differences and break down walls.
My friend's reflection can also help us think about our own fears of others and recognize the importance of listening to information, especially that coming to us through the mass media, with a critical ear. Is misinformation and fear being used to try and convince us that Iraq is a threat to us and our freedoms? Are countries in "Old Europe" really against us or do they have legitimate concerns and questions that we need to listen to and discuss openly with them?
Walls are rising up between us and much of the rest of the world. Can we help bring those walls down by setting our fears aside, listening to others and using Kingdom values rather than our own weapons of mass destruction to transform a broken world into a world healed by love and compassion?