Editorial Note: This Piece Originally ran in Volume 5 of the Nations Journal.
America shields us from suffering and bombards us with pleasure, but the two years I spent with Iranian refugees in Turkey shattered that bubble. Returning from that level of intensity and suffering was—and still is—a challenge. Persian voices ring in my head:
“I think he’s etelaat… he told me he knew where my mother and sister were and he said he knew I was a Christian… I don’t know what to do, I’m scared…”
“I left my husband because he hit me. When I did, my family was ashamed. They beat me in the street. Strangers stopped them. I miscarried.”
“When his family found out he became a Christian, they took him to the Black Sea on a picnic, and drowned him. Their own son.”
“I like your prophet. Jesus is a prophet of love. He is not like our prophet.”
“Did you hear about the protesting university students the Basij rounded up? Stripped them naked, chained them against a wall, and brought in prisoners from Evin to rape them. They raped them until they died. I believe it; they’ll do anything.”
“Nousha jan,”—bon appetit. My smiling hosts always said this while beaming proudly as they served their family’s favorite dishes. This is where I saw my refugee friends at their proudest, their most dignified and powerful. Around the dinner table they weren’t takers; they were creative, capable givers. Honored to honor others, they humored my poor Farsi as I attempted to return the favor with taarof phrases like, “I debase myself before you,” and, “You may walk on my eyes,” which always merited laughter. I wished I knew how to say it better, more sincerely.
And then, I returned to America.
The intensity and purpose I experienced overseas dried up. The things I shared seemed to fit into a neat story for those who listened. Sometimes listeners responded with, “It really makes you grateful for what we have here,” but nothing about the suffering of my Iranian friends made me grateful. It kept me up at night.
For several years, I struggled to find community, to find answers, and to reconcile the Christianity of the Middle East with the Christianity of America. Maybe a piece of your heart is in another country, too. Maybe “home” leaves you feeling alien and grasping for purpose in the birthplace of the “first-world problem.” That feeling might not totally leave, but I’ve found a few truths and practices to make sense of it.
When I returned to the States, regurgitating popular pastors’ quotes no longer carried the weight for me that it once did. Tidy theological talking points that once energized me now seemed morbidly irrelevant compared to the messiness of reality.
Upon return, I taught at a Christian school where some kids were instructed that “love your neighbor” was about homeowners associations. One teacher taught that gun ownership was a Christian obligation. Catholic students were regularly slighted by teachers and peers alike. Scripture passed through a political filter, not the other way around. I became a sympathetic ear for thoughtful, empathetic students who were ostracized for not being Republican enough.
This cross-section of affluent American Christianity was appalling to me. By the time I left, I wondered if I could even consider myself a Christian anymore. It wasn’t Christ I doubted, it was my place in the supposed Church. That experience was far more trying to my faith than what I experienced in Turkey.
As I church-shopped, I discovered I respected Muslims for getting on their knees in prayer five times a day more than I did the Christian pop songs meant to manufacture emotional highs. I noticed pastors who grew churches as a matter of conquest, a way of measuring their own charm and wit. Everyone was their own pope, with custom-tailored gospels. American Christianity seemed characterized by distraction and entitlement. I raged against it. I still do.
“Sometimes listeners responded with, ‘It really makes you grateful for what we have here,’ but nothing about the suffering of my Iranian friends made me grateful. It kept me up at night.”
I sought out people who resembled who I was when I left America, but that version of myself no longer existed. I still believed in the power of Christ’s message and individual heart-change, but I now believed in the limited human ability to interpret that message and a stoniness of heart that isn’t just self-harming but genocidal. I found that voicing those thoughts usually drew more conflict than it was worth.
I remember seeing a life-long missionary, who had made great sacrifices in his ministry, return and talk about his experiences. He wondered out loud about the souls of people he loved, and remarked on the goodness in them. Afterwards, there were murmurs of his “liberalism” among short-termers. I watched as Billy Graham and Russell Moore received similar treatment. In America, it seemed true Christianity was defined by affirming the right ideas—a bravery that conveniently requires no action.
It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to think and act like they’ve had the experiences I’ve had. I realized I can’t change the black-and-white views of an armchair missionary.
Yet, I needed a community that embraced nuance, that could recognize my goodwill when I struggled, that cared less about abstractions and more about action. The person who left for Turkey didn’t come back. A different person returned: more decisive, more confused, more burdened, more active. I needed to give myself permission to be that different person. Many of my fellow Evangelicals who went overseas came back and found new denominational homes like Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, denominations that embrace both nuance and action.
For me, that new home was Orthodoxy. I needed the sobriety, the focus, the generosity on abstracts, and the discipline in the practical. I needed to pray “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on me,” again and again and again. I needed Christus Victor. When I sing the Resurrection Hymn, I hear Persian voices again, but I hear them singing with Eve.
“The person who left for Turkey didn’t come back. A different person returned: more decisive, more confused, more burdened, more active.“
Carrying an American Cross
When Iran’s secret police threatened me I was scared, but also happy to be pissing off the right people (don’t make that a guiding motive). I had some idea of how to lean into conflict when it was right in front of me, but I didn’t know what to do once I returned home to the lap of luxury, watching ISIS beheadings from the comfort of suburbia. I felt guilty for not being there.
To be clear, any suffering I’ve experienced hasn’t been extreme. One of the hardest things about returning to the States was knowing that I don’t know what persecution is like. It was confusing: suffering was very real to me, but I’m not a survivor of anything. In two years, I was little more than a tourist from a powerful country. At least in Turkey I felt like I could do something that mattered. In America I was hapless.
I wanted to carry the refugee’s cross, but that wasn’t what Jesus—or others—asked of me. There’s a fine line between helping someone carry their burdens and rejecting my own. Nobody needs my posturing or my pity. They don’t need me to make their suffering about me or to waste my resources wallowing. I felt lost because I didn’t know how to respond to the suffering of my friends.
Christ repeatedly tells us to deny ourselves and carry our crosses. It’s a message that seems to get lost in America. I tried to take it to heart, but self-denial and carrying my cross quickly became mixed with “love your neighbor” and resulted in a muddled savior-complex. I wanted to carry someone else’s cross, not my own. All I had was the cross of an insecure, chronically-depressed, semi-affluent white boy. I didn’t want to dwell on my own unoriginal sins, my weaknesses native to every human soul, or even invest myself in stewarding my resources for the benefit of others. It was easier to give my resources away.
I wanted to be heroic—the Christian way. I felt free and excited when I landed in Turkey with two suitcases to my name. I felt vulnerable and scared when I tried to be a leader in the industrial town where I now live. I didn’t want to recognize that the burdens that mattered most lay on my pillow at night just as much as they do the other side of the world.
Those crosses are always there. And we see them best when we deny ourselves, when we clear the distractions from our souls’ eyes.
“I didn’t want to dwell on my own unoriginal sins, my weaknesses native to every human soul.”
So Wednesdays and Fridays, I’m quasi-vegan. It’s the Church’s idea, not mine. When I stop myself seconds before pouring milk in my coffee, there’s a tiny sense of frustration—and that frustration tells me I’m not there yet. It tells me to pray for the mystery of God’s mercy to be fully realized.
Eating a Trader Joe’s frozen vegan meal when I’m craving a burger doesn’t make me a martyr, but it brings me back to reality and creaturehood. Trying—and often failing—to observe Orthodoxy’s 200 days of fasting per year drives home this point. So does celebrating the martyrs of the Church on a weekly basis. The Orthodox are baptized in a vestment they know they will wear only one more time: when they are buried and resurrected in Christ. I needed that embrace of life and death, beauty and suffering. I needed to long for Christ’s coming and weep for human brokenness. Even indulging my own senses with the ikon of Christ Pantokrator and the smell of incense reminds me of my human neediness for beauty. Sensual beauty in worship is the petal to the thorn of suffering, and it reminds me that both are part of the same whole.
I need the sages’ warnings against fantasy, and the constant, desperate supplication, “Lord have mercy.” Dependence is the shared reality of all humanity that I must connect with. I need to regularly do little things that open my eyes to the omniscient tears for Lazarus in small sufferings, and Cana of Galilee in small joys. I need to see the cosmic in the mundane.
“Sensual beauty in worship is the petal to the thorn of suffering, and it reminds me that both are part of the same whole.”
Some people are naturally good at handling unknowns. I am not. I returned to the States wanting answers that would give me peace and the ability to fix things.
In that regard, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov was a God-send. In the novel, three brothers wrestle with God and theodicy in distinct ways. The Intellectual Brother Karamazov (representing the Enlightenment) proposes that Christ’s rule of love has ruined the world with freedom, chaos, and destruction. He puts Christ on trial, siding with the rule of law rather than a world ruled by the freedom that love necessitates.
The Sensualist Brother Karamazov charges that if this is the world God-created, atrocities and all, he simply cannot love God. The thoughts sounded familiar. I was alarmed to find myself siding with both of them. What kind of monstrous Father gives His children the freedom to play with knives, to inflict harm on each other?
Alyosha, the Spiritualist Brother Karamazov, is troubled by these arguments. His spiritual father in the monastery dies, and the miracle anticipated upon his death never arrives. Alyosha sees the corruptibility of every high ideal, both religious and humanist. Perceived as a well-meaning but ineffectual altruist, Alyosha eventually becomes the glue that holds his family together when all other guiding lights go out. He becomes hope to the despairing Sensualist and a guide to the tragically misinterpreted Intellectual.
Answers are often beyond reach, but the person of Christ is near. Amidst all the turmoil and hopelessness of wondering how to fix a humanity that perverts every good idea, I realized that I just wanted to be what I was supposed to be. Alyosha discovered that there was a small but very real power in being transformed by Christ—and that power was more effective than any theoretical answer.
Reading The Brothers Karamazov, I understood a resurrection that depends on answers is never going to come. Though I struggled with big questions, eventually I realized that answers weren’t what kept me up at night. I don’t need all the answers. I need God to have a plan for my ignorance. I need to know that mystery was not a punt on hard questions—it’s the divinity of Christ revealed in my blindness.