METETI, PANAMA — — “Do they celebrate July 4 here, too?” asked a young airman as our unit readied our Independence Day fireworks celebration at our deployed location.
It’s the kind of ethnocentric question I often hear from people who never have been outside the United States.
Simply defined, ethnocentricity is the assumption that our way of life is best and other cultures are the ones that drive funny, dress funny or eat funny things.
In the airman’s defense, I must admit that celebrating Independence Day in a different hemisphere does something to your sense of perspective. It can be difficult to remember that, while we may all look alike, we come from different backgrounds and carry different assumptions about things.
Like a baby looking out of its playpen, ethnocentric thinking makes it easy to think that the world you see is the only world that makes sense. This simple thinking makes it easy to imagine that everyone in the world is worried about commuter traffic, their 401k, their Facebook page or their fifth-grader getting a cell phone.
The people here in Meteti, however, are worried about some very different things. Like whether their children will get the vaccines afforded to children in developed countries. Or whether their son’s fifth-grade classroom finally will get the walls needed to protect students from the harsh climate.
It’s easy to look exclusively at our local headlines and think human rights boil down to whether someone can carry a gun to Starbucks or whether we are using the politically correct language du jour.
But being down here tends to remind me that we are part of a bigger community. When you visit a side of the world where many people are simply looking for their next meal, it makes you realize we have bigger fish to fry than whether to join the tea party or the coffee klatch.
There’s a global consideration here that was framed in a question a lawyer asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus’ answer came in the form of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The parable tells of three men who came upon a man left for dead by roadside bandits. Afraid for their safety, the first two men continued their journey.
The third man, the Samaritan, however, stopped to help the wounded man.
“Which of these three,” Jesus asked “do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
“The one who showed him mercy,” replied the inquisitor.
To the speechless listeners who hated the Samaritans, Jesus said, “Now, go and do likewise.”
Here, men and women who normally deploy to combat zones have come across the hemisphere carrying tools to build schools and playgrounds and to remodel clinics. In so doing, the merciful hand of the Good Samaritan is extended.
So, does Panama celebrate Independence Day?
Panama actually has two days on which its residents celebrate their independence.
On Nov 28, 1821, they declared their independence from Spain. Three weeks later, they became a part of Columbia; 82 years later, on Nov. 3, 1903, they separated from Columbia and became their own country.
Don’t worry; I won’t test you on that.
The real test, however, begins each morning when you wake and face the question: Will I self-centeredly act as if mine is the only hemisphere? Or will I do as Jesus commanded and show my neighbor mercy?
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You also can follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.