I had a strange experience in Vienna recently that at one level seemed silly, but gave me pause for some deeper reflections. I was running errands, and needed to go to Wien Hauptbahnhof (main Vienna train station), just two “S-bahn” stops from my home. It was a quick errand, routine, I went this way almost daily. Answering an email on my phone, I stepped absentmindedly onto the train.
Five minutes went by, I had finished my email, and the train hadn’t stopped. It in fact sped up, and wide-eyed I looked out the window to see industrial yards and the outskirts of the city racing past me. Ten or fifteen minutes went by, the train never stopped. Staving off minor panic I walked to the doors, readying myself to bail this strange train at the first possible opportunity.
Safely off the mystery train, I did a little research and discovered that I had boarded the nebulous S7. It comes unannounced to my humble train station, looks like all of the other city trains, but takes passengers someplace totally different…eventually the airport, but I had exited at the border of Lower Austria, the neighboring state. On my way home I texted a friend and co-worker and joked about the mistake. I tell him I boarded the ‘Room of Requirement’ train, he quips that to “take the 77 tram” is a euphemism for death in Viennese parlance.
There was something striking about my train gaffe. Totally by accident, I was transported from the familiar to the unfamiliar. I jumped off of the train just as quickly as I stepped on, and exited to bright daylight and a totally new configuration of space. I no longer knew my boundaries, the proscribed and permittable actions, the most efficient way from point a to point b.
Meanwhile, back home, the world is a-rumble with anxiety. Yes, I’m speaking of current events–Brexit and the terrorist attacks in Orlando and Istanbul that are becoming routine. I’m speaking also of the anxiety and competing ideologies circling these events–over the possible fall of the EU and the strengthening of the extremist right wing in countries all across the globe. I have had the privilege of hearing from people from many countries about their perspectives on our troubling times. Everywhere, the anxiety and uncertainty is similar.
Also this month, on a slow afternoon I found myself reading Jacob Taubes, a Jewish scholar and political philosopher. I am stung by his somewhat famous apocalyptic refrain from his final lectures on Paul’s Letter to the Romans The Political Theology of Paul: “I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is.”
I read that with newly realized disbelief in this European tourist port city (that has been called the “gateway to globalization”) just two days after Brexit. The city was abuzz with anxious Brits, crowding ATM machines, consulting strangers and friends alike in the streets in low and nervous tones. What is going to happen?
Perhaps it’s easy for a dying man like Taubes to say that he has no spiritual investment in the world as it is. Maybe it is also a trendy sort of thing to repeat among those who would count themselves politically radical. But I quite like the concept of the EU–that foundation of post-war peace in Europe, that (yes imperfect, yes bureaucratic) pillar of cosmopolitan values. To really seriously say what Taubes said, you must be ready for that particular pillar to crumble. Can I really responsibly wish for that? I think not.
Before I hopped on the wrong train running errands in Vienna the other day, I had hopped on a bigger “mystery train” to Europe and became an intern at a church. I had originally toyed with the idea of first getting my PhD in my chosen academic field of philosophy and religious studies.
Vienna, of course, is an international and multi-cultural city (as it was from the early days of the Hapsburg empire whose capital was once here). The United Nations has its own “palace” these days sitting on an island in the Danube. In the past year, Vienna has received refugees and asylum-seekers in near unprecedented number from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan fleeing political instability and civil war. Their arrival and the confusion surrounding their futures has been further complicated by local pushback, and a resurgence of right wing populist anti-immigration sentiments.
Being a bit of an outsider can lend some useful perspective, and here I have seen some things and met some people that confirmed my contrarian revision of Taubes’ sentiment. “The world as it is,” doesn’t really exist at all, but I’m still terribly invested in it.
We all have perspectives on how the world is, and they’re all necessarily a little bit wrong. Whatever my former formulations of normalcy and security, there’s always a reality to counter them. In my church internship in Europe, I’ve seen some unexpected things:
- I’ve met weary Ukrainians. People that are constantly dodging FSB surveillance and risking their lives to deliver food aid to an east Ukraine being starved into submission by certain occupiers. This is a ‘way that the world is’ that is rarely reported on or talked about.
- I’ve met young men and women, refugees, that have faced down firing squads and lived to tell the tale.
- I’ve witnessed otherwise well-intentioned refugee aid workers brainstorming ways to keep their aid out of the hands of ‘Gypsies’ (Roma people).
- I’ve sat in the aftermath of 4am surprise deportations of friends and prayed for favorable asylum decisions. Unfavorable decisions by EU governments could set of a series of events that de facto lead to their actual deaths.
These are some of the idiosyncratic and disturbing ‘way[s] that the world is’ that I have witnessed. Realities that do not make it into our news feeds or our official discussions of “important issues.”
What I find, is that ‘the world as it is’ is bound together by incredibly thin threads. The fabric of human community is quite a weak one, and when people sense this it is perhaps then that they retreat into their nationalisms. Who needs this dodgy globalization nonsense when we have a STRONG Great Britain (or United States)?
But back to hopping trains — if you hop on the right train, previously held beliefs about how the world is and how things work and how people interact can totally change. Any traveller will tell you that. Things can always be differently, it is in no way necessary to retreat into nationalism or tribalism or fear and mistrust.
Take for example, a Straßenfest (“street party”) my church held last month. Straßenfest happens every year, and I had the good fortune of being a part of it this June. Young Viennese hipsters, older Austrians from the neighborhood, asylum-seekers from the Middle East, South Americans, Christians Muslims and atheists, people from the LGBTQ community, Baptists and Lutherans and Catholics were all there. There was music and dancing and art and food. People from all of these groups mixed and danced. Some interactions were joy-filled, some were unremarkable, some were sweetly awkward.
What made me so proud was that it was so casual. No one was making a big fuss about how moral and tolerant they were for crossing lines of difference. They were just dancing. And at the end everyone helped clean up.
It was a small experience, a little train journey, that went against everything everyone is saying about the way that the world is. What I witness in these uncertain times is a lot of well-intentioned people writing rubrics about how to engage with the Other–Diversity training or privilege checking or fighting systemic oppression or what have you.
All are decent things. But still we live in a world where people are mostly cut off from one another. It sometimes seems that those that wax most saccharine about diversitarian paradise don’t often leave their comfortable circles of sameness and certainty. When you actually begin to weave human community with the “Other” it isn’t that you necessarily become cynical, but rather very specific and concrete questions on how to actually live together rise to the surface. Questions like,
- How do I respond to my Muslim friend when he describes and promotes the benefits of polygamy (of the one man with up to four wives variety) to me? Difference can introduce conflict, and real discomfort. How do you press into relationship in spite of that?
- When friends in our community experience crisis, how do we help? This question becomes more logistical than anything, especially when navigating linguistic and cultural difference, or multiple crises at once.
- How do we cope when the relationships we form with asylum-seekers in Vienna are disrupted by middle-of-the-night deportations? How does a community form under such conditions of instability and injustice? How do we best advocate for our people?
There are real, concrete, complex issues to be addressed living in human community. To wade into the waters of human difference and human community is to eventually find yourself swimming out past diversitarian sloganeering. Because here’s the thing about that kind of sloganeering: it is primarily designed to convince the people that would seek safety on their nationalistic or identitarian islands to get in the water. Some of these people will never get in the water. Spending too much energy trying to convince them of the rightness of your position will also keep you out of the water.
I work in a church where people live in actual community across lines of linguistic, cultural, national, sexual, theological, and religious difference. They worship God together. I have seen some manner of miracles. Life in this community is exciting and full of love. It is also sometimes awkward and uncomfortable and warty, like anything involving humans. But it wouldn’t exist if the membership put all of their energy into writing open letters to Donald Trump, or the Religious Right, or any other real or imagined oppressor. My fear is that by constantly only reacting to the the extreme right, or the bigoted, we are letting them make the rules. We are letting them set the parameters for what’s possible.
If you’re a person that doesn’t want the world to further fracture into little identitarian or nationalistic or racist islands, maybe the best thing you can do is hop onto an unexpected train. The world looks quite different from new places (and these new places need not be so very far from your actual home).
When people say that it is impossible to mix with certain kinds of people, or that “it will take years for our church to be truly diverse”, or that refugees can’t really be trusted…perhaps they’re just wrong. Perhaps they just need to get off of the train platform. When I tear my eyes away from the Boris Johnsons and Donald Trumps of the world and look at the people around me, things actually look quite hopeful. People, in all of their difference, are worth celebrating. And that’s reason enough to celebrate.
A Christian friend from the US asked me recently how things are with my “faith walk”. I didn’t know at first how to answer. But then I realized the answer is quite simple. What I’m learning is this: whatever the Kingdom is, I’m finding it’s quite like a mustard seed – perhaps right in the middle of the “street party”.
Kieryn Wurts is an intern and part-time pastor with Projekt Gemeinde in Vienna (a student outreach project of the Austrian Baptist Union) working with refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. She has a degree in philosophy and religious studies from the University of Denver and graduated with distinction in 2015 with a special thesis project on the history of the emergent church in America.