Tags and Ayrabs: Welcoming the stranger

In hindsight, I can see that I didn’t take the graffiti on the church seriously enough. I certainly remember seeing it when I arrived last Thursday to collect the gear for a bedside communion. I even remember thinking how sad it is that our society values its young people so little that they feel compelled to do things which annoy adults. Like graffiti. Like tags. This was a tag, and tags seem to function the same way as ‘dares’ did when I was a kid.

At boarding school, just for an example, we had a dare to run naked after lights out from the dormitory to Matron’s lemon tree and back. The object of the mission was to collect a lemon: this proved that you had not cheated on the dare but had carried it out to the full. Tagging a lemon had a lot in common with writing a tag on a public wall. Firstly, it had the thrill of avoiding being caught. If you are caught tagging, you will be punished quite severely. But on the other hand, it’s hard to catch a good tagger, so the odds are good and the thrill level is high. In reality, when we did our run from dorm to Matron’s tree, most adults would probably have gone out of their way to not catch us!

Secondly tagging leaves a mark in the public adult world. Whether the mark is the place where the lemon was picked, or the signature graffiti of the tagger, it’s proof that you were there, desperately seeking to be noticed.

I did pass some pleasant time reflecting on these things as I drove to the hospital. When I came back I stopped and examined the tag more closely. It was quite a simple tag, but beautifully executed. It was calligraphy on a large scale, perhaps 40 cms high and 60 cm in width. The upstrokes were uniformly thin; the downstrokes straight and thick. The letters, whatever they were, and I couldn’t read them, were beautifully stylised. I wondered what implement had been used. This tag was not the work of a hastily pointed paint-spray. This tag was done by one who took time to choose the best tools and to care about artistry.

The truth is, it didn’t even cross my mind to report this tag. I knew it should eventually be erased from the front porch of the church, but I thought a Warden or some other official would discover it in good time and have it removed.

Surprise becoming anger

So on Sunday I was surprised that the erased tag was the main conversation as the congregation shook the hand of the celebrating priest. Surprised that people could live such sheltered lives as to be so offended by minor vandalism. After all, there are tags everywhere you go – on bus shelters, advertising hoardings, freeway flyovers – you would have to be really stuck at home in an upper-class suburb not to see them. Well, actually, many of our parishioners do live in the upper-class suburb where the church is situated, and many of them do not need to venture out of their garden suburb.

Even so, had I missed something? Was this tag outside the church such a desecration that I should have been outraged on Thursday?

But my surprise that some parishioners had mistaken the tag for Arabic and then drawn the conclusion that ‘the terrorists are here’ soon turned to anger.

Politicians and media

My anger is directed towards those who succeeded so amply in creating fear. I am angry at the media who fail to report terrorism in its proper perspective: they know better. I am angry at the politicians who exploit fear for political ends. The Labor Party could never have won with Mark Latham as candidate for Prime Minister when people are frightened. No new Opposition leader could ever have won while Howard painted himself as our rescuer from terrorism, our continuity, our sure-point in the storm.

But the storm, as the media knows well, is a falsification of reality. No doubt terrorists are dangerous people. No doubt terrorists are attacking ‘the West’ including West Australians. But there is also no doubt that the risk of being hurt by a terrorist is tiny.

The risk of being killed in a car accident in Western Australia is at least 100 times greater than West Australians being killed anywhere in the world by terrorists. But do we allow the risk of death by car to whip us into a frenzy of fear? No: we keep driving. Some of us drive with caution, but all of us drive knowing that however careful our driving there is still a chance that a drunk, inexperienced, inattentive or suicidal driver will drive straight through the flimsy walls of our vehicle.  We drive even knowing that there are some car accidents which are just accidents and nothing could prevent them.

Our attitude to the road toll has been formed in a very different way to our attitude to terrorists. Our fear of terrorism is out of all rational proportion to our fear of dying in our cars.

Essentially, our fear of terrorists is our very deep fear of people who are different: the Other. We fear the Arab whose language looks so different, whose culture appears so strange, whose mindset seems so alien. This fear is familiar to all of us. It seems natural to fear strangers, and so we do.

The problem with fearing of strangers is that it is unproductive. Fear of strangers leads to creating defences against them and their strange ways. The step from being defensive to pushing strangers away is very small. The media has a ravenous appetite for drama, so it exploits our tendency to deride and exclude strangers.

The media focuses on images of difference. The media presented straightforward images of the Bali bombers. The ‘smiling bomber’ with his white hat and robe shouting “God is great!” in Arabic found his way into every TV and newspaper in Australia. Every aspect of this image screamed “difference!”

The UK press showed a subtler image of difference when presenting the London bombers. These were home-grown bombers who looked like many Britishers, so their difference was highlighted by questions about how we (society, the police, the security agencies) failed to notice their differences… and they must have been different to hold values that would lead them to commit atrocities.

The repetition of these images that focus on differences in the Other, in the stranger, makes it almost impossible to respond appropriately to the phenomenon of terror. It may sound shocking to suggest but the place to look for understanding is not ‘out there’ in the stranger, but within ourselves.

What is it about us that compels others to want to inflict pain on us? Phrasing the question this way allows us to discern to what extent we have engaged St Paul’s advice that “in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) The little word “all” challenges us to see every person as a fellow human being, equally valued by God. even Ayrabs.

Hospitality to others is the gospel value so easily missed in a world of fear. Hospitality to teenagers in the shape of tolerance of their need to ‘tag’ public spaces. Hospitality to refugees who come fleeing oppressive regimes in the shape of more humane processes for refugees as they arrive. Hospitality to Muslims in the form of initiating or joining inter-faith conversations. Hospitality to our neighbours – and this is hard – by making space for their fears. Hospitality to ourselves in welcoming the stranger inside ourselves, those unknown parts that can blind ourselves to the reality of God’s love – everywhere. Hospitality to our fellow-Christians in our relentless reminders that we can let go of our xenophobia. Christ has broken down the barriers!

Published in the Anglican Messenger, February 2006


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