Beholding Your Neighbor

If ever there was a photographer with rock star status, it was Richard Avedon. I’ve grown to appreciate his work which is famous for its minimalist style – he normally positioned his subject in front of a sheer white background – and ability to bring out the personality and soul of a person through a single photograph. Beginning in the world of fashion but spreading into politics and fine art, Avedon’s high profile career included portraits of Marylyn Monroe, Malcolm X, Pablo Picasso, and the Beatles. That’s what makes his 1985 exhibit entitled In the American West so extraordinary; it consists of all ordinary people. None are celebrities and none are famous.

I gave a teaching this past weekend in Dallas that began with Avedon’s photographs of these ordinary folks. I then wrote on a board some of the different ways we are accustomed to categorizing and separating people: class, race, gender, religion, nationality, physical beauty, education, job, etc. My point was that we use these categories to assign worth and value in differing degrees. (It’s worth mentioning that when I finished speaking, an 86 year-old lady named Lois came up to me to let me know I had left out one category: age. She was quite right to correct me; western society, in its obsession with youthfulness, has by and large written off the elderly.)

To a certain extent, this is what we’re doing when we ask people, “What do you do?” We’re sizing them up, and the only reason we don’t ask what race they are or if they’re rich is because we’re already doing this with our eyes.

These categories and their corresponding value system belong to an overall mindset and way of life that Paul refers to as “the flesh.” Thanks to Plato we tend to think of a physical body when we hear this phrase. Paul wasn’t a Greek philosopher, however; he was a Hebrew theologian, and in the Jewish worldview the physical and spiritual are intimately woven together. “Flesh” is Paul’s code word for how the world, in its unredeemed and broken state, conditions people to think and live. The world teaches us from a very young age to see people in terms of socioeconomic standing, ethnicity, and IQ level.

A Social Revolution In Twelve Words

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.” That’s a social revolution in twelve words. Paul and the community he belonged to didn’t see people through filters tinted with worldly categories. They saw all people as equal. Turn to the book of Acts and you’ll see these twelve words come alive through economic redistribution, racial integration, and radical inclusion. In a letter to the Galatians, Paul says we’re all made of the same stuff; it doesn’t matter if a person is male or female, slave or free, Jewish or Greek. In one swift verse Paul discredits the barriers of gender, class, and ethnicity.

This notion that “we’re all made of the same stuff” has actually been confirmed scientifically. We’ve known since the 1960s that all human beings have the same mitochondrial DNA. That means we have not only the same cells and molecules, but the same blueprint or code of how those cells and molecules are arranged. Africans, Asians, Americans, and Afghans all have the same mitochondrial DNA. As a Greek orthodox priest recently told me, “It’s an existential lie that we’re not all related to one another.” We’re all related because we’re all of one nature.

Yet long before we had the scientific technology to discover this, Paul and the early church knew it. How? It’s what Jesus taught them.

In John 8, Jesus is teaching in the temple when a woman caught in adultery is brought before him by the religious authorities. But Jesus messes up their plan just as they’re about to stone her. I’d love to give you my own commentary on the story, but I know it won’t be as good as what Howard Thurman wrote back in 1949. Thurman was the first black chaplain of Boston University and a spiritual advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. The following passage, taken from his book Jesus and the Disinherited, deserves a slow reading. I’ll interject a few comments along the way to connect it to what we’ve been talking about.

One day a woman was brought to Jesus. She had been caught in the act of adultery. The spokesman for the group who brought her said she was caught red-handed and that according to the law she should be stoned to death. “What is your judgment?” was their searching question. To them the woman was not a woman, or even a person, but an adulteress, stripped of her essential dignity and worth.

Here are the categories of the world at work. The religious leaders can’t see her as a woman because their way of seeing is “according to the flesh.” To them, she’s nothing more than a tramp.

Said Jesus: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” After that, he implied, any person may throw. The quiet words exploded the situation, and in the piercing glare each man saw himself in his literal substance. In that moment each was not a judge of another’s deeds, but of his own. In the same glare the adulteress saw herself merely as a woman involved in the meshes of a struggle with her own elemental passion.

What Thurman is getting at is our core identity, who we are simply and singularly before God. He calls this our “literal substance.”

Jesus, always the gentleman, did not look at the woman as she stood before him. Instead, he looked on the ground, busied himself with his thoughts. What a moment, reaching beyond time into eternity! Jesus waited. One by one the men crept away. The woman alone was left. Hearing no outcry, Jesus raised his eyes and beheld the woman. “Where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?” “No man, Lord.” “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

Thurman finishes his thought with a piercing analysis of what took place in this encounter between the woman and Jesus:

He met the woman where she was, and he treated her as if she were already where she now willed to be. In dealing with her he “believed” her into the fulfillment of her possibilities. He stirred her confidence into activity. He placed a crown over her head which for the rest of her life she would keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.

We usually talk about us believing in Jesus, but Thurman says Jesus believed in her. He believed she was someone created in the image of God, and thus no amount of wrongdoing or sin could ever remove that divine imprint. Jesus had the ability to see her this way not because he was fully God, but because he was fully human. We should naturally be able to see the intrinsic worth and potent potential in another human being, yet this ability seems super-natural to us. That’s because we see people in super-ficial ways (i.e. “according to the flesh”). Jesus wants to teach us to see people as they truly are.

The image of him placing a royal crown over her head is powerful. Treating this woman as a beloved child of God was a way of lovingly exhorting her to live into that reality.
It was revolutionary back then to “regard no one according to the flesh,” and it’s revolutionary today. I’m sure many would object and say that things are much better today, we don’t live separately from other classes and groups as people did back then. Well, let’s chat about the suburbs.

Suburbs are a modern invention: they’re the result of massive numbers of wealthy white folks migrating to the outskirts of cities. For example, the town I currently live in (Princeton) is 80% white with an average family income of $102,957. Just ten miles down the road is the city of Trenton, which is 52% African American with an average family income of $36,681. Though Trenton is the capital of the state, all the New Jersey governors for the past 70 years have chosen to live in Princeton. And in exchange for the state governor, Trenton gets the state penitentiary.

Our world needs this social revolution contained in twelve words. And the revolution will not be televised…it will be visualized. It will take place through our vision, through how we see each other, because how we see people determines how we treat them.

Sitting next to Johnny

My dad played football for the University of Texas, so I grew up believing burnt orange is a divine color. The star player for the Longhorns right now is Colt McCoy, an All-American quarterback and candidate for the Heisman Trophy. He’s become such a celebrity that his friends and family call him “Johnny” in public so he won’t get mobbed by fans.

I read a story about when the football team took a commercial flight to another state, and a couple sitting next to Colt (whom they knew as Johnny) began to notice all these giant men sitting in front of and behind them. They asked if they were football players, and after learning they were the offensive linemen for Texas, they passed around some stuff to get autographed. Then the couple said, “So you guys play football. And what do you do Johnny? Do you play in the band?” They talked to Colt the rest of the flight, thinking he was just another trumpet or drum player, so you can imagine how surprised they were to walk out of the jetway and find 100 people waiting to get the band guy’s autograph.

I like to think we’re all a bit like that couple on the plane. The run-of-the-mill common folk that we come across and interact with everyday are not really run-of-the-mill common folk. C.S. Lewis, while reflecting on how the New Testament teaches that humans are destined for glory and to share with God one day the awesome responsibility of ruling over creation, once remarked “that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.” Lewis put it simply: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

The Challenge

So the challenge I’ve been carrying around in my pocket for the last couple of weeks is to view every person I come across – whether on the basketball court, behind the counter at a convenience store, sitting next to me in a classroom, or in the state prison I’m interning at – as someone created in the image of God and someone whom Christ Jesus died for.

It reminds me that people are not a means to an end, but are an end in and of themselves. Jesus, the great rabbi, is teaching me to see people as they truly are.

Perhaps you’ll try this for a week. Try to remember in all your dealings with others that each person you encounter is no mere mortal, but a son or daughter of God, and as such, is of infinite worth. Then treat them accordingly. Believe in their potential as you place a crown above their head.