Yesterday, I said that I hold as a core value that all persons are created in the image of God and therefore have something to teach me about the image of God if I am willing to pay attention. This kind of no-preconceived-notions, no-pre-judgments mentality often makes me come across as naive. How can you ever meet someone and not assume at least something about him or her?
Well, you have to see through the eyes of God.
As I spoke about this in an ministry interview once, I could see the disbelief growing on the faces across the room. They figured I was just foolish, at best. Speaking in ideals, but not being honest with myself. Or perhaps I was naive. Or maybe I was just not a person prone to paying attention or to recognizing the things that are "most important" about others. Maybe I just wasn't really a "people person."
So to test this, the interviewers posed this question: "So wait - how would you interact with a 68-year-old, African-American male homosexual?"
To them, they had just nailed me - they had identified a type of person they thought to be completely opposite of the one they saw sitting in front of them. How would you interact with someone radically different than you?
Without missing a beat, I responded: "That depends. What do I know about him?"
They rolled their eyes. They had just told me everything I needed to know about him, they said. They had given me several categories by which to form an opinion of him and understand what is important and valuable to him.
But my theology doesn't permit me such carelessness. My theology says that this man gets to tell me what his experience of the world is; his categories and demographics do not.
To my interviewers, it meant something that this man was older than me - more than twice my age. I ought to make assumptions about what he's seen, the kind of ethic he grew up with, the kind of life he's lived as a member of a certain generation. He would have come of age during the Vietnam War, would have remembered the moon landing and perhaps the assassination of JFK. He would have been alive during the Civil Rights struggle.
His race should tell me that I know nothing at all about his world, and I should start there and then assume why that should be. He would have been subject to prejudice, probably even discrimination. Those events that he lived through would have meant something different to him - he would have had more hopes and dreams wrapped up in them than I would have, simply by nature of our skin color. I could not pretend to know anything about poverty or segregation or the like; he would be the expert.
As a male, he has different eyes for the world than I do. He has seen it from a more dominant position, ironic in consideration of his race that would have run counter to that. He has seen it through increased expectations and social norms for what a man is - a provider, a breadwinner, a father. All things I could never know the way he knows.
And as a homosexual, he would have had to fight for love in a way that I probably never will. He will have been stigmatized here, too. Rejected. Persecuted. He may have been the target of hate crimes, may have questioned himself. He might have a terrible disease or at least be accused of it even if he doesn't.
The truth is - I can rattle all of this off with the best of them, but that doesn't mean that any of it is necessarily true for him or meaningful for him. I can recognize the potential differences of experience between us, but the way that the world operates on these things, I should not ask him about any of them. That's right - the expectation in that interview was that I would be able to make these assumptions and move forward on their truth and validity without ever stopping to ask him whether they were true or valid for him.
The truth is - maybe that's his experience and maybe it's not. Maybe it's meaningful for him and maybe it's not. For me, these are potential starting points for conversation, but to the world, they are end games meant to keep me from ever thinking that I have any hope of truly connecting with him. Because he's "so different" from me. To the world, I'm just supposed to know all of this, to know what his life has meant to him, without asking. Only then do I demonstrate myself as "socially aware" and "sensitive."
See, the world's starting point is that we are irreconcilably different from one another. We can never possibly understand what someone else's experience is. The best that we can hope for is that we understand that we can never understand, that we confess that we're just too different. And the world tells us the best solution to this is to lump everyone together in the ways they are different than us and assume we know what that means...for all of them. Because every member of any "group" has exactly the same experience of things. (Do you see the logical flaw here? We're all different, but "they" are all the same.)
I don't buy it. I think the best way for us to be "socially aware" is to have conversations with our neighbors, whoever they are. It's to talk with one another and give each other the chance to define our own experience. What has your life meant to you? What is valuable? What is not? What do you want me to keep in mind when I talk with you, when I walk with you? What's important to you? How have you experienced things? Your experience is yours, not "theirs." You are a you, not a them.
You are a human being created in the image of God, and that already means that we have more in common than we will ever have different. Ever. It's the starting point for every conversation we're ever going to have, every interaction, every step of this journey we're on together.
When I let you tell me the important things about you, rather than just assuming them, then I get to know who you really are, not what the world wants me to think about you.
And when I get to know who you really are, I get to know something about who God really is. The same God who made us both, whose image is reflected in you. Not in your demographics or your categories or your stereotypes, but in you, in your actual life and heart and love. You teach me something about God by being a you, not a them. By us becoming a we.
So I'll ask again. How would I interact with a 68-year-old, African-American male homosexual?
That depends. What do I know about him?
(I didn't get the job. They called me "naive" and said I must really be ignorant if I didn't even see myself as a 30-something, white, straight female. I shook my head and said, "Brother, if that's what you see of me, then you have missed me entirely.")