* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, February 2, 2015

John 9: Being Willing to Have Our Perspectives Challenged

As we observed in last week's interlude, the miracle story in John 9 assumes that there are clear lines that one can draw between people. It is as if people reside in well-defined boxes, and we only want to show approval for people who live in the same box we do. However, there are no "good people" or "bad people." Rather, there are actions which contribute to greater well-being and there are actions that do harm. The same person might engage in "good" and "bad" actions. In fact, we all do.

Perhaps that's the first flaw of the Pharisee perspective. They ask how a "sinner" can offer healing. They operate under an illusion of the world as clearly divided between worthy and unworthy, clean and unclean, loved and unlovable. These are labels that people apply to other people, but they are not reflections of reality. If the same individual can contribute to harm or to well-being, then there is always possibility in human decisions. This offers one reason to recognize that every person has worth and dignity. Every person is worthy of love and respect, even though every action isn't.

Some people will read this story and walk away with the impression that it's about Jesus healing people and the Pharisees judging people. It runs the risk of becoming a "Jesus and Christianity vs the Pharisees and Judaism" debate. This is unfortunate, even though it's probably one of the goals of the authors to lift up Christianity as superior to Judaism. The reality is that physical inconveniences exist even among believers. Belief in Jesus doesn't cure blindness, deafness, epilepsy, cancer, or any other actual physical condition. We get more from this story if we set aside the miraculous backdrop and look at the actual truths involved. When we recall that Jesus can be seen as an exemplar for human beings to emulate rather than a unique superhuman, we stand to get more from the story.

The authors of John portray Jesus as a bit of a provocateur. The character does things that he knows will agitate the Pharisees, but he does some of these things purposefully. John's version of Jesus is willing to publicly acknowledge the flaws in the religious/social system, and he is willing to care for those who are written off by their society. He can't care for every one of them, of course, but he contributes to the well-being of enough people to make a point.

Something is broken about the easy categorization of people into dichotomies. People are not static entities, and we are not made worthless by a bad decision or a bad day. We don't separate easily into neat boxes. The Pharisees can't wrap their minds around someone who doesn't meet their approval performing an action that ought to meet their approval. In the story, they keep questioning the recovered man to find the loophole that will allow them to maintain a worldview that is comfortable and familiar. Instead, they are told that, since they claim to understand things, they are culpable for the harm they do.

Thus, the story says something about ignorance as well. The same harmful action might be more easily forgiven if someone is ignorant about what they're doing than if someone does harm with full knowledge and awareness. We feel no guilt when we don't know we've done something harmful. It's only when we have awareness of the harmful results of our actions that our guilt kicks in to prompt us to set things right, insofar as that's possible. The Pharisees claimed to be knowledgeable and aware, so they must also be accountable for their actions. As they perpetuated and upheld a flawed system that benefited them and harmed others, their own responsibility was magnified.

Of course, some people claim to be knowledgeable and wise when they aren't. The call to accountability might have been intended to allow people a chance to step back and evaluate their awareness. Perhaps our knowledge or wisdom is not as thorough as we believe. Perhaps our easy answers fail to take some portion of reality into consideration. The instructive piece of the story might be found in the differences between the behavior of the Pharisees and the other characters (a trope that is becoming familiar in John).

The characters of Jesus and the blind man and his family were calm, reasonable, celebratory, self-aware. While others may have asked whether the blind man was suffering because of his own sin or his parents', he wasn't perpetuating any such ideas as far as the story tells us. All we know about him was that he was simply unable to see. The Pharisees and their religious worldview tried to concoct an explanation for the blindness that would make sense to them, and in so doing, they gave themselves a reason to look down on the man. They were able to judge people who were (in the Pharisees' opinion) flawed without having to acknowledge their own flaws. That's a pretty comfortable position.

Most likely, the Pharisees said and did what they did because they were afraid. That's what "sin" is after all -- fear put into action. People in positions of power have plenty to be afraid of. They were afraid of acknowledging their own weaknesses or flaws. They were potentially afraid of change, since their system kept them comfortable. They might have been afraid of being wrong. Their way of being wouldn't make sense anymore if they couldn't trust their assumptions about reality. They may even have been afraid of being just like everyone else. Fear prompted them to keep poking at a person who had been made well, rather than celebrating his well-being.

You can probably reason what the implications of this story are for our lives. When our fear drives our behavior, our perspective becomes skewed. We can start looking for ways to protect our worldview rather than looking at the world more honestly. When we choose to live into our principles and values rather than our fear, we can be more tuned in to what we can do to contribute to the well-being of others. We can also be purposeful in our approach to injustice and prejudice, and we can recognize our own flaws and weaknesses without being ashamed of them. This last one may seem a bit odd, but when we can embrace our own humanity, we are less inclined to judge others harshly because of their humanity. When we recognize that there is more that we all share in common than there is that makes us all different and unique, we can partner more easily with one another. At the same time, when we are conscious of our own weaknesses, we can engage intentionally with people who have complementary strengths -- we can learn something from other people.

We do better for ourselves and for the world around us when we don't try to figure out whether a person is worthy or unworthy, good or bad, wise or foolish -- and instead start from the awareness that everyone has worth and everyone has the potential to contribute to a better world. This isn't as easy as pointing at people and making snap judgments based on a little bit of information, but it creates a better foundation for our lives. When we feel prompted to call out someone's beliefs or behavior, maybe we can find ways to do so calmly and without malice. We create better lives and a better world when we are honest about our strengths and weaknesses and we seek out the strengths of others before we start judging their weaknesses. It might even serve us well to keep in mind that what we think of as weaknesses, other people might think of as strengths. The bottom line is that we all still have something to learn, and if our worldview tells us something different, we need to examine that worldview very carefully.

 A Little Experiment: Be curious. When you see someone doing something well, or even doing something differently than you would do it, be curious. Observe what they do. If appropriate, ask them about their process. Don't offer advice or judge, just learn how they do what they do well.

Another Little Experiment: Catch yourself. It's easy to use short, dismissive labels for other people, especially when we want to write them off or explain away actions we don't like. This week, when you catch yourself using a dismissive label for someone, especially when you're feeling judgmental or angry, stop. Often we use the word "just" along with these labels, as in, "She's just clueless," or, "That's just what you can expect from overweight people." Stop yourself when you reduce people to a stereotype or a one-word label and consider what you might not know about them.

One More Little Experiment: You too. Sometimes we use one-word labels to self-criticize and judge ourselves too. We may not know enough about other people to honestly understand their behavior, but we can know ourselves. Be honest about who you are. Don't go overboard in either a positive or a negative self-description, but acknowledge the truth about yourself. Rather than self-critical language -- like, "I'm just stupid," or "I'm worthless" -- be honest. Maybe you didn't have all the information you would have liked when you made a decision. Say that instead of deciding that you're stupid or foolish. Just tell the truth. Try it for a week or two and see what happens.

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