Sometimes we start life with a set of lenses that look at differences first of all. The challenge that can occur as a result is whether or not we are wise enough to discern what we hold as the standard of comparison.
Too often whether we acknowledge it or not, we are holding who we are, where we came from, what we believe, what we look like, and more, as the benchmark. It’s easy from there to slip into categorizing people into groups rather than seeing them as individuals.
Tim Scott and Trey Gowdy’s recent book, Unified, includes a statement that we all need to keep in mind:
“When you begin to look at people as individuals, when you listen to what they say and seek to understand where they’re coming from, you begin to realize we’re all different from the rest.”
When any of us fails to do that, we fall prey to creating stereotypes and biases that become tools of the enemy to divide us into classes, hierarchies, and subtypes. From there it is easy to begin erecting walls to both protect us and keep others out.
That adds to the problem since we don’t really know the person or persons on the other side of the wall so we both fear them and attribute things to them that are often not true.
As I was growing up on a small farm in northeastern Ohio, it would have been easy to see the world using that regional lens. There was one significant reason why I don’t think that happened. Almost four years after I was born, my brother was born. Even though my parents were unsure of what made it so, he appeared to be different from the outset long before a diagnosis was given.
He reached all those benchmarks of when you roll over, sit up, or start to talk a bit later than the norm. Because two other baby boys at our church had been born around the same time, it was easy for anyone and everyone to compare the “three boy blues” as they were called. It was easy to feel “less than” as a result of the awkwardness that filled up the space when everyone was talking about these little boys and my brother who didn’t line up with the two others.
It would be several years before the diagnosis of cerebral palsy and development delay (then called mental retardation) would become a part of our understanding.
For all that was challenging about this and how differently it evolved in the late 1940’s compared to now, God used it to cause my parents to teach me to first see the person, to discover who he or she was, to look at things I could learn and enjoy about them, and not to focus on how they “didn’t fit” into my experience, my life, or my perspective. I didn’t realize it was not a lesson other parents taught their children until much later in life.
The lessons were far-reaching and extended beyond how I viewed disabilities of all types to how I viewed persons from different cultures and ethnicities and persons from different educational or socio-economic levels. Yes, I was aware of the differences, but I was challenged to not make that my main focus. If I did, I would never risk getting to know the person.
Beyond how seldom our family had other families with whom we fellowshipped, I noticed not long after I started school that other little girls had dresses of materials and design quite unlike mine. My mother had always been a skilled seamstress and made all of my clothes from the very beginning, but often in earlier childhood the dress I was wearing would be made from a print feedsack that my dad had brought home from when our grain was harvested. No one else at school had a dress like mine. Subtle responses to what I was wearing began to erode my view of myself as comparisons crept in.
In the 1950’s there were no persons whose skin color was different than mine living or worshipping with my family or me. My mother chose to invite a missionary from Africa to stay with us while she was ministering at our church in order to open our hearts to the truth of how hearts can connect even when ethnic and cultural backgrounds and countries from half a world away were involved.
Learning to celebrate others was also a lesson my parents taught. Learning to care about others made it possible to be (as Trey Gowdy writes) “happy when something good happens to someone you care about as you would be if that something had happened to you.”
My awareness of differences grew more when I was transported by bus to a junior high and then high school in the city nearest us. I was in the minority living on a small farm and there were more than one or two students who were not like me in other ways as well, but those early precepts my parents had taught and modeled caused me to see the person first rather than what made us dissimilar.
I think lyricist Richard Rogers was right when he wrote the words to “You’ve Got to Be Taught” for the musical South Pacific:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught”
We learn those crucial lessons early in life. Some are consciously and deliberately taught. Children listening and watching their parents and the other adults also catch what those adults believe, feel, and value.
If we are going to grow beyond the true differences that have become the dominant theme of lenses we use and hear from any and all news sources, I think we need to first see the person and intentionally get to know the person before we attribute certain things to him or her.
After all, we could be wrong…very wrong…and miss out on someone very special God desires us to know as a result of discovering his or her heart first. Of course, that means we need to listen carefully without filters.
It also means we move beyond lip service to the Christian principles we espouse and become more like the One whose name we bear. Then we can have hope to bridge the divide that is quickly becoming so large that it seems uncrossable.
“Love is always stronger than hate, and God’s love is stronger than anything. If we want to move forward, we must anchor ourselves in the powerful, transformative, and genuine love of God.” Tim Scott, in Unified.