A famous American politician once boarded a Washington to Los Angeles flight, settled into his first class window seat, and prepared for a long nap. The aisle seat was empty; he expected no intrusions.
But a young man approached and asked if an equally famous and very controversial Muslim minister could sit with him a few minutes. The politician recognized that the Muslim could have come directly and forced the issue. Instead, he acted in wisdom and grace by sending an emissary. Quite contrary to his public personality, he did not storm the gates. The politician told the young assistant that he would glad to talk to the leader.
A minute later, the grandiloquent and polarizing minister slipped into the seat. They ended up talking almost four hours. They spoke of days of childhood; of parents, siblings, and spouses; and of triumphs and tragedies. The politician told me, “I liked him very much.”
I thought of that story recently when I read a new poll from the Pew Research Center. The poll sought to identify the “political typology” of respondents. As I scanned the questions, I realized I would not answer any of them. They were too cold and reductive.
For example, on the issue of immigration, the only choices were:
- Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.
- Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health.
Think about the innumerable reasons and patterns behind immigration. They are as complex and mysterious as the kaleidoscopic patterns of global weather or infection. The survival choices faced by some people are myriad, brutal and heartbreaking.
Yet, an arbitrary set of questions tries to reduce all of that into a flattened and simplistic binary code.
People are magnificently complicated and unfathomable bundles of flesh and spirit. Contradictory and endlessly variegated.
An African-American friend once told me, “As a black man, it is more important to me that you respect me than that you understand me.”
Those words changed my life. In that moment, I knew he spoke for everyone on the planet. We must respect, handle carefully, and wait to be invited into the secret gardens. Respect should precede understanding. We just cannot regard anyone lightly.
To slice-and-dice the human bundles, for whatever reasons, is to disrespect and dehumanize people. Yet, the structures of today’s life do exactly that with increasing frequency and severity.
As I pay for a bag of bolts at the hardware store, the gum-chewing clerk – one third my age – suddenly blurts, “What’s your phone number?”
The only appropriate answer is, “None of your damned business.”
At the grocery store, I give a twenty-dollar-bill for $19.37 of merchandise. The clerk says, “Want to give your change to a homeless shelter?” Think of it; the free market now trains agents to ask that people robotically break off a piece of themselves for an amorphous notion.
I choose to bless people because of the generosity of God in my life. But I do that on my (and His) terms. I am very careful about opening the private garden of my thoughts or feelings to strangers.
I resent being merchandized, politicized, and…groped! I sometimes wonder why and how our society ever granted such audacious authority to the TSA and other bureaucracies. Or, how our personal information become digitized and open commodities.
Why and when did we first allow the barbarians to crash through our gates? I think it may have started with our lack of vigilance and self-respect when asked personal questions. In the words of Hosea 7:9, we gave our strength to strangers.
Perhaps refusing to answer intrusive and reductive questions from strangers will be the first step in reclaiming what we have lost.