The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Look Me in the Eye
Two Baptist ministers were walking down a street.
That line sounds like it should be the start of a joke, but the pastor who told the story was making a serious point. His message of faith is a reminder of the religious foundation for all ministries of justice and creation care.
Two Baptist ministers were walking down a street in the center of Denver. They were on their way to a lunch meeting, and they were discussing the agenda as they dodged through the crowds on the sidewalk. Those crowds, Steve said, included lots of other people hurrying to appointments, and there were several of Denver's homeless residents moving much more slowly.
One of those destitute folk was working her way along the sidewalk, asking for handouts. She would approach the professional-types of business and government, asking for their spare change. It is not an uncommon scene in Denver, or any large city.
When she turned toward Steve and his colleague, they sidestepped around her without a break in their conversation. She was not one to be so easily dismissed. She picked up her pace to catch up with the pair, and broke into their discussion. "What?", she snapped. "You won't even look me in the eye?"
Steve didn't tell us what happened next, because that wasn't his point. His story was a confessional one about encountering Christ on a busy city sidewalk. He was stopped cold by his own easy ignoring of a person in need. That day, on the way to lunch, Christ did not speak to him with words of love and comfort. "What? You won't even look me in the eye?" was a spiritual and ethical revelation that Steve felt compelled to share with us.
The words stick with me, too, because I also know how easy it is to step around those in need, and to ignore "the least of these."
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My own ethical discomfort is more figurative than literal. The need to "look others in the eye" stretches beyond a poor woman asking for change, and draws me into a direct awareness of relationship with people around the world, those of future generations, and all creation.
I wonder how often I am so wrapped up in my own agenda, my own conversations, my own schedules, that I am oblivious to the needs of others. The patterns of modern life make it so easy to sidestep the ones who might shake up my world, or make me think differently about my life. How many would want me to look them in the eye, and I don't even notice?
There is nothing to make me stop and consider the workers in Bangladesh who sew the clothes that I wear -- until the news comes of a fire that kills hundreds of those underpaid folk who had been locked in the factory. The nicely wrapped shirt in a department store never forces me to consider those workers on a human level, or to think about whether an extra 50 cents in my cost would make a profound difference in their lives. My experience in the store is carefully designed so that I never have to look those people in the eye.
Eye-to-eye contact, meeting each other on a human level, makes a difference. The workers who pick tomatoes in Florida have traveled the country, telling of their struggle for decent working conditions and for just an extra penny per pound for their labor harvesting the fruit. When people in churches and community meetings meet the ones who provide their food, when they see those faces and look into those eyes, the slice of tomato plopped on a burger becomes a moral issue. When those workers have the opportunity to meet with us, people are changed. They become eager to join boycotts and sign petitions.
The dangers and disruptions of climate change can seem far-off and abstract, easy to ignore or dismiss. But I have heard so many times from people in churches about the change that happens when they look into the eyes of a new grandchild, when their love and hope for that child makes them think about the world 50 years from now.
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Steve encountered Christ when a homeless woman demanded to be acknowledged as a human being. Genuine spiritual experiences are not always fun. We may not always want to meet Christ on the street or in the store.
When I consider the stories about Jesus, I see over and over again how he opened himself to those encounters. The disciples tried to shield him from the blind and the lame and the poor and the children, but he heard their cries for help and responded to them. He did not allow his agenda, his schedule, his convenience to get in the way. Did anyone ever say to Jesus, "What? You won't even look me in the eye?" I find that hard to imagine.
Looking others in the eye -- literally or figuratively -- can be painful. It means that we can't be in control, or claim to have all the answers. It means that we must take the needs and experiences of others seriously. It means that our own desires and expectations have to be put into a context of relationship, compassion and ethics. Looking into the eyes of another may force us to act. It may lead us to conversion.
As people of faith, that is what we are called to do. We must respond when those "others" come to us, of course, but we must do more than that. In today's world, we have to work hard to discover the people and creatures who are hidden from us. We have to create opportunities to look others in the eye, and to be challenged by the manifestations of God in our midst that we might prefer to ignore.
If our personal spiritual lives and our collective experience in church shield us from those intense experiences, then we are violating the calling of our faith. If we think that spirituality and church are a refuge from those uncomfortable encounters, then we're probably missing the Christ among us.
Steve's story of the two Baptist ministers challenges me, challenges all of us. On the sidewalk, in the store, watching the news, surfing the web -- may we be open to encountering those who embody God among us. May we create opportunities to see through the barriers that hide others from us. May we take on the challenge and the risk of looking into the eyes of all God's creatures.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org