The Eyes We See With
I'm on my way to the lightrail station. I'm headed downtown to find a place where I can work on my doctoral thesis.
Most people tell me that earning a PhD is a worthwhile pursuit, and that I'm making the most of my gifts to serve God. They see a PhD as something special, as a mark of status, as a sign of intellectual merit and hard work. The fact that I'm getting my degree in Bible makes it especially significant in the Christian communities I'm a part of.
But lately, I have my doubts. How does all this hard work matter? Will all these hours of research, thought, and writing be able to reach out and heal the wounds of my world? What if it doesn't make an impact like I think it will? What if all I do is add another noisy gong to the academic echo chamber?
I approach the Dollar General parking lot. From this parking lot, my church and I have fought wars for reconciliation, and wars for healing. From this parking lot, I've talked down a little Vietnamese lady living on the streets from enacting "street justice" by getting a few guys to jump some Mexican dude who stole socks from our church. In this parking lot, my friends and I have done spiritual battle as we spent nearly an hour talking a Native neighbor through the decision to enter detox, before finally giving him a ride and seeing him safely through the doors.
As I walk, I remember once again that the card readers still don't work on the ticket machines at the train station (they haven't for a few years), and realize I need to get change to pay for my fare. As I turn to walk into the store in the early morning light, I see an old man from behind, half bent over with age, wearing a lungi, the wrap-around dress common for men in South Asia, with a Muslim taqiyah on his grey head. He is unmistakably a Rohingya refugee, a survivor of genocide. I know this because I grew up in Thailand and spent time in refugee camps. I wonder, as I walk by, what the average American must think when they see him? How many know the story of the Rohingya? I wonder, how lonely must he be among people who have little to no interest in getting to know him, in overcoming the barriers of strange language, dress, and customs?
All this time, I have been looking at him, but as I continue walking by, he turns and looks at me, and his gaze is cold and piercing as ice. It is the gaze of agony, the gaze of the outsider, of a heart that is desperate for friendship, but cannot expect to find it from beneath a taqiyah. It is the gaze of the refugee, and when he looks at me, he does not see me; no—he sees the failure of people who look like me to love him. He sees the culture that runs his world and sees that he will never belong in it.
I don't know what it's like to be a Rohingya elder, living in Phoenix. I have no idea what this man has seen. But I know what it's like to be a foreigner. I know what it's like to feel the loneliness of cultural alienation. When I see his eyes, I see a gaping wound in my community and in my neighborhood, and I long to bind it up. But all I can do today is return the coldness of that gaze with a smile, hoping it's visible from behind my face mask.
I take my seat on the train and seriously wonder if I should quit my academic work. I wonder if my life might not be better spent in being that man's friend, in driving people to rehab, in building bridges like sutures for the wounds.
I pray for that man, I pray for our hood, and I pray for myself:
God, If my work won't be good news to people like him, then I don't want to do it!
As I pray, I remember the reasons why I'm doing it, and trust the God Who called me to make it fruitful in His Kingdom.
I have seen that the wounds running through my neighborhood also run through my country, through the academy, and through the church—really, I believe they are the wounds of the cosmos. Every part of my world is divided by chasms of historical hatred, conflict, violence, and pain. In every part of my world, people are blind to one another, and blind to the precious gifts that each culture, crafted by God, has to offer from their unique and God-given perspectives. We are missing out on the fullness of God's vision for us, a vision that is tied up with each other, with every tribe, tongue, and nation.
This project is my offering, laid on the altar in recognition of my own deep need for God and for my neighbor, especially the one who is different from me. I see that God has so knit the Body together so that each part cannot function fully without the unique gifts of the others (1 Cor. 12:21 – 26), and that—particularly when it comes to Bible and theology—we are functioning in isolation from so many valuable parts of the global church. I want to see the Word of God illuminate the glory of the Imago Dei in cultural diversity; and I want to see our God-given cultural diversity illuminate the truth of the Word of God.