Beyond Seeing, to Beholding

5 Feb

In the King James Bible, Jesus’ words are, “Behold, the lilies of the field…” Joe Sittler reminded us that it could have been “Look at the flowers.” But that wasn’t what Jesus meant. “Behold” points deeper; it means to take in the image we see, inwardly meditate on it, and let it resonate.

My last posting–about killing and transformation–is about seeing and beholding. It was a hard message–focusing on the epidemic of killings today in our own nation, in my city, and beyond our borders. I closed with the words of local journalist Jamie Kalven that we must keep the images of killing in our minds–not let them go, because in an unexpected way they open up a possibility for transforming our killing culture. Kalven is saying that we must behold the killings, as difficult as that might be.

A reader responded “I found this one distressing! It’s a truth that digs but does it transform?” I don’t claim to have the final answer, but it’s a question that must be explored.

What do we behold when we see people being killed? When we look at the bodies–or the faces–of the victims? When marchers protesting the shooting of Black men appeared on Chicago’s elite Magnificent Mile, journalists interviewed shoppers. One woman said: “Why don’t they stay on the South Side–that’s where the violence is!” From another: “Are these people lost? Don’t they know where Englewood (a south side neighborhood that is wracked with shootings) is?”

These comments are a clue as to what we behold far too often when we look at people being killed. We behold someone we have no relation to–somebody “other” from us.

No relationship–that is the key.

Jesus told a story: A man from the wrong side of the tracks crosses social boundaries to care for a man who has been mugged in the street and left for dead. If we read the story in its full New Testament context–Luke 10: 29-37–we see that Jesus told this story as the answer to a question. He was asked,”The law says, Love your neighbor as yourself, but how do you define the “neighbor”? The courageous man and the mugging victim provide the definition.

I am referring, of course, to the New Testament Parable of the Good Samaritan. The victim was a Jew; his rescuer was a Samaritan, a member of a group despised and marginalized by Jews. To make the point even clearer, the story has two respectable Jewish figures, a priest and a Levite, look past the victim and leave him behind.

A look at the language of the story helps us probe more deeply. “Neighbor” translates the Greek, plesion, which means the “one who is next to us.” The German Bible mirrors the Greek, in using the term, “der Naechste,” the one who is next to us. A German dictionary defines the term as “Mitmensch,” literally, a “with-person,” a fellow human. The Mitmensch involves community–all of us are in community with all our fellow humans.

We begin to see how radical Jesus’ story is. The shoppers on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile do not recognize the black victims of shooting as members of their community–and these shoppers reflect all of us. Every nation has a clear sense of who does not belong: from the Japanese gaijin to the “you’re not really American” that is heard so often in the U. S. The many refugees from the Middle East hear this in nearly country to which they flee. Hostility and violence toward those from another group are ancient, going back to prehistoric times.

In his story, Jesus is asking us to rewrite the script of human history. The protestors on North Michigan Avenue, representing the Black Lives Matter movement, are asking for the same thing. They are asking us to reverse thousands of years of human evolution–little wonder it is so difficult.

Some of the most moving and beautiful stories of recent weeks have been about those ordinary people who left their every day tasks to care for the refugees who crossed into their countries and who were in very great need. One friend of mine, a pastor originally from Hungary, took leave to spend several weeks there to aid the refugees. She had expected that she would offer them spiritual consolation, but when she got there, she spent most of her time giving shoes and socks and dry clothes to the desperate people who came across. She and her coworkers went against the tide in a country that has since erected a border fence to keep refugees out.

Transformation is our focus–it happens when we truly behold, when we take into ourselves what we see and let it resonate, reverberate within our souls. We must not relegate the killings of Chicago and Columbine and San Bernardino and Aleppo to the fading drift of the news cycle. Only when we behold these dead as Mitmenschen–members of our own community–only then, will we be able to purify our culture of killing and redirect the vicious substrate of our long human history.
(c) Phil Hefner. 2/4/2016

2 Responses to “Beyond Seeing, to Beholding”

  1. sandyjwhite February 5, 2016 at 4:30 pm #

    Phil,
    It seems sometimes that not only do we not behold people as part of the human community, but we are finding it more difficult to even see them as real. The media promotes abstractions and technology allows us to communicate with less and less face-to-face, ‘look the other guy in the eye’ time. Can we really behold loss without those kinds of relationships?
    Sandy

  2. coachrevmark2u February 5, 2016 at 4:32 pm #

    For me, Phil, this calls forth two practices, and possibly three, which are not particularly Christian, perhaps not at all. One is the Buddhist practice of mindfulness of all of ourselves, including our darker sides. There is a “distancing” to that practice, so that one is to see the dark side clearly, to see it as real and active, and yet to see it as one part of ourselves, not the whole. The other practice is “metta,” or “loving kindness,” in which one sows the seeds of effective action, a contra-praxis to set things more aright (right speech, right thought, right action). There is now actually some research coming out of several places that seems to show the loving-kindness practice does transform people.

    The third practice, so to speak, comes from the psychologist, Carl Jung, and that is an active contemplation of one’s “Shadow.” One’s Shadow includes all the “dark” evil one sees in others as well as in oneself (and Jungians tend to view our demonizing of others as an unconscious active “projecting” of our Shadow parts, which are hard to look at, upon other people and other groups). It also includes active contemplation of our brilliance and love, which also we tend not to accept (“Oh, I’m not creative…courageous…capable”), so rather we project that outward also when we see others as “heroes” and ourselves as lesser.

    Either of these approaches can be done shallowly (the woo-woo positive “affirmations” of some “new agers”). Or they can be done with depth. A wonderful example of doing them with depth is, on the one hand, Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, “Call Me By My True Names,” and on the other hand his very life of non-violent, active justice making.

    A weakness of both the Buddhist way and Jung’s way, it seems to me, is that they tend to be only individually oriented. There is not a communal orientation, or not a very strong one. The ritualized communal orientation I’ve found the most powerful is the communal recitation and confession during High Holy Days in Judaism. There is a portion of the liturgy, especially the Yom Kippur liturgy, that even when just read, ultimately leaves one with no escape. If you will, it convicts in a more powerful way than ever I experienced in the brief congregational confessions before the Eucharist, that “all have fallen short of the glory of God,” but it is said in such a way that one inevitably concludes, “Oh wow, that, that, and that failure is true of me.” And then, ritually, while reciting, one “knocks” with the fingers or knuckles of one hand on one’s heart to open to God’s “chesed” (grace, or “liebtaetigepflichttreue”).

    My personal experience is that I need three things. One is to indeed contemplate the hard and dark parts of personal and social doings and undoings; to contemplate them deeply, just as you’ve put forth. Two is to realize and contemplate that I am active participant in the awful, even if unconsciously so (all the work these days around “implicit bias”). I’m going to preach about this soon in a couple of Unitarian Universalist settings, and my working title is, “Something in Me Must Die.” Then, three, when I can fully step into this collective and personal Shadow, and own it and my conscious and unconscious parts of it, but also own that I have what my (and I believe your) friend, Nancy Ellen Abrams, calls my “god capacity,” I can begin to move forward personally and in leadership.

    For what that’s worth (hope it makes some sense). Thanks for your post!

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