I remember studying my Bible one day and coming to a realization that I hadn’t really had before. It was one of those realizations that is profoundly simple, yet can change the way you approach the events that take place in the Bible. This realization was that the stories and events of the Bible contained real people. You might be staring at your monitor saying, “Wait, that was your big realization? How dense are you?” I realize that this is a pretty simple idea, but let me explain why I think this is significant.
I’ve found personally that it is so easy to look at the events in the Bible from a distance, trying to ascertain whether the actions of a particular person are good or bad. I’m not saying that this is fully a bad thing, but it felt like I was losing something. It felt like I was reducing the story to some equivalent to Aesop’s Fables instead of getting glimpses of the lives people led while trying to follow God, successfully or not. I felt like I was simply trying to stamp their behaviors as an example to follow or an example to avoid. This process often led me to look down on those who didn’t do the right thing, or to idealize those who made good decisions, at least most of the time.
I think that this can lead us to bad places. We can forget that people who are often put into positive light (like Moses, Abraham, David, Isaiah, or Paul) were human and sinful even though they took following God very seriously. On the same token we can look down at some of the less exemplary individuals (like Jacob, Samson, Gideon, or Peter) and forget that God still used these flawed individuals to accomplish significant things. We can easily be tempted to idealize certain people in the Bible and dismiss or cast a negative gaze upon certain other characters without thinking of the fact they are human, and that sometimes God still used them despite or because of their flaws. Does this justify their flaws and sins or reduce the impact of their faith and actions? No, but we can easily resort to shallow characterizations rather than looking at them as full human beings seeking to follow God or rejecting God.
This use of shallow characterizations can leak into our interactions with the people around us. We can idolize those who put on masks and appear to be flawless, and ostracize those who aren’t able to put on masks and appear with all their roughness, sin, and flaws out for the world to see. In both cases we reduce these people to caricatures. We forget that those who put on masks have flaws, and become surprised and maybe even aghast when we learn how serious they may be. We also become surprised as we learn that those who may appear more flawed have good qualities and maybe even look a little more like us than we thought possible at first.
I’ve had this as a post I wanted to do for a long time, but with current events this seems to be something that is relevant. We’re coming off of the week where George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Treyvon Martin. Everyone and their brother has been giving their thoughts and opinions about the verdict, but I wonder if this kind of attitude isn’t part of the problem in the whole situation. It’s a problem when Zimmerman profiled Martin as “suspicious.” Was it race, age, build, clothing, being out while raining? We may never know, but something caused Zimmerman to make a shallow characterization of Martin. As we all know this led to the death of Martin and the nation has been divided on what happened and whether justice has truly been done ever since.
However, the media has done a good amount of shallow characterizations too. It seemed that Martin was portrayed early as this innocent kid (including use of an earlier photo of Martin). The narrative became more conflicted as another narrative was Martin the thug. In both these cases it seemed that the point was trying to get some sort of idealized (either good or bad) portrayal of Martin. It seemed neglected that he was a person both with flaws and positives. Zimmerman got this same treatment, and he was presented as a racist. Could this be true? Sure, it could be and as I said something must have made Zimmerman be suspicious of and follow Martin. But it doesn’t seem like people really cared about the truth of this claim. It was more about shallow characterization. It was almost like we had to have a label to give Zimmerman in order to distance his actions from the actions that any one of us could do.
Now I’d like to say that this kind of shallow characterization only happens in divisive court cases, but sadly I see it all over the place. You can see it when people attack others for their views, like those who hold them aren’t people, but simply something to be argued against. Labels are tossed around and summarily dismissed. These labels take different forms depending on who is using them. Maybe they’ll look like “fundamentalist”, “feminist”, “evangelical”, “heretic”, “atheist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “bigot”, or any other label that may be tossed around these days (these labels can be used positively too, but it just depends on who is using them). We don’t look at each person as a person, rather we want to label them, characterize them, and then classify them as friend or enemy with as little interaction as possible.
This is tough not to do. I know I do this at times, and I’m pretty sure we all will. It’s just too easy sometimes to look at people as labels or caricatures. We want to get to what we disagree with or what we think they did wrong. The reality is that we’re all people, we can’t forget that. As I said it doesn’t negate our responsibility when we do thing wrong, but it should give us a deeper insight as we look at others as a complex individual instead of just the label of the day. I think that remembering that people are people will help us when we open our Bibles and look at the stories of men and women who lived long ago, and will help us look at those around us today with eyes that are ready to see a person there, in all the mess and beauty that brings.