A reading from Mark:
[The Disciples] came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to [Jesus] and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
On Sunday, I kept raising my hand. At some point I wasn’t even sure why I bothered putting it down. I knew what was coming next and I knew what my answer would be. It gave me a kind of gross, almost muddy feeling in my body.
The facilitator was showing us images of his life in rapid succession: the hospital staff that had attended to this birth, his family, his elementary schoolmates and teachers, his parents’ colleagues, the government officials in his hometown. One after another.
This all happened during a meeting of Next Faithful Move, an inclusion training, the LC’s been offering the last couple of weeks. The facilitator, a white male from the Midwest, invited the participants in the course to raise their hands if those in the picture, “looked like them.”
I just kept raising my hand.
The other facilitator of Next Faithful Move, a black man, also from the Midwest, did a similar exercise. What became clear was that as the second facilitator panned-out from his family, those who attended to his birth, his schoolmates and teachers, his parents’ colleagues, the government officials in his hometown, almost invariably did not look like him.
I grew up in a Nebraska community that was very white. I can actually recall a handful of times seeing persons of color in my childhood because it happened so infrequently. Growing up when and where I did, it was easy to assume that most parents were white, most teachers were white, most college professors and professionals were white, most police officers were white, most government officials were white. The toys I played with reflected this image. The images I saw of television by-in-large reinforced this. From my point of view, I expected people in these roles to look like me. This is what I expected to see.
And—un-critically and naively, as children are—I expected that this was pretty much how basically everyone else experienced the world, too.
When I was in high school, I had one friend who was a person of color whose name was Sean. Late in my junior year I shaved my head (largely because when I had hair it was unruly). One day I was over at Sean’s house shortly after I got the haircut and his mom caught a glimpse of my new haircut. She gasped, clearly alarmed, and said, “Adam, are you a skinhead?”
At the time my friend and I laughed it off—at least I thought we did.
But in a community where almost everybody looked like me, I’d never considered that my haircut might actually frighten my friend’s mother. It had never occurred to me why someone might respond this way. For me white people were safe people. Why would my haircut be a cause for alarm for anyone?
I was in seminary before I was ever in space that wasn’t majority white, and by then I had a pretty strongly habituated idea of how the world looked.
In the middle of Mark’s Gospel there’s a strange story that didn’t make the cut for either Matthew’s or Luke’s gospel. But it’s become one of my favorite passages.
Jesus heals a blind man by, first, doing first-century eye-drops, that is spitting on the guy’s eyes, and then laying his hands on them. It’s not the approach I would go with, but it works.
Then Jesus asks the man, “Can you see anything?”
The man responds in the affirmative. The healing has worked; he can see. His senses are working, drawing in the images around him. In what seems to be simultaneous, light hits his retinas, photoreceptors turn that light into electrical signals, these signals race from the optic nerve to the brain, and the brain interprets the signals. He takes in a picture of the world.
And what he sees looks nothing like what he expects.
“Uh,” he says, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”
It’s a comical response, and so it’s easy to miss the gravity here. Who knows how he knows what people and trees are supposed to look. (Mark sure doesn’t tell us.) Maybe he wasn’t blind from birth and remembers how things used to look. Maybe through the gift of his other senses he’d constructed some kind of image of how he expected trees and people to look. Who knows?
But something is amiss. When he looks people don’t look the way he expects them to look. He somehow sees humans, but not in the fullness of their humanity.
Within Mark’s narrative this is setting up a not-so-subtle point. What Jesus is telling is disciples is this: there’s enough space for deep misinterpretation between what our senses take in and how we perceive. For Jesus, healing isn’t just about seeing, it’s about seeing well. It’s about seeing truthfully.
So, Jesus doesn’t leave the blind man with misleading vision.
No, he places his hands on the man’s eyes and continues the healing he had already begun. Although this detail isn’t in Mark’s telling of the story, I like to imagine that Jesus used mud this time (like he does this when he heals in the Gospel According to John). I like to imagine that as he continued healing this man, that he reached down a grabbed a fist-full of mud and rubbed it on this man’s eyes.
I like to believe it was in muddying-up the now sighted-man’s clear vision, that he senses truthfully. That he sees well.
You see, it’s the clarity of our vision that often tricks us into seeing poorly. Too often we believe that what we see defines the limits of what reality is. It sets our standards, defines our normal, and centers our experience—in ways we fail to perceive.
This, too, looks like me. (raise your hand)
But Jesus will not leave us with only our senses. Jesus will muddy-up what needs to be muddied-up so that we can see the world and our neighbors as they are. Jesus will show us where and when our over-reliance on our senses and experience has harmed ourselves or others. Jesus will do this because Jesus doesn’t quit in the middle of a process. Jesus finishes what Jesus starts.
And I suspect Jesus may do this through you. Through us. Because God knows we need others to muddy-up our vision sometimes. To walk with us, saying, “I’m not seeing what you’re seeing,” or “in my experience that looks very different.”
Perhaps in so perceiving there’s a beginning: a beginning of a way of life in which we too can start seeing others and living with others in a way that honors the fullness of their humanity.