By Chris Chakoian
Exactly fifty years ago, Karl Barth said “Take your Bible, and your newspaper, and read both” (in Time, 4/20/1962). My guess is today he’d tell us to look our screens – including the presidential debates. But it’s gotten so ugly, it’s hard to watch. (Women in a binder, anybody?) At the vice presidential debate, Martha Raddatz nailed it:
“I recently spoke to a highly decorated soldier who said that this presidential campaign has left him dismayed. He told me, quote, ‘the ads are so negative and they are all tearing down each other rather than building up the country.’ What would you say to that American hero about this campaign? And at the end of the day, are you ever embarrassed by the tone?”
I don’t know about them, but I’m embarrassed. Worse, I know that I’m contributing to the vitriol. Yuck.
I’m not naïve. Conflict is part of life. We have different, sometimes mutually exclusive goals, priorities, values. But how do we handle conflict? For me, the answer is (often), badly. I know we’re hardwired to fight, to flee, or to freeze. But we’re also “made in the image and likeness of God” – and with a frontal cortex, we have the capacity to overrule our first reactions.
What would happen if we took Jesus seriously when he tells us to talk to our opponent directly instead of gossiping or slandering … to bring in a couple of others as referees if we need to … or, at worst, to treat the other person “as a Gentile or a tax collector”? If we think for a nanosecond about how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, maybe we can aspire to treat our opponents in the same way: not as stupid, unworthy, or lost causes, but as children of God deserving of grace, as ones who don’t yet understand, but who may yet grasp the power of God’s love, who are invited to come into the family of grace.
Last Thursday I heard Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Corps, speak at Chicago Ideas Week. (Eboo is Muslim, btw.) He talked about what we learn when we listen to each other. How Martin Luther King, Jr. learned his greatest lesson not from a Christian but from Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu. Then Eboo talked about a young woman in the Interfaith Youth Corp – Balpreet Kaur.
On September 22, someone unknown to Balpreet took this picture of her in line at the OSU bookstore and posted it on Reddit in the “funny” section.
The caption read, “I’m not sure what to conclude from this.” Soon a torrent of posts flowed in: –”Beards on women are now in!!! yes!!!” “So is this a transgendered Sikh? Explains why they haven’t shaved and the Turban. One of those things has got to go.” One person said, “It’s Pat,” the SNL mystery man-woman.
This is how Balpreet responded on Reddit:
“Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture. …I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being …and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will.
“My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognized that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? No one is going to remember what I looked like. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating chance and progress for this world in any way I can.
“To me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello.”
Balpreet Kaur did what Jesus taught, maybe better than most Christians do. It gives me hope for the rest of us … even now.
The Rev. Christine Chakoian has led the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois since 2005; on her arrival it became the largest church in the denomination headed by a woman pastor. She serves on the advisory board of the NEXT Church as well as the board of trustees of McCormick Theological Seminary and the Lebanese American University, a Presbyterian-affiliated college in Beirut. A frequent contributor to 30 Good Minutes, a national public television program, Ms. Chakoian is also a columnist for The Presbyterian Outlook and The Christian Century.