I was waiting in the line for last-minute tickets to a play with a strange name, my eyes fastened onto the man across from me. He was waiting for cheap tickets, too. I don’t know if he saw me watching him, but it must have been pretty obvious that he was under surveillance. I’ve been trying to hone my people-watching skills, being a writer and all, but I really haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. I looked away awkwardly when the subject and I made eye contact. I imagine I must look a bit creepy.
So there I sat on a cushioned bench, keeping an eye on my girlfriend’s purse and an eye on him, trying to discern his story from his external appearance and mannerisms. His face was of an average sort, adorned with titanium wire-frame glasses. Or no glasses, I don’t remember exactly. He was joined by a woman with high-heels and a long face … I think. Then again, she could have been short, thick and had a kind face.
As for his mannerisms … I don’t recall any. Actually, I don’t remember anything about him. He was just another man waiting in line for tickets.
Apparently, people-watching is not my strong suit.
Exhausting my mental resources in a minute and a half, I started reflecting on the differences between the lives of Christians and non-Christians. Being in a rather generous mood, I decided that there wasn’t much difference between the gentleman under observation and myself. His life was full of as much drama as mine, meaning he worried about money, health and when he was ever going to find time to write the five papers due before finals.
As I filled with the glow of pitying pride (like a mother watching her child roller-skate for the first time or Dr. Frankenstein gazing upon his creation), I suddenly felt very guilty. What made me so sure that the man was unsaved? He could have been an archbishop for all I knew. I suppose my assumption could be blamed on the fact that non-Christians outnumber Christians in the United States, but in a room of at least a hundred there must have been more believers just than myself. Yet, for some reason, I found that hard to believe.
My inability to think of others as Christians is rooted in the way I was taught to think about those outside of my church and circle of friends. I was trained to look at others as potential Christians, not as persons who have already developed personal stories that may include encounters with Christ. Consequently, I have viewed almost everyone who is not me as an “other.” By doing this, I have stunted my relationships with coworkers and the people I have met outside of school and church.
To use a bit of popular culture to illustrate this point, I’ll continue on with the thought of “others.” Many of you started thinking about the TV show Lost when you read the title anyway. Every time one of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 finds someone they do not know on the island, they assume that they are one of the “others” and proceed to treat them badly as a form of self-protection. Sometimes they find out that the people they have been beating are not a part of the “others” but are survivors that have been stranded elsewhere on the island. This is cause for apologies tempered with “well, we had to be sure.”
As Christians, we are guilty of this Lost behavior. Even other denominations are “others.” I have been stopped by Christians bearing tracts while walking downtown, and it’s always uncomfortable because they proceed to interrogate me once I say that I am a Christian. Do I go to church, do I really believe in Jesus, am I “washed in the blood?” Well, they have to be sure.
The thing that non-Christians hate about modern Christianity is the “us vs. them” attitude that we have cultivated. Our religious leaders stand up and proudly invite the “persecution” of irate “atheists,” comparing themselves with Christians in communist countries, African dictatorships or Islamic societies. There is no comparison. Christians in some countries are tortured and killed because their faith stands in the way of power-hungry madmen. Highly-visible Christian figures are hated more because of the rhetoric they use in their speeches than for their faith.
By viewing others as either for or against us we live in constant conflict. Jesus calls us to live at peace with others and to reject the values of this world, and we cannot do it if we are busy determining allegiances and plotting conversions. Life just becomes a competition.
The man waiting in line for tickets was just a man. That is all I know about him. By turning him into one of the “unsaved” I changed his status in my mind. He was no longer a man, he was someone to either witness to or ignore. He became an integer in the sum of life. He was “zero” and I was a “one.” By not witnessing to him I became guilty of sending him to hell. That’s a heavy responsibility, one that discourages many from getting to know anyone that might be a non-Christian.
What if we approached every person as if we actually cared about them regardless of the state of their soul? What if we get to know them before jumping to conclusions? If we find out that they are a Christian, we have gained a spiritual sibling, and if we find they do not know Christ, we can introduce them. Gone are the assumptions, the ulterior motives, the fear of rejection.
If we want to be like Christ we should stop categorizing people for easy targeting. Instead, we need to acknowledge that we know next to nothing about the people around us. The only way to find out anything about them is to listen to their stories. Let’s start listening. After all, we’ve got nothing to lose and they may have everything to gain.