Let me ask you a question: “In our role as chaplains, pastors and as people, how do we see fellow human beings?”
We’ll come back to that question in a moment. But first a bit of science! Let’s thinks about light, for a few moments. Light operates as both as a wave AND as particles. More than that however, “Light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum”, of which much is invisible to us. As you are no doubt aware, there are different wavelengths of EM radiation that we cannot see, such as infra-red and ultraviolet wavelengths. These can be seen by other animals.
If we could “see” in these wavelengths we would be able to observe a lot more of the universe than we do currently.
By way of analogy, can I suggest that all of us are guided by predispositions, biases, training and preferences that limit our capacity to truly see people except through one or two “wavelengths” of outlook. As a result, we can limit our capacity to “see” people as Jesus did, as is most helpful for them, and as we ought, if we are followers of Jesus. By “see” I mean to truly notice, care about and do what we can to support someone.
Can I suggest that this difficulty in “seeing” people is particularly so when it comes to “marginalised” persons. The word “marginalised” has moved into very common parlance in the last twenty years when it comes to thinking sociologically about people or ideas or belief systems. The Cambridge English dictionary provides this definition of what it means to marginalise:
“to treat someone or something as if they are not important” to treat someone or something as if they are not important: › to treat someone or something as if they are not important:
By its very etymology, the word implies that a marginalised thing, person or idea is pushed to the edges of that which is considered to be central, mainstream or generally important, especially by those who might be in control, exercise power or form the majority of a population.
Marginalised persons, it seems to me, are often hard for us to truly “see”, in the sense that Jesus truly saw people. That can, as a result, be somewhat ‘invisible’ to us, or, if noticed, pushed down the ladder of priority. And I think there is something of a scale of how we respond to the marginalised. At an extreme end they are seen as ‘non-persons’, who can be ignored or even destroyed. Take the extreme case of Jews in the Holocaust, aged persons who have been killed by nurses or “infidels” Why is that the case? I want to suggest that it is because the “marginalised” often have the following characteristics:
- they are usually quite different to us;
- they are often disempowered relative to ourselves;
- they are therefore often defensive¸ as persons, because of the exclusions they have suffered.
Each of these factors makes it more easy for us not to truly see and appropriately care for those on the margins – of our lives, of our experience and of our society.
So let me as you again, how do you see people? What is the band-width, the range of wavelengths, with which you look at people?
Let me suggest to you this morning four theological wavelengths, through which we are wise to view people, especially marginalised people, that might enable us to really see them.
Now I said that these are “theological” wavelengths. That might be a word that conjures up the concept of long and dull lectures, or dry dusty tomes. Yet for us as pastors, chaplains and people, a sound theology of persons is a vital pre-requisite to a sound care for persons.
A rough definition of theology might be the study of God and His interaction with the universe He has created. We need to look at people theologically. We need to consider people in the light of what God says about us as human beings and about Himself as the Creator. And throughout Scripture, marginalised people are made visible by God. To the Old Testament Jews, those who were “sojourners” [refugees] in the land were to be treated fairly and with respect (Deuteronomy 10:19 “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” RSV). The “poor” likewise were not to be invisible to the people of God (Lev. 19:10 – “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God”).
In the New Testament, Jesus made “visible” those who were very much on the margins of contemporary social concern – the tax-collectors, shepherds, “sinners’, the woman caught in adultery, Samaritans.
Now each of these following four sets of wavelengths lead us to two competing truths about each of us as human beings, two lenses, as it were, that need to be taken into consideration if we are to be effective pastoral carers of marginalised persons with whom we come into contact, and especially of people towards whom we have some professional responsibility.
The Wavelengths Between Creation and “Fall” – Two Lenses: Beauty and Brokenness
For theology informs us that we are at one and the same time people made in the image of our Creator (Genesis 1:27) full of wonderful potential, and, sinners who fall far short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), desperately in need of salvation. We have the touch of the divine and the smear of sin!
And I want to suggest that this leads us to an important paradox discoverable in the words of the following Scripture: Psalm 8.
We need to see people with both of those lenses as we seek to care for them. If we only see them as one or the other we will either only affirm their wondrousness, goodness and value (idealise and romanticise them) or regard them as hopeless, helpless and possibly useless (demean and condemn them). Yet all of us are both made in the image of God and sinners in need of forgiveness! And both reflect how God sees us. So therefore we need to see people in both ways.
The Wavelengths Between Jesus and the Prophets – Two Lenses: Care and Confrontation/Challenge
Jesus was very good as “seeing” people, wasn’t he! From a widow mourning her son [Luke 7:11], a timid tax-collector hiding up a tree (Luke 19:1ff), a poor woman giving her mite at the Temple (Mark 12:41), a Samaritan woman (John4:1ff), a Greek, non-Jewish woman seeking help for her daughter (Luke 7:24ff), to children driven back by his disciples (Luke 18:16ff), Jesus made visible to others people often overlooked and pushed to the margins by the majority of society.
So what are the two lenses here? I think that they are “care” and “confrontation”. Jesus gave care to people. He met their needs, affirmed them, used them in ministry, hung out and ate with them. Yet he also challenged them when needed. Zacchaeus was led to repentance and a new lifestyle of honesty. The Samaritan woman was confronted with the fact that she was living a sinful life.
Similarly, it seems to me that chaplaincy with the marginalised will be most effective and most biblically informed when we genuinely care and carefully confront, just as Jesus did.
The Wavelengths in the Humanity Bandwidth – Two Lenses: Fellow-travellers and Clientele
A third set of wavelengths is that of our common humanity. To a good degree this reflects on a human level the theological position above. We are both “dust” (Genesis 3:19) and “just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:3 – 8). We are not mere animals. Nor are we angels. The worst of us have something redeeming about us. The best of us are mortal and fallible and wounded. Jesus himself in a powerful passage in Hebrews is described in this way: Hebrews 5:14 – 17.
In caring for others, such passages remind me that ideally we are to treat people as fellow-travellers on the human journey, not as merely as “clients”, realising that we too are both dust and a little lower than the angels. It means we need to approach our care from the humble position of being fellow travellers through the experience of being human, with those for whom we care.
The Wavelengths of Reality – Two Lenses: Compassion and Caution
One of the liberating features of biblical Christianity is that it is ruthlessly honest. It does not run away from the brutal aspects of life or its wonderful aspects. It neither sanitises nor demonises people. It reflects the actual world in which we live. What is entailed by this is that we need to approach our pastoral care with both eyes open. We must live without romantic ideas about what and who we are confronting as chaplains.
The twin lenses here are these: on the one hand “compassion” (Luke 10:13 – “… his heart went out to her ..”) and on the other caution (John 2:24 – Jesus did not trust himself to everyone, for he knew everyone’s heart). The person to whom we are called to show compassion in our pastoral care also has the capacity to hurt us – physically, emotionally, spiritually. We are to exercise our care with compassion tempered by caution! It means we are to lose our illusions (about what people are capable of for ill), but not our idealism (believing that people are worth caring for and capable of change). If we do not lose our illusions we will become dangerously naïve. If we lose our idealism we become uselessly cynical.
So, how do you see the people for whom you will be caring? Only with one wavelength, or two, or three? May God give us the grace that Jesus operated under, the grace of compassion tempered with caution, the grace of speaking as a human tempted in every way as we are yet without sin, and as one who, made perfectly in the image of God, nonetheless knew we are sinners whom He came to save.