"We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.
(Elie Wiesel, from The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code)
In law school, we Christians spent a lot of time considering how and under what circumstances we could represent criminals. Yet, in the end, for all the anguish it may cause, it comes down to one fundamental belieft: all people are made in the image of God. Thus, there is a dignity accorded to all human beings, even the badly soiled and defaced image of God in the child molester and serial murderer. And yet it is not at the extremes that I forget this fact but, like all important principles, it is lost in the quotidian, in the everyday slog of life.
Perhaps we tend toward abstraction and generalization because we don't want to be bothered with the complexity and mystery of the person in front of us. The cognitive dissonance caused by a "bad" person who commits an act of genuine kindness offends our categories, and yet it happens all the time. Even I am more or less than who I think I am, as even I cannot fully fathom the mystery of what it is to be me. And yet this too is a way we image God in his inscrutability and incomprehensibility. Despite what is revealed about God and what we know of ourselves, in the end of me and Him lie mystery. After all, He put a universe in me and you.
All of this should give me some humility as I look at other people. Despite all I think I know, there is more I do not know. My predictive ability is limited. Despite their effervescent appearance, I know not what anguish they live with; their melancholy, what joys they know. I am finite. And yet there is One who knows me fully, the One who said to Jeremiah "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart. . . " (Jer. 1:5 NIV). We are amazed at the universe without, the endless and expanding galaxies, and yet the universe within is just as unfathomable, just as immense.
So, when you think you know someone, think again. Be mindful that these are not abstractions but beautiful and terrible embodiments of mysteries. C.S. Lewis said it best: "You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."
And then, think again: The God who made the universe without and the universe within came from outside those universes and poured His immortal self into a body in these universes. That is the truest and most incredible fairy-tale of all. And we're only on the first page of a very long and good story.
A year ago in Uganda I went with a friend, Faith Kunihura, to visit an even poorer community near the one in which we worked. Behind the thatch hut where one family lived, I saw a lean-to with a man lying on a mat, obviously sick. Upon inquiry we found out that the man was a stranger to this family, and yet they were doing what they could to care for him. We touched him and prayed for him. Walking away, Faith said to me: "I'm glad you showed me that man. Looking at him, I saw the image of God lying there."
Universe. Immortal horror. Everlasting splendor. But not an abstraction.