Give Freedom Away (or give it back)
I wrote this post last year on the 4th of July from the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago near Grant Park. I hope you enjoy!
Today is the fourth of July. In America, this means something.
I have a tattoo on my arm that not a small number of people have asked about. It’s not that it’s entirely unique, or even that it stands out. It’s actually the smallest of the one’s I have, and it’s hidden by every shirt I wear.
When it is exposed, some people ask, “Is that Africa on your arm?” Others: “What does that writing say? What is it outlined with?” Most, however, ask: “Is that India?”
It is, in fact, India.
The writing on the inside says Psalm 67:1, 2.
I should say that I’m not a huge fan of faith-based tattoos, but only because I don’t like being boxed in. I don’t really find myself “edgy,” nor do I find any need to take allegiance with it.
Nevertheless, I have a tattoo with a verse from the Hebrew Bible on my arm. That verse says:
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Eight years ago I was in India for the second summer in a row. This summer, unlike the previous, I was traveling around with a translator telling the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with a tool called the “Evangecube”. Basically, it’s a Rubik’s Cube-looking thing that only unfolds one way. It culminates in a picture of two hands meeting, symbolizing a relationship with God. They say pictures are easier for people to understand.
So here I am, a six-foot oaf with a bandana, a green canvas bag, and slacks I bought at a thrift store, walking from hut to hut doing the absolute worst job at re-telling a contrived version of Jesus’ LDR via the E-Cube. I am watching Bengali men and women look me in the eyes, folding their arms at their chests, as if to say, “Really? That’s what you came all the way from America to tell me? That a God I don’t believe exists wants to save me from something I don’t believe I need to be saved from?”
Heh. “Yeah, I think so,” I’d say.
A few days later I sit in a chair looking out upon the city from my hotel. I am in anguish. I hate what I am doing, all the while knowing that people need to hear about Jesus someway. Perhaps this team, these cubes, these intrusive tactics are their way. Perhaps.
From the street I can see taxis bumping each other and honking, men driving and beeping the horns of their tuk tuk’s. Dogs meander, sniffing grass. Cows stand in the middle of the road and drivers take great effort to avoid hitting them. There is a dump truck that pulls in front of the hotel and stops. Two men get out and hurl piles of trash into the back of the truck. I watch plastic bags, food wrappers, and dried out fruit rinds soar into the air, some of which don’t make it high enough. The trash men don’t mind.
One package of trash lands right at the top and I am stunned to see that it splats atop a man lain across the top of the heap. He is still in sight but quickly being buried. He does not move as trash flies at him, he only lays. His eyes are blank, his expression, empty. His demeanor, nothing. There is a human mind in this truck bed. There is a beating heart; a mother’s son.
The Dalits are at the bottom of India’s caste system. They are “untouchable,” and known as less valuable than work animals. There are approximately 160 million Dalits in India.
This man is likely one of them. His sunken eye sockets, his joints and bones ready to pierce through his skin, are emblems of the story he carries. And so far, it is not a hopeful one.
I want to confess to my team leader that I don’t think door-to-door evangelism is working, and that I think helping Dalits, or something like it, is a better use of our time for the gospel. Instead, I wind up telling him that I saw a man who didn’t have hope today, and that I’ve been handed hope for my entire life.
“I don’t need to worry about a thing,” I say. And it’s true. I have means to money, I have people who know my name, I have a warm place to lay my head, I have food whenever I want it. I am a king by a Dalit’s standard. Truly, I am the untouchable one.
“I didn’t choose this,” I tell him. “To be born white, privileged, and in a place like America. So why did I receive it while people like that man are treated like trash?”
All the while my mind is racing: Why did I get the easy way out? Why wasn’t I born here in India, where life is real and people suffer? Why aren’t all countries, neighborhoods, economic situations the same? Why do some of us get to live in suburbs with SUV’s, laundry detergent, extra blankets, and safe places for our kids to play? God, this, is injustice.
My leader doesn’t try to fix me. He doesn’t tell me that I had been blessed and that God was showing me favor. He doesn’t even try to explain why people are born into third world countries. Instead, he shows me Psalm 67:1, 2. He reads it, and then he hands me his Bible so that I can read it.
And then, it was like I knew all along.
Today, when I approach that passage I do a little interpreting when I read it:
God, you have been gracious to me and have blessed me
But you have given to me because you want me to give it all away again,
so that people will know it was you all along.
This fourth of July I try to remember my trips to India. I try to remember the friends I made, and the stories I heard. I try to remember that if I didn’t grow up in America I may never have had the opportunity to tell my Indian friends’ stories today; I may never have known how deep poverty can swim in this world, and that while Americans are mostly surface swimmers, more than half of the world will remain stuck upon the ocean floor.