As I was driving this week, I heard an interview with researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton, a husband-wife team who has been studying so-called “deaths of despair,” that is, deaths that are alcohol-related, drug overdoses, or suicides. They noticed that deaths of despair had risen so sharply in the past fifteen years amongst middle-aged white Americans without a college degree, the life expectancy for that age group has actually dropped for the first time in modern history, and their mortality rate is actually higher than it is for African-Americans for the first time. As economists, these researchers theorize that the cause of this sudden spike in mortality rates can be attributed to the collapse of the job market for people who have a high school diploma or less. Financial instability leads to marital instability (or the inability even to find a mate) or the need to move far from one’s extended family in order to find work, leading to feelings of social isolation and despair that are either self-medicated with drugs or alcohol, or which lead to suicide.
On the very same day, an article from the Boston Globe website crossed by Facebook feed (even though it had actually been published more than two weeks ago), titled, “The Biggest Threat Facing Middle-Age Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity. It’s Loneliness.” In it, reporter Billy Baker speaks with Cambridge psychiatrist Dr. Richard S. Schwartz, who said that:
Beginning in the 1980s… study after study started showing that those who were more socially isolated were much more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected neighbors, even after you corrected for age, gender, and lifestyle choices like exercising and eating right. Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and the progression of Alzheimer’s. One study found that it can be as much of a long-term risk factor as smoking.
The research doesn’t get any rosier from there. In 2015, a huge study out of Brigham Young University, using data from 3.5 million people collected over 35 years, found that those who fall into the categories of loneliness, isolation, or even simply living on their own see their risk of premature death rise 26 to 32 percent.
It has been noted by cultural observers and social commentators for some time now that American society has become more fragmented and isolated. Books have been written (and I have already preached) about the breakdown of neighborhoods and the recent revival of interest in neighborhoods and localization of social place. Social media gives us the false impression that we are better networked, but those online relationships cannot and do not replace real-life friendships. And there is little question that as immediate families are ruptured by divorce, and extended families are scattered great distances as people move to find jobs, our traditional sources of support and social stability are no longer as reliable as they once were. And now we’re discovering that loneliness — social isolation — literally kills people.
In reading our current gospel lesson, social isolation and the failure of expected social support leap off the page. The story is of a man born blind. While Jesus and the disciples might not have known the guy, surely his neighbors had known him all his life and watched him grow up. And yet when Jesus had healed him of his blindness, his neighbors argued amongst themselves about whether they were looking at the formerly blind man or just someone who resembled him! They knew his parents. They walked past him every day. They had all contributed to his “GoFundMe” account when his blindness meant he couldn’t work. And yet when asked if he was the man born blind, his neighbors couldn’t be sure. This struck me as rather shocking, until it occurred to me: those who didn’t recognize him didn’t know him — they didn’t know the person. He was just “that blind guy.”
His handicap was his identity.
How socially isolating it is when people don’t see people, but either characteristics or their own assumptions. Again this week, I watched this video:
For those of you who can’t watch the video, a little white girl playing in the park notices a black girl and her mother playing nearby. Approaching her own mother, the girl asks, “Why are they black?” Her response was to tell a story about God creating people black first and delighting in them, then later creating white people. But the most interesting point of explanation was when the mother, pointing out that our differences are only skin deep, tells her daughter, “Inside, we’re all black.”
Despite the fact that we’re all the same on the inside—and that, as Bill Nye the Science Guy has noted (see video below)…
…biologically speaking, there’s no such thing as race—our tendency is to see people and to label them on sight (Nye calls it “tribalism”). We don’t just do this based upon race, but in all manner of ways. We mentally label others based upon their manner of dress, their accents, the color of their hair, their age, the sizes and shapes of their bodies, etc., etc. We do this in an instant and without thought, categorize individuals as “the black guy,” “the old man,” “the redhead,” “the girl with the purple glasses,” “the kid in the wheelchair.”
We need to learn how to know other people—and more particularly, we need to learn how to know people who are different from us. We need to break the habit of making assumptions based upon a split-second evaluation and enter into relationships with people, rather than responding to our own mental labels.
I can remember several years ago the first time I was taken aback by the thought that my daughter was a person with a unique personality. Maybe that sounds odd or funny to you; but prior to that moment, she was just a toddler, or just a pre-schooler, or just a little girl. And then, one day my eyes were opened to the person she was and I marveled at her! And later I found myself doing the same thing with my boys: discovering their unique personalities and seeing them as more than just small, generic humans. If all we see is an outward characteristic, instead of a person, we rob them of their humanity and their God-given identity.
As the gospel story goes on, attention turns to the religious community. And here, we don’t get anything like what we might expect—although perhaps we should expect it. The Pharisees refuse to believe the formerly blind man’s story because it doesn’t fit their narrative. They needed for Jesus to be a sinner because they claimed to be the arbiters of what constituted sin and under what circumstances someone could be forgiven. Jesus not only declared that the man was not blind because of anyone’s sin—in contrast to conventional religious wisdom—but cured him of his blindness, creating enormous controversy. In short, the religious community throws a fit. An inquisition is held as the religious leaders tried to regain control of the situation by reasserting their authority. They ask the man’s parents to verify his identity. But aside from saying, “Yup, that’s him,” they otherwise throw the poor guy under the bus, not wanting to get involved. Yet again, the man is isolated by the very people who ought to have his back, who ought to advocate for him because they know him as a person and not just as a characteristic.
So the Pharisees turn to him. “We know that Jesus is a sinner!” they declare.
“Oh, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” the healed man responds. “But if he didn’t have God’s ear, how could he have opened the eyes of a man born blind?”
“You’re a miserable wretch who was born entirely in sins, and you’re trying to teach us?” the Pharisees jeered, and they drove him out. It doesn’t sound like a very grace-filled response from religious leaders, does it? And yet, here I sit, in a time and place when the judgmental screeching of many purportedly religious folk leaves me wishing I could put some distance between us. “I’m a Christian,” I sometimes want to say, “but I’m not that kind of Christian.”
And then, as soon as I hear myself say, “that kind of Christian,” I know that I have labeled my brothers and sisters. I have denied them their humanity as surely as if I had uttered any other pejorative label.
And meanwhile, as the Pharisees are rejecting the sign that Christ has done and the man in whom he has done it, and as I am standing off to the side and shaking my head and thinking, “the church is still full of such Pharisees,” the point of it all has gotten completely lost. The community has failed, the religious leadership has failed, the man’s family has failed, and I have failed. The man tells the truth—and not just the truth about what happened to him, but the Truth with a capital T. He has experienced saving grace through Jesus Christ, and he declares this regardless of any threat or ridicule. Jesus had said that he was born blind so that God could be glorified, and here was the formerly blind man glorifying God! Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that the man they had labeled a sinner could see, while they, in their self-righteousness, were blind. Then man couldn’t explain what Jesus did (in fact, he couldn’t have picked Jesus out of a lineup). “All I know is, I was blind and now I see.”
Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus performs not “miracles” but “signs.” Each time he performs such a sign, the narrator goes to great pains to describe how those around Jesus respond to the sign, because in the end, that’s the point. When the Spirit opens our eyes, and we get a glimpse of the world as He sees it, how do we respond?
The Pharisees would have done well to recall the story of how the prophet Samuel found David, the future king of Israel. Assuming that Israel’s king would be tall and strong and handsome, Samuel was put in his place when God instructed him, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Judging by outward appearance is clearly not a new phenomenon. David’s father Jesse apparently thought David was of no account, being young and spindly.
And isn’t it interesting that in both scripture readings, the focal character’s eyes are specifically mentioned? One was born blind, but his eyes were opened and he was able to see and acknowledge the gift of grace he had received from Jesus. David is described as having “beautiful eyes,” perhaps an allusion to his being a man after God’s own heart. Clear-eyed and grace-filled, David would repeatedly spare the life of King Saul despite the latter’s murderous jealousy. In both stories, regardless of how they were judged by their families, their communities, or their religious leaders, beauty was in the eyes of the beheld.
We, too, are invited to wrestle with our own identities in God’s eyes. In God’s sight, we are more than our world-given labels. If, when God looks at me, he doesn’t see a middle-aged, bald nerd…
Pictured: a middle-aged, bald nerd.
…what does God see? Jesus looked past the lifelong handicap of the man born blind, and saw the person he was—the child of God who had been so socially isolated because of everyone’s assumptions about his infirmity that some of his neighbors didn’t even recognize him. Samuel was instructed to look past the outward appearance of Jesse’s sons and to choose the youngest and spindliest of them to ordain as Israel’s new king, because God had seen David’s heart. The very first theologian in the Bible—insofar as she is the first person to give God a name in an effort to describe God’s attributes—is Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman who belonged to Sarah, and who was the mother of Abraham’s first son. Having been forced out of her home and into the wilderness, presumably to die, God provided for Hagar, and she, in turn, gave God the name El-roi which means “The God who sees” (Gen. 16:13).
Loneliness — social isolation — literally kills people, as researchers can now attest. When will our eyes be opened to the fact that the Lord does not see as mortals see? When will we allow a jarring new perspective such as “On the inside, we’re all black” to help us realize that our labels are both senseless and dehumanizing? When will we be ready to accept that no matter what they look like, no matter who they love, no matter what language they speak, people are people—God’s good creation—and God sees us that way, too?