Sorry, I Didn’t Recognize You

Guest blogger, Amy Nee, part one of two

Wearing gloves severely inhibits fine motor skills. As I fumbled to extricate my Chicago Transit Authority card from my wallet and insert it into the vending machine at the Granville El Station I heard: “A Red Line Train—heading toward the Loop—will be arriving shortly.” The mechanized announcement suddenly instilled in me a sense of urgency despite the fact that I was leaving hours before what was necessary to reach my destination on time.

Carefully and quickly separating softened single bills into the machine—please don’t reject these ragged edges—I heard the rough voice of a woman calling out from behind me, “Hey Loyola!” She was addressing a stout young man with a trim dark beard wearing a bulky Carhartt jacket who was hustling over to the machine neighboring mine. She didn’t ask for money, only recognition from someone she knew.

My mind told me to reach into my pocket and give her a business card indicating the days and hours the community I live with opens our house for showers and meals and visiting. Should I? “A Red Line Train—heading toward the Loop—will be arriving shortly.” I could hear the rumbling of the approaching train. My finger pressed “Vend.” My body turned. My legs jogged up the steps. Without having consciously made a decision, I conceded to habit over responding to desire. I thought I wanted to catch that train, forgetting I wasn’t in a rush. Wants, skimming the surface of our consciousness, are far easier to capture than the desires that swim our depths. I never even saw what she looked like.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ones we overlook. The thought has followed me around, applying itself to observations and conversations and readings. It interrupted me the other night while reading Arundhati Roy’s captivating novel, The God of Small Things. She writes of an encounter between “Touchable” police, and an “Untouchable” man suspected of a crime. The suspect, Velutha, is sleeping. He is awakened by a brutal beating.

If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature—had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcising fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him (293).

They didn’t recognize him. And as cozy as it would be for me to read this and mourn the injustice of caste-based cruelty in India, the ability to overlook our fellow creatures is not confined to any one people or region. It is not a faraway problem. It is close at hand.

Awareness of this welled up a few nights ago as I listened to my roommate read an account of a shooting that had happened in a nearby neighborhood. Three were killed, two shot.  One victim was killed by a police officer who was himself injured. One victim was the officer. Information about why these shootings happened, who was involved, how the community is affected were absent. Details about the officer’s history with the force, about the noise and commotion on the scene, crowd out consideration of the human loss. There is no grieving. No asking why it happened, how it might have been prevented.

Why? Perhaps I am jumping to unfair conclusions, but my guess is this: the people who died were not people who mattered. We didn’t recognize them. For two of the men this is quite literally true, at the time of the report, they had not been identified.

As Christians we are called to see Christ in each other. But long before Godself was manifested in the body of Jesus, God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not hide yourself from your own flesh.” This is following instructions to set the oppressed free, share bread with the hungry, invite the homeless into your house, cloth the naked. It is followed by a prompting to “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” and a promise that when we do these things, “the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desires…” Embedded in my mind is that idea that those hungry, afflicted, naked that we are called to attend to are our own flesh, and the unabashed insight that unless instructed otherwise we will be inclined to hide ourselves from them, from our own flesh.

We have heard Jesus’ word, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” Can it also be said, in light of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Whatever you do…you do unto yourself.”? If this is true, we are truly a masochistic culture. We are trained into the habit of self-forgetting. It is common, not only to lock the homeless out of our house, but to drive them from the parks. It is acceptable not only to keep our bread for ourselves but also to prohibit the hungry from foraging in dumpsters for food we have already thrown away. It is known that not only are the oppressed imprisoned but they are tortured and maligned. I have spent a lifetime developing habits of avoidance, averting my eyes from looks of recognition with acquaintances, not to mention the stranger on the street, and ignoring systemic issues that seem too big or too confusing to become involved. I have developed a habit of hiding myself from my own flesh. Breaking such a habit requires tremendous intentionality and practice. Fortunately, prophets continue to live and teach another way, individuals and groups; people who are ordinary, and radical.

To be continued…

This week’s guest blogger, Amy Nee, grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida.  Experiments with truth have steadily brought her North, through Kentucky, to Chicago where she is currently living and loving at the White Rose Catholic Worker.  Her musings are piling up here: amytheshow.blogspot.com.  Together, Amy and Sister Julia like to cook, pray, study non-violence, write, garden and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation.

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