You and I get tickets to the greatest show on earth: the Ringling Brothers Circus.
There was some kind of mix up and our seats are in different parts of the arena. My seat is in the lower level near the arena floor and your seat is up top in the 300 section. The seats are high but you have a great view of everything.
When the show is over, we meet up and talk about the circus:
“That show was amazing,” you exclaim. “The flying trapeze artists were so flexible! The lions were so majestic! The elephants tricks were seamless!”
“You think so?” I ask. “The show as good but, the way they poked the elephant with that little prod to get her to stand on her hind legs was kinda weird. And every time the trapeze artists came down off the ropes, they limped to their exits like their feet and limbs ached badly.”
“What? There was no elephant prodding — and those trapeze artists are flexible and nimble! I saw them prance off stage and they were fine!”
“You couldn’t see what I saw,” I’d say. “I was up close, near the ground. I could smell the smells of live stock and had a vantage point you didn’t have.”
This is how perspective works.
We can be in the same place at the same time looking at the same thing and have totally different experiences. Those who sit higher (metaphorically or literally) often have a better viewpoint — they can see the entire picture in its entirety — and, they also are further removed from the little details that make experiences different for those who may be sitting closer to the bottom.
Life in America is often like this: we have those who sit up high on the mountain top, who look low at everything that is happening around them, often disconnected from what is happening in the valley. They see what’s happening down there with all the valley folks, but they are not in-tune with the particular ways of life that make valley life possible. They don’t see the poking and prodding or the off-stage limping. They don’t see the trip wires and other obstacles that make life in the valley, often times, one hell of a place to be.
People who stand on top of the mountain have a VERY hard time seeing the fullness of those in the valley. If you were on top of a mountain, could you fully, completely see me if I stood in the valley? I’d be a dot, a speck. You may be able to make out some part of me, but you couldn’t see me FULLY.
We could close this gap, but many on the mountain top have no interest in scaling that mountain, downward to get a better view of those in the valley.
And often the ropes and ladders needed for those in the valley to climb up the mountain are missing rungs and ropes are often tattered and unsafe to climb.
We see variations in perspective (and how that impacts people’s interpretation of life) even in scripture. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all tell the same story of a baby Jesus turned adolescent to miracle worker to resurrected King. But when you trace particular stories like Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness, Matthew gives a more robust account than Mark and Luke.
Or familiar stories like Peter walking on the water, again, Matthew’s account is more detailed than Mark’s. Luke doesn’t mention the water walking encounter at all.
We see a lot of things that Jesus says in one book that isn’t present in another book. This doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen but it does reflect the different perspectives of what each author thought was important to mention. It reflects, even, the author’s bias toward what is important, what matters, and what their true perspective is reflecting. This, I think, shapes the perspective of what is happening in the texts, and like in our lives, shapes the way we interpret life’s happenings through the bible.
So when discussions about tough topics like race, gender equality, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status comes up, much of the dissension is the result of varying perspectives; the gap between who has the birds-eye view and those who are sitting among the weeds have difficulty finding common ground while one group strives to make its way to an equal playing field, the other has no interest (and, often, no benefit) with scaling down the mountain of privilege to better understand those around them.
How then do we begin to engage in discourse about life and how our own personal perspectives influence the ways we see the world and people around us?
Intentional, purposeful encounters that require us to enter into the lives and spaces of other people so we can have a full picture of what’s really happening in the world around us.
I consider myself a “valley person;” I am a Black single mother who relies on the kindness of community to keep life afloat. Despite my educational experiences and travels, I am a still fighting against stereotypes about me, my life, my abilities, and what’s possible for me.
While I’ve done all the things those on the mountaintop have said is necessary to scale my way to the top, and while personal progress has been made, there’s such a huge gap between where I am and those who were strategically placed at the top of the mountain, that sometimes making progress seems impossible.
But when we are intentional about hearing the stories of other people, crossing our paths with people, news outlets, cultures outside of our own, we can begin to shift our perspectives of what is happening to people in other communities.
Jesus was good about these intentional encounters. As a marginalized person, Jesus made himself low (Philippians 2:7) so that He could better understand the perspectives of those He was sent to save. He was a King who lived as a common man for 30 years, in the valley with the rest of us, understanding the ways of the community around Him. And, when it was time, would spend his last three years on earth making those intentional connections between His lived experience and those who opposed Him, often because their social or religious privileges made them out of touch with the common person.
Perspective does matter — and if we are to be fair and just in our dealings with one another, we have to consider the ways our social positioning allows or inhibits our ability to understand the viewpoint of another. Without it, we only perpetuate the injustices that plague us through systematic, social, and religious structures.
On the Chase,
PPS: I’ll also be in New York the week of February 20-27 for a summit on human trafficking! I’m open for preaching/speaking engagements while there! Click here to learn more and submit your request!