Did you see the prank video floating through our Facebook streams recently about who helps a nicely dressed business man who falls and who helps an apparently homeless man who falls? The video opens many questions for us and itself seems to focus mainly on the appearances of the two men… I immediately wanted to go deeper with the video. If you haven’t seen it, here it is…
Perhaps like me, you live in and among a homeless population. We have many homeless folks in downtown Bethesda and more and more you can’t catch a red light on many main streets without a homeless or needful person asking for help while you wait. Homeless neighbors sit by us at Starbucks, greet us at the Metro and some will come and sit in our church building during the day as a quiet respite from the street. For the most part I believe we have created a different set of rules for interacting with our homeless neighbors, and that is a large part of what is happening in the video.
I dug around to see if my thoughts were online anywhere, and I at least found this bit on social interactions that better defined the thing I think we’re talking about in this case of this video… (the bolded emphasis in mine)
In sociology, social interaction is a dynamic sequence of social actions between individuals (or groups) who modify their actions and reactions due to actions by their interaction partner(s). Social interactions can be differentiated into accidental, repeated, regular and regulated.
A social interaction is a social exchange between two or more individuals. These interactions form the basis for social structure and therefore are a key object of basic social inquiry and analysis. Social interaction can be studied between groups of two (dyads), three (triads) or larger social groups.
Social structures and cultures are founded upon social interactions. By interacting with one another, people design rules, institutions and systems within which they seek to live. Symbols are used to communicate the expectations of a given society to those new to it, either children or outsiders. Through this broad schema of social development, one sees how social interaction lies at its core.
Source: Boundless. “Understanding Social Interaction.” Boundless Sociology. Boundless, 03 Jul. 2014. Retrieved 06 Feb. 2015 from https://www.boundless.com/sociology/textbooks/boundless-sociology-textbook/social-interaction-5/understanding-social-interaction-50/understanding-social-interaction-314-5912/
I believe the business man in the video represents someone living by our social rules, within acceptable systems and institutions. So when he falls, there is an immediate need among others to restore him. He better represents what we have invested ourselves in, an acceptable life by normative social standards. The homeless man? He is presumed to be living outside those systems and institutions, and therefore his fall has less impact on the passersby. They are not invested in him already, and so his immediate predicament is less impactful for them. In fact, he represents a threat for many people, either an immediate threat to their safety or a more cosmic threat to our presumed rules for living.
Am I trying to explain away the video and lessen it’s moral message and impact? No way! I want to take it’s message and come up with a deeper message than just, “Yo, help a brother off the curb!” As a human, I need to intentionally invest in my neighbors, even when they are living and doing life outside of my normative bounds, rules and institutions. Otherwise, I risk developing the kinds of blinders that allow me to walk past a fallen person without helping.
As a human who tries to operate out of a specific faith orientation, I am further challenged by following a religious leader who personally rejected and moved outside of many normative societal rules and regulations of his time. Yes, Jesus.
I’ve grown up hearing sermon after sermon about Jesus touching the untouchable, but has sermon after sermon changed any of us? Have we been equipped with eyes and understanding that allow us to risk stepping into the lives of those outside the social norm? The answer is a qualified and limited yes… I know and have known many amazing human beings, inside and outside of faith communities, who routinely step over those social lines and engage neighbors living outside the bounds of social norms. The answer is also a qualified and limited no… because many of us still operate almost exclusively inside the norms, some even religion’izing the social norms to become matters of faith. Don’t know what that means? Try to find the verse in the Bible that says, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” (Hint: It ain’t there.)
If I’m being a bit too esoteric for you here, think of it this way… when a clean-cut businessman falls, there is very little cost to helping him… his clothes are less likely to stink or to get me dirty, he probably won’t ask me for money, and after a nice verbal gesture of appreciation we’ll both go on about our day with very little time lost. However, operating on our usual assumptions about people who live outside our normative rules and systems, I wonder if helping a homeless man will get me dirty, if he’ll smell bad, if he’ll ask me for money, if he’ll have a mental illness and hurt me, if he’ll want to talk and take up a bunch of my time… the assumptions go on, and those assumptions increase my projected cost to any social engagement with that person. Seriously, it takes a while to say it, but I think we routinely make these mental and spiritual calculations in a nanosecond.
Let’s pay up. Let’s intentionally reframe some of our social rules so that we are prepared to pay the cost of stepping outside the easy social norms and engage people less like us. It makes us more human. It makes us more faithful.
Just the other day I tried to give a friendly greeting to a certain local homeless man I often see at my favorite Starbucks. It’s one of the things I do, with homeless or well-off-seeming locals… I say hi and introduce myself. We’re neighbors after all. This particular homeless man wanted nothing to do with me. He rudely rebuffed me, loudly proclaiming that he didn’t want to talk to me, see me or shake my extended hand. And, it was a little embarrassing for me.
Now, at that moment of rebuff, I have a choice: 1) I can narrow my social rules and interactions, letting that experience confirm assumptions and stereotypes about “certain people,” and I can be very less inclined to try again to greet someone who is doing life outside my norms, or 2) I can pay the cost of that interaction, a blush and a rebuff, and offering a prayer for the pain and hurt this man is obviously carrying, I can prepare myself for loving the next neighbor to come along in my little sphere of life.
You see, Jesus did not touch the untouchable. Please, hear that… Jesus did not touch the untouchable. For Jesus all people were touchable, worthy of touch, deserving of touch and imminently desirable to touch. He wanted to engage them and was willing to pay the price, which could sometimes be high. He was whispered about, condemned and made fun of for engaging some folks, and in one memorable event he helps ten people, with only a single person taking the time to thank him.
Now, if you don’t live in a place with a present homeless population, I bet there still people not like you… I bet there are people who seem to live outside your rules and norms. Can you pay the cost of loving them? Can you move outside the norms of what you are most comfortable with and find them touchable? Can I? Or as our more grammatical gifted friends would correct me, “Will I?”