One thing that has surprised me is the way in which people will pigeonhole me based upon my appearance. The fact that I wear a beard and have dreadlocks (and often wear old ratty clothes) will cause some people to automatically stereotype me.
Now, granted, I expect to experience some of this stereotyping in society, and for many years I have chosen to embrace that. Knowing how superficial our society is, I have chosen to dress myself in ways that identify me with street-involved people. I think there is some benefit in doing this, although I must constantly ensure that my efforts to achieve solidarity with the street-involved extended will beyond such superficial or symbolic acts.
However, it does sadden me when I experience this stereotyping in Christian circles and, in particular, in Christian academic circles where things like one’s outward appearance are said to be adiaphora. So, for example, one of my profs (who is also a friend of mine) reminded me, after my recent chapel talk, that my image, and form of delivery, would make some people think that I was trying to be “Dan the Dreadlocked Prophet” out to stick it to the man… when in actuality, I’m just Dan the privileged Regent student trying to figure out how the hell we can live as Christians in today’s world. Thus, when I objected to my professor-friend and told him I would be sorely disappointed if those who were dedicated to Christian discipleship, not to mention academic ‘objectivity’, would be so superficial in their judgment of me, he simply responded that people do, in fact, judge and respond to people based on these things and that I needed to keep that in mind.
This then got me thinking about how we all say that outward appearances don’t matter — say the colour of one’s skin, the type of clothes one wears, one’s degree of cleanliness, one’s physical abilities or the lack thereof, and so on — and the chances are that we believe ourselves when we say this. However, the only way of knowing if we are faithful to our own beliefs is by being confronted by those who do look quite different than us, and reflecting upon how we respond.
For example, I would have never imagined that I was rascist — I grew up in a family that was ‘colour blind’ and had friends from various ethnic backgrounds. However, the dominant culture in which I lived and moved — both in my family, in my church, and with my street-involved friends — was white. Therefore, when I first began working with street-involved youth in Toronto, I came to the realisation that I naturally gravitated towards the white, gutter-punk kids, and was much more intimidated by, and distant from, the black gang-bangers or the hard-edged First Nations youth. I was afraid of them and, as I came to this realisation, I noticed that I was afraid of them for largely superficial reasons — like the colour of their skin or their different ways of presenting themselves. Thus, while I would verbally affirm that one’s appearance doesn’t matter, and while I genuinely believed that we are all equal, my fear betrayed the fact that I was actually unfaithful to my own beliefs. So, what did I do? I deliberately started spending more time with the kids who had intimidated me. In this way, I learned to get over my (irrational and racist) fears, and now I think I can say that I actually live in accordance with what I believe (at least in this regard).
Now, this takes me back to what I said in my chapel address about the importance of having some people like Ross (a homeless man) at a place like Regent (a graduate school). The presence of a Ross confronts us with somebody who is genuinely different than us… at least in his appearance. Therefore, a person like Ross forces us to see if we are, in fact, faithful to our own convictions. Unfortunately, a place like Regent — as it is currently structured — makes it altogether too easy for us to think we are faithful to a good many beliefs, without ever having to put those beliefs on the line and see if we can act them out.
Thus, we may say that we are concerned about the poor, but how do we actually react to the poor people whom we meet? Or, we may say that we do not judge by outward appearances but when we are walking down the street at night would our reaction to running into a group of preppie white kids differ from our reaction to a group of thugged out black kids? Or, we say that we have faith that God will take care of us, but have we ever deliberately put ourselves in a situation when we had nothing and nobody to fall back on except God? I’ve done that — put myself in a situation where I was forced to rely concretely and financially on God — and I quickly learned that my faith was almost non-existent! Like Peter seeing Jesus on the water, I had enough faith to get out of the boat, take a few steps… and then I began to drown. Would I have known that my faith was so small if I had never gotten out of the boat? No.
We only truly come to know ourselves, and we only truly discover what we in fact believe (and not just what we tell ourselves we believe) as we enter into relationships with others, and especially with others who are different than ourselves. Just as we are not who we appear to be, we are also not who we think we are. Who we are is contained in what we do.