The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.
Prelude: The Blindfold Removed
The world is deceived. You can see it from corrupt fiscal systems to a new rise in nationalism. Recently, my immigrant friends in NYC had their world turned upside down by the travel ban. Simultaneously, some conservative Christian friends felt their world become safe again. There are many examples of communities and individuals set against one another and unwittingly against themselves. A systemic lie has infused itself into our world and into our lives. In this blog, I will share how an Iranian Muslim played an important role in my own delivery from this pervasive lie. But first let us look at an important question.
What initial step will woo us from the systemic lie?
A lie which envelopes our world and taints our ontology must first be introduced to its captives. The blindfold needs removal. Romans 7 provides a description of how the lie functions in individuals. It is as pervasive as the air people breathe. A simple message is spread: “I” can be God and or “we” can be God.
Self-Actualization is just around the corner; progressivism’s utopia is nigh. I am just one more accomplishment away. We are just one more policy from victory. My self is nearly forced into submission. The victims are close to delivery and we have silenced the others.
I will save myself. We will save ourselves.
“I” will find peace in power, states the man willing himself to change. “We” will find peace in silence, chants the group tired of objections. If “we” silence the others, dissonance will be gone, and the harmony of isolation achieved.
At this point the collective “we” has taken up the same painful agonistic struggle of the isolated “I” as both the deceived individual and the collective “we” seek the same goal. The goal is to silence the cries of injustice or difference and to speak their own preferred reality into existence.
The lie generates alienation from God and others. It creates isolation from self and instills an empty silence from which only emptier vessels are propagated.
It comes to its zenith in the form of genocides, xenophobia, wealth hoarding and more. Through individual lips it speaks, “I don’t need you.” Through a plentitude of lips it speaks, “we don’t need them.” Both of which imply none of us need God. We begin to believe in “speaking” a superior world into being. I, or we, can be God, creators of our own safety and power.
How do we overcome the subtle pervasiveness of this lie?
Certainly, being aware is helpful. But its deception is so systemic, so cunning, we need more than intellectual understanding. We need our intellect to bring us to practice.
If the “I” is damned by its own isolation and the collective “we” is damned by its willing alienation, then the surprising savior of those deceived is, in fact, the “other.”
It is only in a face to face meeting with the other that a person (the “I”), might see his reflection as through a mirror provided by the different other. The group of an alienated “we” loses its appeal. No longer bound to homogeneity, the adjusted reality includes the “I” and the other.
Acknowledgment of the other by necessity requires either reconciliation or annihilation.
Enticed individuals and groups believe in an ability to speak forth reality as God does. It is exactly the presence of the other which disturbs the fantastical ambitions of the “I” or the alienated “we.” A choice must be made about this disruptive other, annihilation or reconciliation?
Through inviting the disruptive other into the alienated “we” it is possible for the group to begin reconciling with the other, begin its escape from systemic deceit and thereby find reconciliation with God’s larger reality.
How exactly does the “other” play into our salvation from the lie?
The following story describes how an Iranian “other” functioned first as a disruptive other and then as a savior–a liberator. In this story, the reader will be introduced to a practice which effectively delivers us from the systemic lie of this world.
Practicing it is nearly impossible if you have not met the other, made eye contact with and talked to the other. Experiencing truth syphons the lie from your own perception of reality. Meeting a wider reality in the flesh is disturbing. Truth’s efficacy is not in remote words but in an intelligible encounter with the other. This story describes how I met face to face with the other and in that meeting discovered an age old salvific practice.
The Story: Roopya my Iranian-Muslim friend and disruptive other
Roopya is from Iran. He is a twenty-five-year-old graduate student at Columbia University and thinks of himself as a nominal Muslim. When I first met Roopya at a Manhattan library in 2014, I understood him to be a Muslim student from the foreboding country of Iran and in need of English speaking instruction. In my mind, Roopya needed to enter Jesus’ kingdom as soon as possible.
Two months later my primary understanding of Roopya was not as a Muslim student in need of immediate salvation but simply as my Muslim friend. In fact, his otherness quickly began to point to the log in my eye and the deception within my small world.
For example, Roorya seemed to be content with his life in Iran and optimistic about Iran’s future. I commented, “Iran doesn’t sound half bad from what you say. But I have grown up hearing Iran is a country bent toward ill will and other negative things.”
Roopya shared with me, “In my country we are taught to fear America and told that when our nuclear scientists are killed America is behind the killings.”
My country’s paranoia and propaganda in view of his country’s propaganda created a profound mirror for reflection.
Roopya became for me the disturbing other messing up my picture of reality. This new image included Roopya within my reality. It beckoned me to either adjust and make room for the “other” or steep my mind in further deceit, denial and acquiescence to the world’s violence. If I chose denial, I would be choosing to opt into the systemic lie, believing I could create an alternative world with no other.
Roopya’s life would not allow me to easily step back into the lie. Meeting Roopya–a kind, goofy and intelligent young man–challenged me to accept the reality of an other who was much more than an Iranian, Muslim or elite academic. This other was a person, who shares many dreams, hopes and desires that I do. He is an other who loves a whole host of people in Iran on the other side of the world.
Roopya My Brother
Early in 2015 my friendship with Roopya brought more changes. He had simply become my brother. All Identity markers were gone. My fixation on bringing Roopya to Christ was gone. Roopya’s distinct otherness had broken into my own chamber of silence, where I would speak to myself, or among like-minded people, about my ailments and the maladies of the world–an image akin to Romans 7. It is an image devoid of intelligible conversation for it is in denial of God’s wider reality. But Roopya’s distinct presence shattered the monolithic culture of small town America in which I had dwelt for so long.
Roopya’s bare personhood injected new colors, people, words and thought into my reality. The new things required me to reconstruct my comprehension of reality. My old reality understood people need Christ, aid and love. But the terms and language of that reality was set for me by middle class American and evangelical Christianity. My new friendship forced me to reconcile this reality with a reality which understood Iranians as decent people, not merely a nation on a map.
In this new reality, U.S.A. sanctions on Iran could result in unjust hardship or despair for my Iranian friend.
In this new reality, Muslim Iranians uphold the commandment to respect the elderly at a much higher level than the average American Christian.
In this new reality, Muslims are thought of as people first and their religious life is defined as they describe it on their terms— not by a world religions class.
In this new reality, some Muslims lead lives of integrity far outpacing the integrity of American Christians.
Roopya as Deliverer
In this new reality, the other became a functional savior.
The other saved me through breaking the barriers of ignorance and paternalistic self-righteousness.
The other saved and humbled me by demonstrating a level of dignity I thought only possible among Christians.
The other saved me by teaching me to love a diverse world of people and cultures.
The other saved me by asking me to hear the cries and laughter of the wider world.
Indeed, it was the other who acted as a clear mirror by which to see myself and a clearer lens by which to see reality. I knew a lot of others while living in NYC. The others originated from Yemen, Iran, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and China.
Every one of those others had funny stories to tell and family whom they cherished deeply. They also had fears, desire for safety and belonging. Most of them disliked a certain group of people. Overall, their virtues outweighed their vices and even more important their virtues found deep resonance within my own heart.
Originally, I went to the other with the gospel of Jesus out of a desire to serve and with a sense of duty. But I was gifted with a grateful heart for the liberation I received…at the hands of the other. The liberation to see myself in the context of a global world as opposed to homogenous suburban America. The liberation to step closer into the wide world of people whom Christ loves. The liberation to see that in the other–despite all of his vast differences– I see myself, and in that fleeting union I see clearly for the first time the way of Christ.
Roopya’s example demonstrates how liberation occurs. When Roopya’s identity markers became no more than incidental, something happened: he became my brother. And as we learned to embrace one another we each became increasingly aware of the wider world, increasingly complete and increasingly human.
Embracing the Other as Savior
We participated in the practice which clears away the systemic deceit of this world. The deceit which says “we” are God and by necessity there is an excluded other. What did Roopya and I practice? We practiced: embracing the other.
As I embraced the other it was the difficult exercise of embracing Roopya that made true gospel sharing possible. I learned to see him as he was and not as I perceived him to be. I was forced to be reconciled with our differences.
Even more so, I had to reconcile with our similarities. Only when I saw myself in his eyes could I begin sharing good news. In other words, only when I could see him as nothing more or less than an equal person could I offer Him the peace of Christ.
Through humbly embracing Roopya as a person, I simultaneously embraced Roopya and Jesus’ cross. Roopya’s witness, his otherness, drew out my own darkness and embracing him meant embracing my personal need to take up the cross anew. When I embraced Roopya, Christ embraced me in return.
Conversely, my otherness provided Roopya with the challenge of including a Christ follower in his perception of reality. He had to account for my faith and desire to love “others” in the name of Jesus.
Herein lay salvation from the systemic lie: we must all, personally and collectively embrace the other as Jesus did. Christ did so to the point of the cross, nonviolently bearing the gulf between the other and in his subsequent resurrection Christ provided a new way.
Embracing the other must happen in real space and time and on a name to name, face to face basis. Only then will the heavy fog of systemic deception begin its retreat from our lives and communities.
For Roopya and myself embracing each other created a peaceful and safe environment by which Roopya could consider Christ as savior. The Christ who commands us to love the other.
Perhaps, not so we can “save” the other but so that by loving our enemy we might be saved.
(Dr. Paul Axton, Mirslov Volf and work with Global City Mission Initiative all deserve credit for influencing the ideas in this blog.)