A couple years back I was riding a taxi through the Sahara during a terrible sandstorm on what should’ve been a one-way road (but wasn’t) with zero visibility. There were seven of us crammed into the taxi, a rundown Mercedes Benz, and the driver had what appeared to be the early stages of glaucoma in at least one eye. Despite that, he was going sixty or so, and my fellow passengers looked around nervously and held on tight. But no one did or said anything.
This was the kind of almost-gravel road giant trucks roared down carrying, no joke, bales of hay stacked easily fourteen feet high, but from the taxi all you could see was brown sand which was beginning to pour in through the closed windows making it difficult to breathe. I decided to break the cultural norm and speak up – “Brother, could you slow it down. I don’t want to die today. This is dangerous.” The driver protested that “God would take care of us,” implying an almost fatalistic notion that “what will be will be.” As though our salvation or damnation in this moment rested entirely on God. I responded, “God gave you a brain to use, so slow down.” The car lit up. The other passengers smiled and nodded and one reached back to shake my hand as if to congratulate me on making a funny. It was as if they were thankful someone decided to break the cultural norm.
I thought that fatalism was unique to Morocco at first, a kind of cultural difference where God was sometimes used as a way of shucking responsibility to care for ourselves or others. In fairness, while this mentality pervaded in some ways, it was countered in others, as Moroccan hospitality far outweighed the hospitality I’d ever been shown in America’s southern states.
But recently, I got a taste of the very same fatalism, or perhaps American apathy while waiting for the train one morning in Bloomfield:
A homeless man dressed in rags and donning a white Santa Claus beard came sauntering along the train platform mumbling something about Andre the Giant. He hovered dangerously close to the edge preaching about how great Andre had been. People watched. But no one acted.
The man walked away from the platform and stumbled toward it again. There was this tension you could feel as passengers watched nervously, then looked away. It reminded me of one of those demotivational posters that says, “When it’s everybody’s responsibility, it’s nobody’s responsibility.”
The train bells rang and a light glimmered off the rails. There were several people standing near the guy as he hovered closer to the edge, and it was clear he was going to be hit by the train if he didn’t fall off the tracks first. I walked by the unmoved people swiftly and grabbed the man from behind putting my hands on his shoulders and lightly nudging him along as I said, “Hey buddy, let’s walk over this way a little.” Not three seconds later the train whooshed by me, and people exchanged glances and nodded toward me as if to imply their appreciation that someone stepped in just in the nick of time.
The guy paid me absolutely no attention, and he stumbled off in the distance. Fearing he would stumble again after I got on the train to Penn station, I grabbed a conductor and pointed him out.
On the train, I was shaking, and a kind of mini anxiety attack ensued. I was disgusted by how I smelled. One brush with someone who is homeless, and their smell seems to rub off on you and linger. That distinctive, memorable odor is the same we all have just after we wake up. It’s perfectly natural. And it’s strong enough that even writing this my mind conjures up the smell out of nowhere. But when it’s from someone who is homeless it feels foreign despite being the same.
As I sat in disgust, I was even more upset with myself that my takeaway in this crazy moment wasn’t that a human being, my fellow brother, had just avoided death or injury but how he nevertheless reeked of “death.” I was disgusted by my own distaste for poverty, itself a kind of damning death in this life – our own “walking dead.” I was disgusted I was actually upset with myself that I chose to step in and disgusted that no one else had. I wonder even now, what does it say of our country that the poor or the mentally ill so disgust us?
Even now, having had time to process it all, it’s strange to me that a perfectly normal human smell could so disgust anyone, and I’m driven to believe it’s actually my own fear of real, human pain and death – something I and none of the other passengers wanted to confront – that was what truly irked me. We so loathe to see and face the suffering of others that it has become easier for us to hate someone (or, perhaps better stated, to hate ourselves vicariously through another) than to ease their pain or step up and act when we know there’s a chance no one else will.
And yet, there has never been a time in America where stepping up and acting, where calling out injustice, where confronting our fears of suffering – our own and others – has been more crucial, more dire. God may indeed “take care,” I suppose you could argue, but that cannot be our excuse, and what good is our belief in God at all if we won’t act mercifully in some sacred name because of that belief – and not just as individuals but as a collective, organized society?
There is this belief that has plagued American Christianity for far too long that eternal salvation hinges on some surface-level acceptance of Jesus as Savior. But how meaningless is accepting Jesus if we aren’t as concerned with salvation in this life as we are with salvation in the next? If the poor are disgusting to us now (or, if we’re disgusted in our fear of having to confront their suffering), what happens when we must face our own poverty, our own death, the nakedness of our life’s end? A man on the brink of ashes is already where we will all one day end up. Either we face our own death and suffering through the suffering of others here, now, in this life – fearless and faithful to love them as they are and love ourselves in them, or we will face that suffering tenfold “with weeping and gnashing of teeth” when we discover in our last days that we have failed to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and, in so doing, have failed to ‘keep’ or save ourselves, as well.
God gave you a brain, so use it. This universe has gifted you with hands and feet and opposable thumbs and hearts as much for today as for tomorrow. Put them to use! This world, this nation, has gifted you privilege of the highest degree that many don’t have so use it to lift them up, to empower them to their own divine rights, not to keep the status quo to the benefit of your own ‘tribe.’ We are all saved, in some form or another, but if we cannot or will not use that reality to ‘save’ others by lightening their load, easing their burden, then our salvation will be rendered null and void at least in this life, and one would think that has to carry over to the next.
In the meantime, if you find yourself in a Mercedes-Benz in a sandstorm or by the train tracks on a brisk morning staring down your own death in someone else’s, you’re not alone in this no matter how lonely you might feel. So take heart and fear not. God will take care – if you do.