Gandhi, the Laundry Room, & Me: Breaking the Barrier Between Sacred and Secular
In April of 2011, I was doing laundry in my apartment building when I noticed a dog-eared copy of Time Magazine someone had left on a table next to the washing machines. The cover featured a man staring intently, hands arched in prayer, the headline “No Hell? Pastor Rob Bell Angers Evangelicals” strewn across the top. It seemed a curious topic for Time to be bothering with, especially as a cover story, so I picked it up and began reading as I waited for my clothes to finish tumbling around in the dryer.
What interested me most wasn’t the fact that a group of religious people were up in arms about something (albeit my religious group, as I do identify as a Christian), nor was it surprising that some pastor might dare to question the existence of hell (hasn’t everyone had that same question at one time or another?). What caught my attention was the opening story of how a member of Bell’s congregation created a piece of artwork with a quotation from Gandhi in it. Some passing observer had stuck a post-it note above the Gandhi quote that read, “Reality check: He’s in hell.”
The vision of this scene struck me and I began to fume inside my already steaming laundry room. Was this post-it-wielding individual happy in their assumption that Ghandi was going to hell? I wondered. Its phrasing felt triumphant in a way. Boastful, even.
But then I realized I might be the one jumping to conclusions and making rash judgments about a person I had never met or seen. A person who had a lot more to his or her story than one solitary post-it note could ever tell.
I calmed myself down and attended to the beeping dryer. Hot air hit my face as I opened the door and began the methodical rhythm of sorting and folding, folding and sorting. My mind kept reeling as my hands worked, and soon a moment of clarity came: yes, I was frustrated by the suggestion that Gandhi was going to hell (a subject I won’t even begin to tackle), but it was more than that. Making such a statement simultaneously rendered the words of Gandhi as obsolete. In other words, the bigger implication of the post-it was that if Gandhi was going to hell, we no longer needed to concern ourselves with what he had to say.
And that type of thinking, friends, is dangerous. And it’s tragic. And it’s limiting, and it’s something that seems to be happening more and more on the Internet, in the political realm, and across college campuses nationwide. In a country that champions free speech, we’ve elected to stop listening anytime someone challenges our viewpoints or says something offensive.
It seems the same impulse that leads us to classify and draw lines in the sand with people, also leads us to do it with art and culture. In the world of academia, distinctions are made between high art and pop culture. In Christianity, we categorize our lives and activities into that which is sacred or holy, and that which is secular or worldly. John Mark Comer, a pastor in Portland, Oregon wrote about this practice in a piece for Relevant Magazine.
He discussed the temptation to assume people are only doing something holy when they pray, sing worship, or go to church. Yet, he argues, that is a limiting way to think about life because the majority of our lives aren’t spent at church. They are spent working, eating, cleaning, sitting in traffic, watching television. Comer believes God can still be found in those mundane activities, and if He is in them, perhaps His presence makes them sacred.
Comer writes, “Jesus didn’t buy into sacred/secular thinking. To Him, life is a seamless, integrated, holistic experience where the sacred is all around us . . . This is why we have to go to war with sacred/secular ideology—because it compartmentalizes God.”
What if God is just waiting for us to stop compartmentalizing Him, stop limiting our own potential, so that He can speak to us -- through whatever and whomever He chooses?
Here is both my question and my challenge: What if we embraced all of life, all of culture, and everyone we meet as equally fertile ground for God to speak to us, to teach us, and to show us his wisdom and grace? What if we watched and listened and allowed ourselves to be enchanted by the world around us? I think we would notice God speaking through secular movies and music and political speeches, and you name it, really. We’d be surprised by what we can learn through Christians and non-Christians alike.
What if we also heeded the words of writer Andrew Solomon, who states, “The worst mistake anyone can make is to perceive anyone else as lesser. The deeper you look into other souls . . . the clearer people’s inherent dignity becomes.”
My automatic reaction to the post-it writer was to dehumanize him or her, to denounce this person as mean-spirited and narrow-minded and therefore, not worthy to be heard. I failed to perceive that person’s human dignity because I felt offended.
But here is my “reality check”: offense is not going to kill me. It really isn't. If anything, it may even make me stronger if I choose to dig deeper into why I feel offended and what I truly believe. Opposition has a way of sharpening convictions, although the process isn’t always fun or comfortable. But maybe we need that? Maybe we need to learn how to be uncomfortable, to stand next to someone who thinks differently than we do and to honor their story, recognize their humanity, and be humble enough to learn from them.
Do you have to agree with every single thing someone says? Of course not. But it’s equally absurd to throw the baby out with the bath water because someone made one comment that rubs you the wrong way. Why not take everything in stride and just keep listening? Allow yourself to be offended from time to time, to have your opinions challenged. In a recent radio call-in show on NPR, one listener responded to the demands for political correctness on college campuses by stating, “If you make it through 4-5 years of college without being offended, you should demand your money back.”
Why? Because opposition can be our greatest teacher. It can be a blessing, not a curse, but we have to be open and confident enough to recognize it. We have to rewire our brains to not feel threatened by it, to be at peace with our own faults and fallibility, so we can be more accepting of other people’s faults and ultimately be free enough to take ourselves less seriously.
If I were to write my own post-it in response, I would start by giving Gandhi a voice. Perhaps the following quote by him will do: “Jesus lived and died in vain if he did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love.”