Monday, December 21, 2015

What is this image selling?

It wouldn't do to have a lingerie ad at the top of the blog over Christmas, so let's consider this image.

I'm guessing that's New York City and that it was taken by a highly skilled photographer, probably a professional. Someone, somewhere, probably owns the rights to this. It showed up in my Facebook feed courtesy of a group called Do Something. Perhaps it is their photo. More than 29 thousand people had liked it by the time it showed up in my feed.

It's nicely composed. Most of us, I know I would, would try to compose the picture so as not to have the reflection of the city and the passing person in the shot. The genius of this shot is that this person is in and that they are anonymous. You can tell nothing about them.

But what is it selling? Normally, I'd be cynical. As near as I can tell, Do Something are the business of helping people to feel morally superior without doing much to earn it. But there are hidden depths here.

Let's start with the Gospel.
Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink. And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked an gave you clothing. And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? Matthew 25: 37-39)
As one of my favourite Dominicans likes to remind us, this teaching precludes all instrumentality. The people whom the King welcomes into his kingdom are just as surprised to be included as the people whom he will later reject are surprised to learn that they rejected him. That means that you can't know who to befriend if you want to befriend Jesus. It may seem perfectly obvious that the starving kid in Africa is  the person you should comfort but perhaps it's actually comfortably well-off co-worker you don't much like who is having a bad day for reasons you believe are entirely his fault. That means, as the Gospel so often reminds us, that you can't earn your way into heaven.

So what can you do?

I'd start by going back to that photo and quibbling about the word. Character is not a way of acting but a way of being. How you treat those who can do nothing for you is a sign of character; it is a marker for character. But it is not character. Character is something you are. Or, to be more honest, it is something I am trying to become.

You can't treat others well in order to be a become a better person. If you try that, you will be used, exploited and abandoned. No, to acquire character, you have to believe that you could be something better. And what that something is was revealed in its fullest character beginning some 2019 and years ago when a child was born.

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