miss america and the great kaleidoscope

I was born in New York, a jewel of a million different glints of color. Growing up, it didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t look a lot like my classmates, and English wasn’t the language my parents and grandparents spoke at home. However, many of the kids in my school looked different, from all sorts of different racial and cultural backgrounds, and I learned that although we looked different, we were all somehow in the same boat.

But as I grew older, racism would rear its ugly head here and there. During recess in the third grade, a student told me to “go back to Mexico!” After the September 11th attacks, “Bin” (short for bin-Laden) became my nickname by a certain group of people in my school. While walking through West Campus late one night at the University of Texas at Austin, a car full of white boys driving by slowed down, shouted, “go home, sand nigger!” and sped off. And although these weren’t devastating insults, they reminded me that I looked different. That I was a minority.

Nina DavuluriNina Davuluri from New York was just crowned Miss America 2014, the first winner from Indian descent. Amid the celebration, many took to social media to express their outrage that a “real American” didn’t win. Hateful comments about her skin color, her ethnic heritage, religious background, cultural “voodoo” dance, and Indian stereotypes in general spread through the Twitter-sphere. Other ignorant comments called her Arabic, Muslim, and a part of al-Qaeda. Because, you know, if you’re brown, it’s all the same thing.

But the overwhelming sentiment among these racist tweets  is that she’s not really American. Her skin doesn’t look American. Her name doesn’t sound American. Her dance certainly wasn’t American. This is America, and colored people aren’t supposed to win American contests. In case you missed it, “American” is a race and ethnicity. Never mind the fact that this country was occupied long before the first Europeans ever sailed across the pond and “discovered” it. Look over the fact that my parents (and nearly every other colored immigrant to the United States) were looking for many of the same opportunities that every other immigrant from the last 300 years were looking for.

My initial reaction to seeing all this wasn’t anger, but sadness. When I began perusing through the Twitter profiles of some of the people who expressed their bigoted remarks, I couldn’t help but notice how normal they seemed. They looked like many of the people I went to school with, that I work with, that I’m neighbors with. Some of them even touted Bible verses or “Christian” labels. I don’t think most white Americans are racist, my experience has shown me otherwise, but I was reminded that bigotry and wickedness still remain in the land of the free and home of the brave. I was reminded that racism is common even among minority cultures like my own, where we would freeze and stiffen whenever a black person walked into our South Indian church. It’s a tragedy and distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ when racism exists in the church.

I was reminded that even though some of these xenophobic tweeters may have been exposed, my own heart is capable of overwhelming wickedness and prejudice. Sin is a universal curse.

But wickedness and prejudice and sin do not have to define us. The Bible reminds us that we’re all created in God’s image and that in Christ, we are part of a great, multi-cultural family where the thing that defines  us is the righteous, saving work of Jesus Christ. There is no place for prejudice in the Kingdom of God.

America certainly isn’t the Kingdom of God, but it is the country God has placed me in. I’m saddened at the ignorance and prejudice of a few people, but as an American, I dream of a better tomorrow. We are more than the Melting Pot of the West, we are the Great American Kaleidoscope. We are a mosaic made beautiful by the diversity of color and culture that make us up.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

-Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream”

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

-Revelation 7:9-10

Let’s not lash back in vitriolic hatred, but pray for our brothers and sisters and show grace in the face of hate. The gospel of reconciliation requires no less.

sheepish faith

Social media has become a place to forge your identity and have your own soapbox to shout from. Opinions on sports, culture, religion, society, Beyonce, dogs, technology, music, and belly button lint, they all litter my Facebook and Twitter timelines. I’ve learned to develop a filter for most of the content I see. But being a person deeply interested in religion, and especially Christianity, my eyes readily focus on those statuses and tweets pertaining to religious thoughts. For many of my friends (myself included), posting Christian quotes, thoughts, and Bible verses is part of the daily social media output. Twitter makes everyone a theologian in 140 characters or less.

And then there are the ones that aren’t so friendly or supportive of religion (or faith, if you prefer that term). Some people like to quote statistics or history or philosophy, and make the claim that belief in the supernatural is just plain silly and archaic.

Recently, I was perusing through the profiles of some old college friends (stalking is such a harsh word) and stumbled upon a guy I hadn’t talked to since my freshman year at UT. Every one of his statuses bashed Christianity and the implausibility of God. And then I saw his “Religious Views” section on his profile: “People are sheep.”

At first read, I was offended and judging him in all sorts of ways (in a Christ-like manner, of course). I mean, the guy was calling those who hold onto faith as mindless, dumb animals! Blindly following the crowd, mindlessly believing anything. As someone deeply rooted in faith and Jesus, this didn’t rub me the right way.

But the more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me the truth of this statement; we are sheep! Even the Bible testifies to this fact in that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one– to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6)

So my old friend is right, we are sheep! But it isn’t just those of us who are “religious” because even the irreligious and the atheists have been proven to be such. We’re self-absorbed and silly and prone to wander. We blindly set off on our own, breaking from the fold, and search for our own patches of green grass, our own streams of cool water, and whatever paths suit our fancy. We are willing to follow and be led astray by any wind of thought and any person of influence. I’m not an expert on sheep or daily pasture life, but it seems that when sheep wander too far, they usually encounter some kind of trouble, be it wolf, pit, or thief.

The tremendous irony of it all is that in the search of freedom and independence and greener pastures, the sheep is met with loneliness and death.

But all is not bleak, because we’re told there is a Shepherd to guide the sheep: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:1-3) How fitting that David the shepherd would write this psalm, understanding his own sheep-ways and need for guidance and leading and comfort. But not only does this Shepherd keep watch over His sheep, He also loves His sheep so much as to go after them when they stray away or are lost (Matthew 18:12-14). In the dry wilderness and in the lush pastures, the Shepherd protects and saves His sheep.

When we get to the Gospels, Jesus identifies Himself as this Shepherd when He says,  “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:14-15, 27-28) The Shepherd knows His sheep, and they (we) know Him as well because He is their (our) Shepherd. Our guide, the One we run to, who protects us, who lays His life down for us. And because we are His, despite our wanderings or our sheep-ish ways, we who are His will always be in His hand, in the protection of His rod, under His love. And if we are His sheep, He is the one we follow, giving up our need for independence and trusting in His goodness and provision.

But even more striking, this same Shepherd is also identified as a Lamb throughout Scripture. An innocent, perfect, spotless lamb that was sacrificed in the stead of guilty, spotted, imperfect sheep. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The Lamb that was slain, but is risen and reigns!

I am indeed a sheep. But I’m a sheep who follows his Shepherd. A Shepherd that is Himself the Lamb of God.

Who are you following?

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” –  Jesus (John 10:27-28)

“For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness.”  (Psalm 95:7-8)