© 2015 Robert Osburn
International student ministry beckoned me 30 years ago: Help international students discover Jesus and why He deserves their devotion. I had no idea that I would re-discover my own country—America—by seeing it through their eyes.
One of my earliest discoveries about America, as seen through the eyes of international students, concerned our treatment of senior citizens. Our Colombian graduate friend Germano was appalled that we would dare institutionalize those who had given us birth and sacrificed to raise us. He was by no means the last international student to express shock at our nursing homes for the aged. The point is that, until then, I hadn’t truly comprehended how that practice looks to others.
Every time I travel internationally (as I did recently to Northeast India), I’m also alerted to how others perceive US foreign policy. To see our government through others’ eyes does not contradict my patriotism as a US citizen, but makes me much more aware of how our policies can be perceived to harm or help others.
For example, one very troubling issue in US foreign policy concerns our State Department’s aggressive advocacy of the rights of gays and lesbians. Without question, homosexuals deserve fair and just treatment as fellow image-bearers of God. But, US government policy, especially in view of the current administration’s open advocacy of same-sex marriage in the US, alienates and offends those abroad who may otherwise share our national commitments. Through their eyes, our call for treating homosexuals with dignity is a call to welcome immoral behavior and gay marriage. Thus, Russian President Putin openly (and cynically) declares that Russia is a spiritual nation where Western moral degeneracy is not welcome. Russian citizens reward him with their loyalty, in part because he appeals to their sense of moral outrage over this aspect of US foreign policy.
So, as a Christian who travels and speaks abroad, I have to carefully nuance US government policy through a Christian lens: Yes, all human beings deserve respect for their humanity; but, no, many of us completely disagree with an advocacy that appears to endorse immoral behavior.
Why should we aspire to see through others’ eyes? Lest I am misunderstood, I am in no way suggesting that this capacity ought to necessarily change our beliefs or commitments. It can do so, but that’s not the main point. The first and primary reason to see through other’s eyes is to better know reality as it really is. Our fallibility (sinfulness) and finitude limit our knowledge of the truth about reality. Since we are designed to be truth-seekers, then we should welcome the added knowledge that comes from others’ vantage points.
Imagine the hunt for a new car. You land on a make and model, and not only that, you make deal with a salesman. From all you can see, you are buying the best car made for the price negotiated. But, then you meet an assembly line worker who helps put this make and model together in a local factory. He says, “Oh, if only you saw what I see in the factory—the hidden shoddy workmanship—you’d never own this car!” Having learned the truth about the car through his eyes, you wisely find another make and model.
A second benefit of seeing though others’ eyes is that it very often motivates us to behave better than we would otherwise. Because of our foreign student friends, we have had to think long and hard about institutionalizing our aged parents. In essence, it is as if our international student friends help us to comprehend an aspect of morality as God sees it. They help open our fallible, finite moral eyes. To have resisted their insights would have dangerously implied that we see all of life as God sees it (a very foolish presumption).
A third and final benefit is that it builds bridges for the Gospel with other human beings from whom we are otherwise alienated. I think this is is what the Apostle Paul was getting at when he advised the early church to “to be all things to all people.” The Message wonderfully paraphrases I Corinthians 9:19-23 this way:
Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view [my emphasis]. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.
“Experiencing things from their point of view” means that we try to imaginatively enter their lives in order to know where Jesus Christ can most deeply touch them. I call this “imaginative understanding.”
Knowing the truth about reality as it really is, enhancing our moral life, and building bridges for the Gospel though imaginative understanding are three powerful reasons for being willing to see life through the eyes of another. As I suggested in a recent blog, the failure to do so is a particular problem for American liberals, but many of the rest of us may also share similar failures.
If God opens the door of your life to someone from another culture or worldview, welcome that open door. You never know how that encounter may not only bless them, but it may also change your life as you learn to see through their eyes.
 In no way am I suggesting that it is always immoral for seniors to enter nursing homes. In many cases, it can be the more compassionate of other less desirable options for their final years of life.
Thanks for this blog, I have often thought of this topic for followers of Jesus – how do OTHERS view us? And is there a better story than the one so frequently offered. The power of media is great for both political and religious purposes; the true nature of things can easily be obscured.
Hi Bob, great thoughts on how others around the world might view Jesus, a preoccupation of mine in the past 10 years as I traced Marco Polo’s steps cross the Old Silk Road.