“So he went and washed and he came back seeing” (John 9:7b).
In this story from John’s Gospel, Jesus put spit and mud on a blind man’s eyes. Then he instructed the man, still blind and with mud on his face, to go to the pool of Siloam to wash. The man obediently did as he was told, and his sight was restored.
It’s easy to read the first seven verses in John 9 and quickly move past the sequence and seriousness of the events that transpired. We know from verse 8 that this man made a living by begging for money. It’s likely that he had grown accustomed to a particular spot in town and a liturgical routine to provide for himself. There may have been some consistent folks who greeted him or dropped coins in his cup. For him to wander blindly towards the pool of Siloam was an act of courage. To do so meant that he had to leave behind everything that had become familiar and comfortable and find his way to the pool. It was also an act of humility. He was willing to admit that this awkward journey to the pool with mud on his face was more than worth it if it led to him receiving sight.
Perhaps this is an unusual text to use as we commemorate the life and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. But I am reminded of his exhortation to the Civil Rights movement when he wrote the immortal words to the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. This letter is a true masterpiece and deserves to be read and reread again and again.
In the letter Dr. King describes four steps to be taken before engaging in non-violent action. We must keep in mind that these steps for civil rights activists occurred when dogs were unleashed on innocent people, police brutalized peaceful protestors, firehoses leveled crowds, and the KKK committed grotesque acts of domestic terrorism. Dr. King’s first step involved determining the facts of a matter, and the second entailed negotiating with those who have sinned against you. But before inviting the civil rights activists to engage in peaceful protest (the fourth and final step), Dr. King told them they must take the third step and enter a phase of “self-purification.” Before they peacefully confronted the overt and obvious racist mud being slung at them daily, they must first go to the pool of Christ’s grace and wash the more covert mud of bitterness and retaliation that could lurk in the recesses of their hearts.
In other words, Dr. King understood that none of us can claim to accurately see and address the evil around us until we first take action to find and deal with the evil within ourselves.
Today we are as tribalized as ever. The political, racial, socioeconomic, and denominational lines in the sand are stark and striking. The air is thick with rage and accusation. Instead of being quick to listen and slow to anger, we are quick to Tweet and hasty to cancel. We may not march or protest as much, but our fingers are quick to mobilize words, craft replies, share content, ostracize our detractors, and rally our people. Social media activity, daily conversations, and cancellations are direct actions in 2022. We do these things to stand for what we believe and to silence our opponents. But unlike Dr. King’s steps towards forming a lasting peace, most of our actions today are creating a greater polarity. Sadly, many of our children are becoming increasingly exposed to these tensions at our dinner tables, our home groups, and occasionally even at our church services. The fractures within the body create confusion and sadness for our young people.
We are tribalized in large part because we need a contingency of like-minded and like-hearted people to validate our views, to facilitate an echo chamber for our thoughts, and to protect us from the ire of the other tribes. These spaces become our places of comfort and safety. In addition to conversing and communing with other who align with our beliefs, we also lean into routines of scouring our favorite news sites and attuning our ears to podcasts that affirm our views. Like the blind man in John 9, we huddle on the same corner each day because it was what we know and it’s where we feel secure and known. And from that space, if we aren’t careful, we can begin to criticize, compartmentalize, and even condemn others from a position of blindness.
We must remember that Jesus urged all of us to take heed and worry far more about the planks in our own eyes before we concerned ourselves with the speck of dust in our neighbor’s (Matt. 7:3). Paul, with all his own extraordinary spiritual insight, claimed that on our best days we are only seeing as through a blurry glass (I Cor. 13:12). David recognized that he couldn’t “discern his errors” and then asked the Lord to “declare him innocent of hidden faults.” He also asked the Lord, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts. And see if there be any grievous way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24). In all these passages we see that we are crippled with spiritual blindness. The initial and primary problem is the face in the mirror. Until we deal with that first, we aren’t in a position to opine, teach, or exhort.
Later in John 9, Jesus reserved his harshest words for the Pharisees who were critical that he had healed the blindman on a sabbath. Jesus said, “If you were blind, you have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains’” (v.41).
The Pharisees, like many of us, claimed that they had it all figured out. They took direct action to interrogate the man who was formerly blind as well as his parents. Disgusted with the healed man’s answers, they excommunicated him from the temple (v. 34). All of this was done without a moment of reflection or self-purification. They were unwilling to leave their comfortable space of authority and power. They refused to address the mud in their own hearts or to admit that they too battled with blindness in their own way. With arms crossed they refused to wash in Christ’s grace and mercy. Their sin and their blindness remained.
In 2022, in a world rife with disunity, we must be people who reconsider the wisdom of Dr. King. We should devote more time to really digging into and digesting facts – facts as they relate to radioactive issues including: American history, racial tension, Christian nationalism, poverty, politics, justice, and the gospel. We must willingly enter negotiation and conversation with people who disagree with us, and we should do so from a posture of meekness and with a willingness to listen and learn. This means that we need diverse relationships – ethnically, politically, and socioeconomically. It’s important for the next generation to see that we are committed to diversity and that we don’t gain all our friendships, insights, theology, political suasion, and community from a homogenous echo chamber.
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), if after steps one and two we feel we must take direct action to address a grievance, promote a policy, rally for a truth, or confront an injustice, we must first allow our Savior to address the eyes of our hearts and locate the mud that resides there. We must go to him and let him search our hearts and analyze our motives. We must allow him to bathe us in the waters of his grace and mercy.
As we, like the blind man, “come back seeing,” we can pursue action from a humbled and open-hearted posture that is far more concerned with winning a brother than it is with merely winning an argument.