04/24/2013 05:10 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

Just Looking

It sounds strange, somewhat on the line between irony and absurdity,
to think that people would rather label and judge something as significant as each other but completely bypass a peanut...

World peace is only a dream because people won't allow themselves
and others around them to simply be peanuts.
We won't allow the color of a man's heart
to be the color of his skin,
the premise of his beliefs,
and his self-worth.
We won't allow him to be a peanut,
therefore we won't allow ourselves to come to live in harmony.

-- Erin Gruwell "The Freedom Writers Diary" From Diary 18

"I have no idea what you see in him," I remarked to a colleague. "You need to look out, he is a weasel of a man, and he's only going to use you and take advantage of your trust!"

On reflection, I am not even sure that my observation was correct, but I know that in one brief instant I completely dismissed a fellow human being based on the very limited knowledge and interaction I'd had with him. Partly my perception was based on what I'd heard from others, partly on the appearance of the man, and partly by the way in which he talked and acted. I began to see him as a "weasel," and that is how I described him. "Weasel" was more than just a label; it was what I saw when I looked at him and every time I thought of him.

We all tend to do this, to a greater or lesser degree, when we make judgments about people who irritate or disgust us, antagonize or threaten us, and about groups of people we simply do not find attractive or appealing. During the past several weeks I've become poignantly aware of how I look at people and the range of positive and negative judgments that I make without so much as actually getting to know them as individual human beings.

I wonder if how I look at people and what I think of them has any relationship to justice in the world. When I look at people and make judgments about them in the privacy of my thoughts, am I just looking at them or is my looking and my judgment really just? Do my silent judgments about another person contribute to their worth and dignity or result in diminishing them as persons, even if it is only in my own regard and attitude toward them? I am all too aware of the fact that I tend to disdain certain people and keep my distance from them because of the way they carry on. And I diminish the value of other people because I find their politics, religion or lack thereof, or sexual orientation bothersome. And in my mind I write off the value of people who are unseemly obese, loud, pushy or who noisily eat with open mouths and slurp their soup.

Of course, all of these are only little things compared to how our society generally looks at pimps and perverts, enemy combatants and terrorists, beggars and addicted gamblers. The sentiments we carry either all add up to affirm the human worth and dignity of those persons or put down their personhood and humanity.

Jesus taught that every single human being has worth, because just like you and me, everyone exists by design of the Creator and is cherished by God. The worth and dignity of a person is not derived from race, gender, strength of character, productivity, civility, ability, nobility, neither from any other attribute or way of living. On numerous occasions Jesus made this point by looking up at those persons most looked down upon by society. On one occasion leaders of the moral and religious establishment confronted him with a woman whom they had caught "red-handed" in an immoral act. Surrounded by accusations and judgments she cowered before the insults and the 'put downs' of the men around her. But Jesus didn't join their ranks; instead he knelt on the ground and wrote in the dust with his finger. It is not recorded what he wrote, perhaps that was not important at all -- for what man of his stature would ever kneel on the ground in front of a "dirty" woman. But he did kneel down in breaking rank with those who looked down on her, and in doing so he looked up at her and affirmed her as a beloved daughter of the Father. She was loved by God for who she was, undiminished by where the misfortunes or the lust of life had taken her.

On yet another occasion Jesus was surrounded by a curious and admiring crowd of people who were eager to hear and see him. Outside their circle was a wee "weasel" of a man called Zacchaeus (pure one) who lived like anything but his name. He was a tax-collector, a Roman collaborator who had sold out loyalty to his own people for the sake of power and gain. They regarded him as a despicable and shameless tax-collector. Being small of stature and smaller yet in the eyes of the people, there was no way that such a scurrilous person could edge his way among them to see Jesus. As the story continues Zacchaeus, eschewing his personal dignity climbed a tree to be able to see over their heads. As the crowd, with Jesus in their midst, walked by that tree, Jesus stopped, looked up at that little weasel of a man everyone else had been looking down on, and addressed him by name: "Zacchaeus, hurry down! I want to stay with you today." Zacchaeus was utterly amazed by Jesus' affirmation, but the people were incensed that Jesus would treat such a weasel of a man with any dignity at all.

There is a lesson in these stories, for in looking down on others we fail to see how small we are. But in looking up at others, looking at people graciously and justly, nourishes the human dignity and worth of others as well as our own.

Don't pick on people,

jump on their failures,

criticize their faults -

unless, of course, you want the same treatment.

That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging.

It's easy to see a smudge on your neighbor face

and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own.

Do you have the nerve to say, 'Let me wash your face for you,'

when your own face is distorted by contempt?

It's this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again,

Playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part.

Wipe that ugly sneer of your own face,

and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

-- Mathew 7: 1-5 (The Message)