First, I need to tell you about my friends.
Second, I need to talk to you about passports.
And last, I need to talk you about bearing witness.
In 2011, I transferred schools. I joined the ranks of the godless at Colorado Mesa University—a public university. Growing up in Christian education, there is an unspoken perspective—people in public schools don’t know who Jesus is, they don’t own Bibles, and they do not go to church. This perspective, at least for me, was never blatantly taught, yet was implicit in our conversations, programs, and “outreach.” They are not us. They are the other.
And that year I met a couple of them.
It’s true that in public universities, one does not need to take religious classes, and classes dealing with religion, of which there are few, are fundamentally different. That fall, I enrolled in the class Bible as Literature. To tell the truth, I was thrilled because I didn’t think this would be a religious class, or remotely spiritual. I was in it for the words. Not the word with a capital “W.” I wanted to learn the techniques ancient writers utilized—schemes, tropes, metaphors, similes. I would be amidst a crowd not interested in spiritual implications—but in a new and nuanced conversation.
Our textbooks included a book breaking down the history of the Bible—who wrote it, why, and how that influences how we read it—and the Bible itself. We had to purchase a copy of The Oxford Annotated Bible, which included the Apocrypha. The personalized NIV Bible I was given upon graduating high school, complete with my name engraved and thin, gold-trimmed pages, seemed silly for a class of this gravitas.
The first day of class changed my life.
Everyone sat in their desks, arranged in a semi-circle, discussion style. Two girls, I knew from other writing classes. The rest—not so much. Gazing around the room, I picked up something: out of a room of about twenty-five people, half had taken out their textbooks and Bibles, which were not The Oxford Annotated Bible, complete with the Apocrypha. Instead, half of these godless heathens had pulled out Bibles much like my own, but I had left mine at home.
And then, the teacher, standing at the front of the room, began class with the question, “What is the Bible?”
In my head, I answered, “A collection of books. An anthology. Great life advice.”
The professor went around the room, collecting answers. And without a hitch, about half the class, without a second thought said, “The Word of God,” or “The inspired Word of God.” Did these people not know who they were? Who they were supposed to be? Didn’t they know that they needed me?
Maybe everyone is more than we think they are.
See, I met many people that year who I’d been warned about. People who might do drugs. People who believed the Earth was really old. People who might not believe in God. And they were one hundred percent right, thank God.
I want to tell you about my friends I met that year:
In Creative Writing: Nonfiction class we interviewed and wrote a short piece on a partner. I interviewed Jordan. Jordan told me how he joined a band for a summer, played at parties, and drove out into the Utah desert, wondering whether he’d make it back. He told me about doing heroin and other hard substances. He was the best writer in class, talent and hard work molded together.
In the same class, was Eric. Eric wore glasses, but would still squint and fidget about while others would read their pieces. Then came his turn to read his piece, a piece titled Double Identity, inspired by the film Double Indemnity. It told the story of Eric’s early childhood, one steeped in darkness because he was born blind. He described seeing for the first time, his glasses, and why he still squinted. He’s brilliant—a creative tour de force.
And last is Jessica. Jessica and Jordan became friends, because like Jordan, Jessica had done heroin, and had been an addict, but in the past years she became sober. She wrote about the experience, painting as best she could her broken relationships, addiction, new found sobriety, and trying to find meaning in life again. She was honest, funny, and powerful.
They are the others. And we know them. We all know a Jordan, an Eric, and a Jessica. They are us—no better, no worse.
Now, I need to talk to you about passports.
I acquired my passport in 2006. With it, I have traveled to Costa Rica, Honduras, and Spain. Each country had one thing in common: people were different—economically, socially, culturally.
A passport opens a new line of communication. Let’s you see the world with a new pair of eyes.
Speaking at Soka University earlier this year, writer, speaker, and punk rocker Henry Rollins told an audience of young people the importance of the passport. Rollins has become known as a man who goes to countries that people tell him are dangerous. They tell him not to go to places like North Korea. Pakistan. Cuba. Iran. So, he goes.
He went to Haiti and met children in need of hugs and soccer balls. His state-mandated tour guide in Pyongyang, North Korea hugged him and asked if he could visit Rollins one day in Los Angeles. And in Tehran, Rollins smuggled in a terabyte hard drive full of music to a man who hadn’t heard The Beatles.
Rollins notes that travel can elevate you, equip you with knowledge, and that “with this elevation, you can hold it over people. You can use it for financial gain. Or you can use it to have the world be everything that you see. Someone who doesn’t look very far, their world is their town. The world is their area code. Their world is their family. I get that. [But] what if the world was your world?”
What if the world was your world? What if the people you’ve been told to stay away from came into your perspective? Would it be harder to judge? Would it be harder to hear others speak falsely against them? Would it be harder to bomb them?
Last, I need to talk to you about bearing witness.
I watched a film last night, Rosewater. Directed by Jon Stewart, formerly of The Daily Show. It tells the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist who worked for Newsweek from 1998 to 2011. Arrested on June 21, 2009 before being incarcerated in July, Bahari had been reporting on the 2009 Iranian Election Protests.
The film recreates Bahari filming protesters on the streets of Tehran. After sending his footage abroad to show the world what was happening, he is arrested. The government officials tell him to disavow the “illegal” protesters. Bahari asks what his crime is. He’s a journalist, neither endorsing nor supporting the protesters, only “bearing witness” to their grievances.
The ninth commandment is overlooked. Do not bear false witness. It’s tough—it’s so easy to bear false witness against people we do not know. False witness is not only the lie we tell ourselves about other people, but never bearing witness at all to who people are.
It is not risky to stand against people you’ve never met. It is not edgy to disagree with someone, tell them why they’re wrong, and then walk away. In this world, it is not rebellious to cut off others who are not like you. It is easy.
True rebellion is to sit and say nothing. Listen to others tell their story, voice their grievances, tell you their addictions. When this happens, you find yourself saying, “Me too.” That’s what gets you put in prison. That’s what gets you crucified.
And I fail at this—daily. But on a good day, I chat with the student who was kicked out of his house. Or I share a table with someone because they’re reading my favorite book. Or I laugh at someone’s favorite joke. On those days, I bear witness, my world grows a little, and I come a step closer to believing everyone is more than I think they are.