Of Blind Men and Elephants
By Daveen Donnelly
John Piper, in his book A Sweet and Bitter Providence, wrote: “Racism and all manner of ethnocentrisms”—the attitude that one’s own group or culture is superior—“are as common today around the world as they have ever been. The shrinking of the planet into immediate access on the Internet has brought thousands of strange people and strange patterns of life into our lives—and put our strangeness into their lives. Diversity is a given in this world. The question is how we will think and feel and act about it.”1
Tolerance toward people is critical in today’s multicultural and globalized world. It means respecting people and treating them decently and fairly regardless of their nationality, culture, race, religion, belief system, lifestyle, gender, or any other factor. Part of being a witness means listening to others and understanding where they are coming from.
As a child I owned a comic book of the famous Indian fable about six blind men and an elephant. In the fable, six blind men stumble across an elephant, which none of them had encountered before. One blind man feels the elephant’s leg and says, “An elephant is like a tree.” Another grasped his tail and said, “No, no! An elephant is like a rope.” And the third man discovered the elephant’s side and says, “I’m telling you, an elephant is like a wall.” The fourth blind man, feeling the large ear, smiles and with a contented sigh says, “Ah, I am now aware that the elephant is like a leaf.” The fifth man, grabbing the smooth, sharp tusks, declared, “The elephant is definitely like a spear!” The sixth man, catching hold of the elephant’s squirming trunk, spoke with certainty, “You’re all wrong! An elephant is like a snake.”
It’s a very simple fable but provides some food for thought. When I personalize it, I am able to go into a situation, experience, or friendship and picture myself as one of the blind men, with my thoughts, feelings, opinions, and perception seeing only one part of the elephant, so to speak.
Imagine yourself as a blind person encountering a metaphorical elephant in your life—it could be someone or some situation or some issue you’re currently facing. Consider that perhaps you’re only grasping a part of that something, and that there may be more to that person or situation or issue than meets your eye. Doing so can add perspective as you realize that what you see is not always the full picture.
I’ve always found the New Testament story where Jesus is asked by the Pharisees to pass judgment on a woman caught being disloyal to her husband very moving. The Law of Moses declared that she should be stoned to death. If Jesus contradicted the Law of Moses, He would not have appeared as a righteous rabbi to the crowd waiting to participate in the stoning. Jesus said to the indignant crowd, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Then He said to the woman who had committed adultery, “Do none condemn you? Then neither do I. Go, and sin no more” (John 8:10–11). Only God is righteous, we should let Him be the judge.
Jesus said: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1–5).
Believing ourselves to be better than others is often at the root of being judgmental, whereas compassion can be found through accepting that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
John F. Kennedy, the 35th American president, said of tolerance, “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”
Tolerance of others is not acceptance of sin. Tolerance is recognizing that people deserve to be treated with respect and decency regardless of whether we like them or not, as human beings created in God’s image.
Peter Amsterdam wrote on this point:
Showing love and tolerance for people, and respecting the fact that they were created by God and have an inherent right to be treated with dignity doesn’t necessarily mean that you condone their actions or embrace their beliefs. For instance, I don’t believe that it’s right that countless lives are harmed through the drug trade. And yet, when interacting with people who are either caught up in a moral wrong or who don’t see their actions as wrong, we are called to treat them with respect as individuals who have been created in God’s image, and offer them salvation, hope, and God’s love.
At times you may feel called or convicted to speak up against wrong or evil. The key in doing so, however, is to bear in mind that, as Christians, we are first and foremost instructed to show Jesus’ love to others. You may have the conviction that someone’s actions are not good or godly, but you are still called to love them. We all need to be faithful representatives of Jesus’ love when interacting with others in any situation, and consider how He would want us to respond.
We can make mistakes in our judgment of others and, of course, learn that it’s not always possible to place a simple “right” or “wrong” label on the decisions of others, or situations or events that occur.
It is tempting to see others and situations through a monochrome lens, but time, experience, mistakes, and failures teach us to see in polychrome. God knows the heart of each individual and He understands everything about each one in a way that we would never be able to. He doesn’t need our help to judge people, but He does need our help to show them His love and to share the good news of His love for the world. As Mother Teresa aptly said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
Sociologists in the field of intercultural communication studies claim that as human beings socialize and take on the accepted norms and values of our culture, we begin to internalize the culture around us—it starts to become a part of who we are and greatly affects how we view things and make decisions. Metaphorically speaking, our culture becomes the lens through which we see and make sense of the world. Once our culture becomes an internal part of our belief, we take it for granted, and for the most part, we don’t reflect on it.
When people don’t belong to a culture they are introduced to, they are more likely to detect and appreciate things that members of that culture hardly notice, because the members of that culture are so enmeshed in it. Conversely, foreigners often fail to understand or appreciate social expectations and codes that those native to the country are familiar with.
In the past year I’ve traveled to three continents, spent time in four countries, and met many wonderful and interesting people. If you asked me what I consider the key to adapting to new cultures, countries, situations, or people, I’d say that it’s genuine interest and care for others.
Seek to build bridges of communication with those you might not understand at first. Show yourself welcoming and open and portray kindness and respect. Accept others as they are, and don’t draw a circle around your life that shuts others out. Remember that “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13), and love is a universal language that you can use to reach people in whatever language, culture, or tribe you find yourself in.
You cannot always understand somebody or why they react, feel, or think the way they do, yet you can always try to love them and share the good news about the One who knows everything about them and loves them and wants to enter into a personal relationship with them for all eternity.
Adapted from a Just1Thing podcast, a Christian character-building resource for young people.
1 John Piper, A Sweet and Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, and the Sovereignty of God (Crossway, 2010), 14.