The comedian Hasan Minhaj is a second generation American. His father, like me, is an immigrant to this country. I come from Canada: Minhaj’s Dad, Najme, comes from India. Unlike me (I grew up in a stable and peaceful context in Vancouver, BC), prior to coming to the United States, Najme lived through some of the worst days on the Indian subcontinent. He saw awful violence after the departure of the British and after partition, violence that claimed north of a million lives.
Minhaj, like a lot of people of colour in America – like every person of colour in America – experienced racism growing up, he experiences racism to this day. Similarly, like many members of an immigrant family, Minhaj did and does experience xenophobia. Minhaj tells the story, for instance, of being an adolescent shortly after the September 11th attacks and hearing a strange noise outside. He and his Dad went out to investigate what had happened and found that someone had smashed the windows of their car. Shortly thereafter the phone rang and a laughing voice on the other end demanded:
Here’s the thing. Minhaj’s Dad had a totally different reaction to the vandalism and to the phone call that followed it than Minhaj himself. For Minhaj, as you might expect, as you could likely understand, this event was profoundly upsetting. He was shaken by it, angered by it. His Dad? Not so much. He just swept up the glass and went on with his day.
Compared to the violence that Najme had seen in India – well, this just seemed like no big deal. Getting your windows smashed occasionally, his Dad reckoned, was the price of admission for being brown and being an immigrant in America. It was a reasonable price to pay for the brutality that he had left behind and for everything that he had gained by coming to this country.
Minhaj found that this disconnect with his Dad just kept on happening, and not just in the disorienting days after September 11th. When Minhaj would experience the small and everyday acts of racism that someone who looks like him encounters in the United States, when he would endure the thousand paper cuts that we call by the name micro-aggressions (sometimes the aggressions weren’t micro at all – sometimes they were macro-aggressions), he would tell his Dad, he would relay these stories with anger and sadness. And his Dad simply couldn’t understand what Minhaj was so upset about.
No one is trying to kill you, his Dad would say to Minhaj in essence. What are you complaining about?
I heard Minhaj interviewed, I heard him telling these stories, on the wonderful podcast Invisibilia. The episode was about what psychological researchers call a human being’s Frame of Reference or, sometimes, simply their Reference Point. Our frame of reference is the perspective, the baseline against which we measure other experiences. And Najme’s baseline, his frame of reference, was of such radical suffering and injustice in post-partition India that every wrong that he encountered in America seemed kind of small and trivial by comparison.
In that interview, Minhaj is pretty deeply ambivalent about his Dad’s perspective on reality. On the one hand, Minhaj believes – rightly – that micro-aggressions are not okay, that small acts of racism, such as a clerk assuming that a brown-skinned customer is more likely to be a shoplifter than the white customer standing beside them, are wrong. On the other, he is glad for his father’s perspective. Glad for the reminder that it holds that, as much we get wrong in our country, we get a whole lot of things right. More than that, Minhaj is glad for his Dad’s reminder that life is good, glad for his Dad’s invitation into gratitude, glad for his Dad’s serenity.
Consider this: if someone smashes the window of your car and you feel neither fear nor anger, if the only cost to you if the cost of replacing the glass, well, that’s a kind of superpower.
The encounter that we witness today in the Gospel between John and James, the sons of Zebedee, and their teacher Jesus is about competing frames of references. In this conversation, the speakers apply two radically different reference points to the question: what does a good and holy and joyous life look like?
For the two brothers, for John and James, their point of reference for this conversation is worldly status and power. Growing up in the home of a modest fisherman, John and James have looked out the window and seen people with power, people who drive past their house in high-end carriages, people who are followed by servants, people who inspire not just respect in others but fear in others. And like many of us who have seen these things, maybe like you and me leafing through the catalogue of things that we can’t afford, John and James want in.
And so they go up to Jesus, full of eagerness. Their opening line is greedy and innocent at same time. Here is an echo of a pair of children trying to scam their way into the cookie jar:
Teacher: we want you to give us whatever we want.
Is Jesus smiling as he replies? What do you guys want?
And so they tell him: We want to sit on your right hand and your left in your glory.
Are he two of them are rubbing their hands in glee as they speak? Are they are dancing from one foot to another in anticipation?
Jesus, smiling no more, says:
You don’t know what you are asking for.
That’s because Jesus’ point of reference for a good and holy and joyous life isn’t power. His point of reference is the cross.
In all four Gospels, Jesus speaks with this amazing and terrifying clarity about the cross as his future. It is an awful inevitability for him. And this knowledge, this reference point, profoundly shapes how he encounters reality.
When Jesus sees a suffering person – someone who is hungry or sick or lonely or lost or carrying a demon – because Jesus’ reference point is not money and privilege, he does not ask, “What can this person do for me?” and turn his back when the answer is “nothing.” Because his reference point is the cross, Jesus responds to his hurting neighbour with the compassion and solidarity of one who knows all about hurt himself.
When Jesus sees a wealthy and unjust person, because his reference point is not worldly status, he does not ask, “How can this person help my career?” and then begin to network. Because Jesus reference point is the cross, Jesus responds to his neighbour as one who knows all about what it is to endure injustice, and he challenges us and calls us to be better.
And when Jesus comes to a party – and this next part might be counterintuitive, I’m not sure, let’s run with it – because his reference point is not consumerism, where there is always something more and better waiting somewhere else, Jesus does not participate halfheartedly. Rather, because his reference point is the cross, because suffering and finitude and injustice are so clearly in his field of vision, he participates in celebration with gusto. Jesus is immune to what the kids call FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. He does not spend the party on his phone looking for something better to come along. There are an amazing number of passages in the Gospels about Jesus eating, an amazing number of passages about Jesus delighting in celebration within community. Jesus gets that this life is a fleeting gift to be lived fully right now.
Jesus tells his disciples, John and James and you and me, that following him means drinking from the same cup as him, being baptised the same way as him. That it means taking up your cross. He doesn’t warn us that grief and loss and hurt might be part of following him. He guarantees it. But here is the amazing thing: when our reference point shifts from worldly status and power and money and stuff to the cross, we may just be surprised to find that we discover not only hurt but also freedom, justice, and joy.