Looking Impatience in the Face
“An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid. . . .’” — Luke 1:11-13
How long do you look at someone’s face? Not someone you know well or someone to whom you’re listening. But how long do you look when you make eye contact with someone on the bus or at the store? If you’re anything like me, it’s under a second if I can help it. And why? Why do I find it so necessary to look away as soon as possible?
What are we doing when we look into someone’s face? To look into the face of another can be an act of acknowledgment, a search for understanding, an intimacy of shared humanity, a resistance to individualism. And yet . . . if it is all those noble things, why is it so awkward? What are we afraid of?
Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow (2017) depicts the immense scope and the many particularities of the people caught up in the greatest refugee crisis of our time. Along with a searing line from this film—“When there is nowhere to go, nowhere is home”—one of the most riveting and unforgettable segments for me focuses on one person just standing for a while in front of the camera. A white sheet makes up the background. And the person just looks into the camera. Looks at me. And I look back. There is desire and aversion between us, even through the screen. The medium of the movie enables me to look for longer than a second, but by five seconds I am distinctly uncomfortable. Weiwei forces us to see another human, to look into their face at length amid a complex panorama of human crisis.
We, I, look away. There is fear unmasked within us in the face of the other. There is something striking, something fleeting within that moment. There is something wholly divine within the encounter.
As Weiwei follows the millions of refugees across borders, blockaded by barbed wire and armed guards and turned back into deserted lands, we come face to face with struggles that are miles away from ours. When the face of the other does not lead us into divine fear, a holy recognition acting through an impatient request of us, then we have distanced ourselves, we have cast aside our image bearing awareness and our incarnating God.
Alternatively, when we are pressed upon by the impatient face of the other, we are opened to new possibilities, moved toward just action, spurred on toward shalom and hospitality, and unsettled in our places of privilege, so as to extend welcome, refuge, and belonging to the bearer of each and every face.
Prayer: Creator, may you unsettle us in our placebo-patience that creates masks over the faces of others, and instead lead us into the impatient justice that seeks your shalom, a home for all, when we are confronted by the faces of each and every other. Amen.
Janina S. Krabbe is a bivocational pastor living in Vancouver, B.C., on Coast Salish territory. A bicycle commuter, she practices looking into the faces of oncoming cyclists as an act of holy impatience.