My 21-year-old friend Sahil recently attended a football game at a local high school. He’d slipped onto the field to say hello to one of the managers on the home team’s bench. One of the coaches who’d noticed Sahil and overheard a bit of his conversation with the manager was the kind of coach who liked to impart moral lessons to his players.
As Sahil walked away, the coach turned to his players and said, “Y’all don’t know how lucky you are.” The implication of this life lesson was, You are lucky to not be Sahil.
What was it that this coach could have seen in Sahil, in that brief moment, to make him so sure that to be “fortunate,” to be “blessed,” was something other than being Sahil?
At the time, Sahil was wearing blue jeans and a hoodie from the YMCA where he worked. He has dark hair, a mustache, and an overwhelmingly kind face that is most often smiling. He’s Indian. Born with cerebral palsy, Sahil speaks with slurred speech that can be tricky to understand at times. His sentences are short. As he walked away from the bench at the football game, he had a limp in his step.
Something this coach perceived in an instant was that it was not “lucky” to be Sahil.
The coach’s “lesson” brought to my mind the siddur, a centuries-old Jewish prayer liturgy. One of the morning prayers, to be recited by Jewish men as they begin the day, reads,
Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe,
Who has not made me a goy [Gentile], a slave, or a woman.
It was pretty easy to imagine the religious coach breathing a morning prayer like this one.
The heart of these three “blessings” is believed to have originated outside of Jewish circles. Some modern scholars point to an ancient Greek tradition—attributed by various sources to Thales, Socrates, or Plato—thanking God for three things: “that I was born a human and not a beast; a man and not a woman; a Greek and not a Barbarian.”
As it was in Jesus’ story of a righteous Pharisee and a disreputable sinner, these prayers reveal far less about the God who hears them than they do about the person praying them. They expose a host of ways we distance ourselves from those who look, speak, work, or worship differently than we do. Cloaking our bias in thin religious garb, we reveal what we believe to be most human and what we believe to be least human. Wittingly or unwittingly, when we identify others as “disabled,” “poor,” or “non-English-speaking,” we do violence by reducing them to an absurd, single sliver of their God-given identity.