Invasive Procedures

"You are going to die," a voice intones in your ear. You are lying in what looks like a drawer in a morgue. A man dressed as a mortician slides you in, and on the other side, you walk through a long, dark maze, filled with scenes from street life. What I'm describing is a new exhibit at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. It's designed to make homelessness seem more real. But realism is just what this exhibit is lacking. All the figures are distorted--Picasso style. Instead of feeling like you're on the streets, you feel like you've wandered into some large-as-life abstract painting. Ah, but what's supposed to draw you in is the interaction. The exhibit is designed so you have to respond. Instructions are given through a Walkman headset. For instance, at one point you enter a boxing ring and voices on the Walkman tell you to fight a stuffed dummy. The dummy chases you around the ring so you have to play along--whether you want to or not. In another scene, you sit in front of a vanity mirror and hear voices of prostitutes getting ready for work, meeting a client. Then the Walkman tells you to lean back against a bed. You hear a man breathing fast and heavy in your ear. Suddenly, you realize you are being asked to play the part of a prostitute. It's extremely invasive and offensive. Is this what we send our tax dollars to Washington for? Now, social critique can be done in a tasteful manner. Charles Dickens did it in his novels, William Blake in his poetry. Traditional art forms are courteous: They give a person the freedom to respond on his own terms. But in interactive displays, the audience is told do this, do that, whether you like it or not, whether you agree or not. And as Christians we don't agree with this new Smithsonian exhibit--not just with the format but with the world view it expresses. The person who designed the exhibit says its underlying theme is that who we are is largely determined at birth. People who are born poor stay poor. That's why the exhibit is titled "Etiquette of the Undercaste." Not underclass. Undercaste--like the caste system in India, which you are born into. And which you never escape. The point is driven home at the start of the exhibit. You're standing in a baby's bedroom, with a gambling table and a globe. Where will you be born? asks the Walkman. Spin the roulette wheel and see. The message is obvious. Chance rules the universe. Life is a roulette wheel. You can't change your fate. This is profoundly contrary to the biblical world view, which teaches that you're here because a loving God created you. And that once here, you make significant choices. We may all get discouraged at times and feel that we have little control over our circumstances. But to turn poor people into victims, pushed around by chance as though their lives were numbers on a roulette wheel, only destroys their dignity further. Real dignity comes from knowing we can make a difference. Not only for now but for eternity.


Chuck Colson



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