One of the realities of middle-class life in India is relating to people who beg. But there are two kinds of people who beg, just as there are two kinds of people in other parts of society: those with a sense of dignity, and those who have lost theirs.
Every few days my wife and I meet a Eunuch at a traffic light, a member of the transgender community in India which takes to begging because of being ostracized from regular jobs. This Eunuch begs, but with dignity. Most people who come to the window of our car asking for alms do so aggressively. There is a hardness in their eyes whether children or adults, an aggression—oppressiveness even—with which they relate to the world around them, not letting go of you till the traffic light forces them to. Urban poverty and its depravities strip many human beings of their humanity, and reciprocally, they treat the world around them in kind.
But our Eunuch friend is different. We treat her with respect, and that connects to a sense of dignity that she herself has held on to. Thus although she begs, she does so differently. If we decline her request for money, she accepts with a smile. She has started inquiring how our kids are. Most of the time she doesn’t ask for money at all. But every now and then we give her money, because we know of the economic hardship in her life. And when we do, we do so joyfully, with a mutual respect and a sense of privilege to be able to connect to each other’s lives.
Mutual respect. The Christian understanding of what a human being is has everything to do with respect, with dignity. The worth of a human being is inherent and incalculable, having its root in being loved by a God who has created every single human being in His own image, a reality that demands respect in its truest sense. American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff concludes that the only reasonable basis for human rights is the premise of “being loved by God” with the profound consequence that “human beings, all of them, are irreducibly precious.” 
And above all, Christ exemplifies this. Christ treats Zacchaeus with dignity, a man despised by many, and Zacchaeus is transformed, repenting of corruption and promising restitution. Christ chooses to talk to a woman drawing water at the wrong time of day, a person he should have ostracized three times over, being a Samaritan, a woman, and of questionable character. Instead he treats her with dignity.
When I think about the work of the Create Commission in India, if there were one thread running through these many years, whether taking art to the marginalized, or painting about destitution, economic disparity, tuberculosis, violence against women, etc, it would be the inherent dignity of the human being.
What does it take to recognize human dignity? What does it take, no matter how different the ‘other’ is, nor how much we may disagree with them, to be able to respect and value the image of God, this ‘reflection of God’ that we hold in common?
For a recent art exhibition I created a piece of performance art titled “I-heart-Delhi-apple-eye”. The theme of the exhibition focused on learning to love our city by seeing those different to us, the vulnerable in particular, with God’s eyes. My contribution was a bowl of apples on a pedestal standing next to a plywood sheet which had two bathroom mirrors hanging from it. Only, the glass of one of the mirrors had been removed and the plywood behind it cut out, allowing me to stand behind the plywood sheet and have my face appear to anyone looking at the mirrors. The first part of each performance was inviting a viewer to step up and tell me what they saw in the two mirrors, one with their image, the other with mine. The second part was to ask the participant to spot the apple inside my eye. To their confusion, I would respond with an offer of help and suggest they step closer. We would repeat this until the last time they did so, just a few inches from my face, they would have stepped into a small circle of light cast by a lamp hanging above us. “Now can you see the apple in my eye?” With a sudden intake of breath they would say, “Yes!” for they would be looking at their own illuminated face in the reflection of my eyeball. As a reward for spotting the ‘apple in my eye’ they would take home a shiny red apple from the bowl.
The term ‘apple of my eye,’ referring to cherishing something or someone above all else, was first used in the Bible, e.g. in Psalms 17:8. The Hebrew literally means the “Little Man of the Eye,” which can only be seen if you get physically close enough to the convex curve of the other person’s eye.
Something changes when we take the dignity of another human being seriously, where instead of viewing or addressing them from a distance, we get up close, we listen to their story, we seek to understand their world, and we choose to respect who they are. What happens is we end up seeing ourselves—in a most mutually life-giving way. We end up seeing the reflection of our own humanness, both the fallenness and the nobility, no matter how wrong, different, threatening, strong, weak, rich, poor, etc., we think the ‘other’ is. And it liberates us, transforming how we view and shape the world. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/10/003-righting-wrongs-and-wronging-rights Image courtesy of Ahmed Sinan / Flickr.com Stefan runs the Create Commission project in India. He is passionate about the interface between faith, art, and social issues, and the powerful and necessary role that art plays in speaking truth and shaping society.