Recently I boarded a puddle jumper at 10:30 p.m. for the last leg of a trip to Lexington, KY. I would not get in until midnight and knew I had an eight hour day of teaching beginning at 8 a.m. the following morning. Not long after I slumped into my seat, hoping at least to get in a cat nap during the short flight, my seatmate arrived, a talkative man about my age who immediately engaged me in conversation. It was your standard where-are-you-from-what-do-you-do conversation until the man asked me to rate the two male flight attendants who were serving us that evening. The look on my face must have betrayed my utter confusion, because he added, “You know, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate them?”
I could feel my face flush and my palms start to sweat. I started with a feeble, “I really don’t know,” hoping to back my way politely out of this uncomfortable conversation. But my seatmate was not ready to let the subject rest. After giving his numerical assessment of the attractiveness of the two flight attendants, he demanded an answer from me, reasoning that this was only fair given that he had shared his opinion. Even though in my head I was screaming, “This is such a demeaning way to treat people,” I mumbled some numbers, praying that we were talking quietly enough that at least the people around us were not privy to this objectionable conversation. My seatmate was then curious about how my husband stacked up against the two flight attendants. Hoping humor and grandiosity would satisfy him, I gave my husband a twelve. Blessedly, the plane began its take off after this. Indicating that I was pregnant and that this was way past by bedtime, I then pretended to sleep so as to avoid any more conversation.
This bizarre plane encounter came back to me this week when I was reading the Gospel for this coming Sunday from Matthew 5:17-37. Speaking to the disciples, Jesus raises the bar set by the Ten Commandments. It is not enough simply to refrain from murder; followers of God must reconcile any anger they hold against their fellow human beings before participating in worship. Similarly, it is not enough to refrain from the act of adultery; Jesus indicates that lust after another is adultery of the heart. Now certainly, I was not lusting after the two male flight attendants whose attractiveness my seatmate was asking me to rate. But by going along with his game, I was participating in an act of dehumanization against them. I colluded in turning them into sexual objects because I was too polite to tell this stranger next to me that I found what he was doing to be offensive. I am ashamed that I did not at least say, “I do not want to talk about this.”
To me, this also connects to the end of this Gospel. Jesus tells his disciples that rather than swearing by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or even their own heads, their yes needs to mean yes and their no needs to mean no. The conflict I felt on the plane was between standing up for what I believe in and being nice and polite. And frequently happens in my life, nice and polite won out. Now certainly being nice and polite are important in social interactions. The problem is that there are many times when being nice and polite means that my yes does not mean yes and my no does not mean no. I say what I think that other people want to hear, rather than venture my own opinion. But then my niceness and politeness actually mean nothing since I am not speaking my truth.
Unfortunately, I cannot speak my truth to my plane seatmate at this point. But I can at least speak it here: I know what it feels like to be objectified. It makes you feel less than human and not worth anything. And I want to hold myself to a standard of not objectifying other people because I believe that every person in the world is a beloved child of God.