A Different Lens – The “Other”

Let us begin with a question: Who is the person, or type of person, that is easiest for you to write off as unimportant…or perhaps dispensable?

I cannot remember a cultural climate like the present where people and their perspectives are dismissed so easily. We apply a single label to describe someone which then grants us permission to cast that person aside.

This happens on all sides. Beliefs and opinions regarding certain topics become like a litmus test for a person’s validity in our minds. Depending on my perspective, I might be called a bigot, heretic, left-leaning, closed-minded conservative, or guilty of hate speech. A hero to some is an enemy to others. When people dig in their heels, leaving no space for dialogue, relationships and mutual-edification become non-starters.

(The two t-shirts above were right next to each other on our recent trip to DC.)

Sometimes the only way to cope with the people we have become conditioned to fear, despise, or discard, is to dehumanize them. If we can successfully strip away any intrinsic value to their personhood, we are well on the road to justifying almost any action; or at least the looking the other way if it happens. The secular views the sacred as profane, as much as the sacred has always regarded the secular.

So we say things like, “Who cares what that person says? Don’t you know they are ____________.” Fill in the blank with any label you like. That person is numbered among the “other” to us, and their personhood and value are reduced to their tribe, or to issues and affiliations. Eventually, we can take this so far as to believe, ipso facto, that people or groups of people we have never met are our enemies because someone else, or perhaps our favorite media outlet, has convinced us this is the case.

We are not born thinking this way about people. This is learned behavior; and when Christians are conditioned to regard people as such, it is as if our struggle IS in fact against flesh and blood (see Ephesians 6:12).

What would happen if we pushed back against what has become typical, and began looking at people through a different lens?

THE KINGDOM LENS

The most consistent themes of Jesus’ teaching revolve around a mysterious and transcendent reality called the Kingdom of God. When we look at people through the lens of the Kingdom of God, I believe we will no longer find the superficial and stereotypical are sufficient reasons to discard a person. The Kingdom is rich in grace. Citizens of the Kingdom believe that, as people who have received grace, we are called to be people who show grace to others.

The most practical way I know to begin seeing people through the lens of the Kingdom is through something simple, yet often very uncomfortable: by getting to know others who are outside of our circle and our tribe. In the last decade, I have learned that most who dehumanize the “other” do not actually know one individual among that “other” personally.

It is awfully hard to hate the person you are looking in the eye. It changes things when we acknowledge personhood, and see how people we fear or have been conditioned to dismiss also love their families, work hard, are intelligent and creative, and . . . {gasp} . . . actually have some things to teach us!

DID JESUS JUST USE “HATE SPEECH”?

There is one story about Jesus that always makes me cringe. He and His disciples spent time briefly in the area of Tyre and Sidon — two despised places in the “other” parts of their world, where many of the “other” lived.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David,have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matthew 15:21-28)

The disciples had no space to care about the problems faced by some Gentile, Canaanite woman. Her pain and struggles were not their problem, and perhaps they were even deserved. Her persistent pleas for help had simply become annoying. It was not difficult for them to dehumanize her, because they had been conditioned to see her people as their enemies.

Did they experience a moment of relief, and perhaps a reassuring satisfaction, when Jesus called her a dog? Name calling is often an expression, or a symptom perhaps, of dehumanizing someone. Jesus seemed to affirm their long-held opinions, feelings, and stereotypes of a woman like this.

Now there are many who comment on this story will try to soften the word “dog,” arguing that it simply meant Gentile, or unclean, or something like a cute little pet.

Please. Jesus clearly did not use an endearing term that affirmed her personhood here. I believe His use of the insult was very much on purpose, but not for the reasons the disciples might have assumed.

The best part of this story is the moment when Jesus addressed her personally. Having never called her a “dog” directly, when He addressed her personally He called her a woman. At that moment her personhood was completely affirmed and esteemed. Jesus used the word megálē – her faith was not only “great”; it was MEGA faith.

This became a teachable moment for everyone involved, and the Canaanite woman would be as much their teacher as Rabbi Jesus. We can only imagine that she, too, had been conditioned to despise and dismiss Judeans like Jesus and His disciples as much as they had towards her. Yet her reply to Jesus was not angry. It was not reactionary. She did not resort to retributive name-calling. Instead, here was a woman who loved her family, worked hard, was intelligent and creative in her response, and displayed greater faith than the disciples on this occasion.

The disciples had much to learn from the Canaanite woman.

THE SINGLE STORY

A few years ago, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a brilliant Ted Talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story.” It is absolutely worth your time to watch. She is a brilliant woman who, despite having won a MacArthur Genius grant, still had to deal with people who could only view her through the lens of what they thought an African woman and village was like. Among her first experiences as a student at a prestigious university here in the U.S. was criticism from one of her instructors:

“[There was] a professor, who once told me that my novel was not ‘authentically African.’ Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African.”

You might want to read Adichie’s conclusion several times: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

So we return to the question with which we began: Who is the person, or type of person, that is easiest for you to write off as unimportant…or perhaps dispensable?

I would love to hear your thoughts and insights…

_________________________________________

DISCUSSION: Please comment below and help us facilitate a dialogue on this subject. All thoughts and perspectives are encouraged welcome. PLEASE NOTE, however, any “trolls” or mean-spirited comments will not be approved.

NOTE on the featured image for this post: In 2001, the artist Zhang Huan put together a performance piece called “Family Tree” in which Chinese calligraphers literally covered his face with comments about him and cultural expectations of him. Family Tree is a commentary on both Chinese culture how labels and expectations can make us feel dehumanized. In the end, Huan says – “Though culture may smother us and our faces turn to darkness; it cannot take away what is inborn.”

 

See and join the discussion on other posts in the “A Different Lens” series:

A Different Lens

A Different Lens – Words Matter

8 thoughts on “A Different Lens – The “Other”

  1. Kristy says:

    It is easy to judge a person immediately, not knowing a single thing about that person, or even having contact. And with social media we can judge from afar. We are even judged by our Christian brothers and sisters if we have a difference in opinion or worship Jesus in a different way. We should remember that Jesus loves us all and we should be like Him. It’s hard! I have to work on this daily.

  2. Mark Johnson (@MarkJohnsonOK) says:

    I recently realized something along these lines.

    I have a friend who seems angry and bitter (on Facebook) about all sorts of things that I think are either dumb or misguided–and mostly unimportant.

    This is a longtime friend who is among the most clever or creative people I have ever known. This friend is also an engaged parent and someone with whom I share many fond memories.

    In the same way that my friend seems to consistently be overlooking goodness and beauty and focusing on dumb stuff instead, I realize that I am doing THE EXACT SAME THING toward my friend. When I think of this friend lately, instead of seeing and savoring all of their good qualities, I am only perceiving their Facebook ranting and raving.

    This is my plank-eye moment for the week.

  3. lisatresch says:

    At this moment, Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted talk should be required viewing for everyone. I believe this polarization has been a slow and subtle descent. We’ve gradually isolated ourselves into relationships with people and media that we can agree with, and then we stay in those places and shut out other voices. Or at least we don’t give any credence to the voices of the “others.” I’m guilty of this. I would like to think that I’m open and progressive and that I write no one off. But If I’m honest, the people I write off are Christians who I judge to be dogmatic, lacking compassion, and aligning with the rich and powerful. My challenge right now is to find the places where I can have civil dialogue with those who hold different views so that I can try to understand where they’re coming from and regain (or gain) some unity. It seems as though the church is a place where we have been uncomfortable sharing diverse views on current issues. Should the church be a place of dialogue about the lenses we look through, or should it be immune from these discussions? Would love thoughts on this. As someone who has always held views that don’t set well in my evangelical tradition, I have stayed silent most of the time to keep the peace.

    1. Eric Costanzo says:

      I think the church should be a place for dialogue and constant reflection about who we are as God’s people and what is our responsibility to the world. We are always in process. We are being transformed into His likeness. The Bible has been complete for nearly 2000 years but it still has much more light to give us that we have not yet understood. So, for me, the faith community is the ideal place to wrestle with things, to sharpen one another, and to keep each other accountable to remain grounded in God’s wisdom above our own or that of any other person’s ideology.

  4. pjmeese says:

    Another excellent piece. It really hits home! The dehumanization you talk about is so true, and in this current overload of social media, it is SO easy to dehumanize! Recently, as I have been trying to be a “better” Christ-follower, I’ve tried little things in my own little world….things like holding the door open for someone, taking their shopping cart when they’ve emptied it in the parking lot, actually looking the clerk in the eye to say thank you at the end of my purchase. It’s certainly not much, but I realized when I read your article, that it is helping me to SEE other people, not just be around them. (The cherry on the top is it helps to get the focus off of myself!) . It is amazing how isolated we can become in today’s world when we hardly even have to leave the house if we don’t want to. I believe we can effect change right here in our neighborhoods; we don’t have to go to a protest march, post our rants on Facebook or travel to faraway lands to do so. Does it really matter what someone’s political affiliation, race, sexual orientation or religious beliefs are? Jesus didn’t think so, so am I telling Him He was wrong when I judge that way? Hopefully the church will lead the way to “sharpen one another and to keep each other accountable to remain grounded in God’s wisdom above our own or that of any other person’s ideology.” (a direct quote from a very wise person!)

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