They are Us

In December, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a speech in which he said:

All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

King is hardly the first person to suggest that there is a deep, profound interrelatedness among humanity.  It is a teaching found, in one form or another, in many of the world’s spiritual traditions.  Jesus himself made it clear that our individual humanity is connected to the humanity of others, and he made that point especially by pointing toward our connections with the poorest and most needy among us.   When Jesus emphasized the importance not only of loving God but of loving our neighbors as ourselves, he was making a clear statement about the equality of all human beings.  Each is worthy of the same love.  To be a follower of Jesus, it is clear in the Gospels that we must serve our neighbors, must serve those who are in need of our help.  He was not impressed by those who would declare their love for him without extending that same love to their fellow human beings.  We are all connected in the love of God.

But while King was not the first person to point out this deep connection that binds us all, he did make that point in a uniquely American context and at a crucial time in our nation’s history, as the civil rights movement sought to rid our nation of the idea that African Americans were somehow not worthy of the same rights as white Americans.  King sought to point out that as long as any one group within our society were denied their full humanity, all of us would be diminished.

What Jesus was, in part, preaching against, and what King was also speaking against, was the idea of Otherness, the idea of looking upon other human beings as somehow separate from ourselves.  At various times in American history, various groups have been defined as the Other by many or most Americans:  African Americans, certainly, but also Japanese Americans, Irish Americans, Chinese American, Hispanic Americans – I’m sure you could add others to the list.  At this moment in our history, the most obvious groups of people who are prominently being placed into the Other category are Muslims and illegal immigrants.  The essential problem that arises when one group is defined as Other is that people begin to fear them, they begin to think that they are somehow dangerous or threatening, even defective in some way, the source of many of our problems. Once this way of thinking begins to take root, it becomes easy to regard them as somehow less than fully human, and thus not worthy of compassion or rights or basic human dignity.  What we often don’t notice is that as we are diminishing the humanity of the Other, our own humanity is being diminished in the process.

The current controversy over the planned Islamic community center in New York City, usually referred to as the Ground-Zero mosque, is a case study of the very process I have just described.  I am not interested here in taking a position on whether or not it is a good idea for Cordoba House to be built at the site that is planned.  But what is clear to me is that in the process of opposing the building of that center, many people have cast Muslims in the role of the Other, painting them all with the same brush with which the handful of 9/11 terrorists are painted.  The clear message is that Muslims, as Other, are dangerous, that they are a threat, that they have beliefs and practices that are defective because they are different from, well, Christianity.   There was no greater symbol to me of this effort to cast Muslims as the Other than a photo I saw of a protest somewhere in the country against Cordoba House.  There were several people attending that protest who carried signs which said, “Not your country” or similar sentiments.  The signs were directed toward Muslims – indicating that the sign carriers apparently believed that Muslims were by definition foreigners – another kind of Otherness.  The fact is, of course, that the vast majority of Muslims in the United States are Americans.  People who were born here, just like the sign carriers.

As I have watched the Cordoba House controversy unfold, it has become clear to me that all of us, as a nation, are being diminished.  The values which have been a cherished part of our national identity – values of religious freedom, openness and equal opportunity for all – are made to appear as if they are no longer a part of who we are.  As people embrace the idea of Muslims as the Other, it clearly becomes easy for them to deem them unworthy of the same rights, dignities and opportunities as the rest of the country.  Rather than being a shining example to the world – which we have long prided ourselves as being – we are revealed to be just as fearful, jingoistic and prejudiced as those populating those nations which we have long viewed as not being as great as we are.

In Jesus’ time, leprosy was a disease that was greatly feared.  Those who had the misfortune to contract it were regarded as cursed by God, and they were forced to leave their families and communities and to live as exiles in the wilderness.  Groups of them would sometimes assemble and live together in exile.  Many times in the Gospels, we see Jesus spending time among lepers, touching them, healing them, showing them that they were indeed worthy of God’s love and compassion.  Lepers were surely one of those whom the people of Jesus’ time (including the religious authorities and the faithful) regarded as Other, and thus as forgotten by God and not quite fully human.  Jesus sought to show them that this was not true.

Who do we think that Jesus would be spending time with today, if he were suddenly to appear among us?  I think that answer is rather clear:  he would be spending time with whomever we classify as the Other, in order to try to show us that there is no such thing as the Other, in order to show us that they are us, and until their full dignity as human beings is honored, our own human dignity will be diminished, as well.

2 thoughts on “They are Us

  1. This is a complicated matter. Persecution and genocide of whole groups for their “otherness” have permeated history. Think of the Ottoman Empire genocide against the Armenians in the early 1900’s; the Holocaust; the Pol Pot genocide in Cambodia; the Rwandan genocide; the Darfur genocide. Whole peoples determined to exterminate other whole peoples because of their religious, political, or racial “otherness”.

    Politically sanctioned persecution of Christians, Jews, or indeed, those of any other faith than Muslim, continues unabated in parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East. Persecution of Muslims, though unsanctioned, continues throughout the West, including America. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other examples exist throughout the world, of individual or group persecution of others for no other reason than their “otherness”. Jesus must weep at the unjustified prejudices that groups of his children display toward other groups of his children.

    The complication comes to play when groups of “others” identify themselves as your enemy. Japan, in WWII, was our enemy. They were different in politics, religion, and in race. Nazi Germany was essentially the same as America in the majority of their race and religion, but terribly different in their politics.

    Again, it’s complicated. Individuals and groups must be seen only through the lens of their actions, and through no other.

    Fear motivates most prejudice. Fear of having the “others” encroach on our own lives. In America, the fear of inter-racial marriage motivated many heinous discriminatory practices against Blacks, American-Indians, and generally anyone of another race. In Islamic countries, fear of western social practices and religious beliefs encroaching upon religious beliefs motivates antagonism toward non-Muslims. In many parts of the world, the fear of the inaccurate, but widely perceived wealth and conspiratorial political influence of Jews motivates ant-Semitism.
    The price that humanity pays for these fears is enormous.

    So how should Christians respond to this culture of fear of “otherness”? With fearlessness. Jesus was fearless when he taught the truth of God’s Word in the Jewish Temple, among those who feared his influence. He refused the path of violence, or imposition of His truth on those who resisted him. Even in the Garden of Gesthemene, he rebuked His disciple who drew a sword in His defense. His determination to love, and His determination to preach truth cost Him His life. St. Paul, a Gentile from Damascus, and a follower of a Jew from Israel, fearlessly went to the seat of ancient power itself, polytheistic Rome, preached God’s truth, and displayed Christian love to all. It eventually cost him his life as well.

    So how do we respond to “others”, those who are different from ourselves? We respond as Jesus did, and as St. Paul did. We respond as Christians with love, with a Christian example in our own lives, and yet fearlessly witness for the Word of the Lord. Living in this manner is not without cost, as it has not been without cost for Christians throughout the ages. It may cost us in friendships as we embrace “others” with love, and by being Christian witnesses. By going among “others” and living our Christian values of love, forgiveness, and witness, it could even cost us our lives.
    Yet, that’s what we are called to do. To love. To embrace. To forgive. To witness for the Lord.
    We can start by overcoming our own prejudices, and seeing “others” as fellow creations of God.

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