Faith, Life, Philosophy

Otherness

Otherness by tokyoform on flickr

“There are only two types of people in this world,” announced the waiter – obviously a man of experience – to my young parents, “There are those who like parmesan… and there are those who hate it.”

I remember my folks telling this story (although, admittedly, I don’t actually remember that the appreciation for parmesan was the line upon which he divided the human race – I know it was something equally ludicrous!). You’ve probably heard a few of these statements, yourself.

There’s something that appeals to human nature about having a neat system to categorize the people around us.  It seems that, particularly regarding subjects about which we’re passionate, we see things in dualities: either you’re ‘for’ what I’m for, or you’re against me.  It’s ‘us’ vs. ‘them’.  But even when it’s a more nebulous concept – something less obvious than a preference for Italian cheeses – we can be quick to draw lines of division.

Those people…”

Have you ever said, or thought, those words?

Maybe ‘those people’ were the ones from the wrong side of town; the kids whose parents worked jobs that your white-collar parents would disparage because they were ‘unskilled’ or ‘uneducated’ – or perhaps ‘those people’ were the privileged offspring of the ‘entitled’ elite, never having to work to earn the riches they enjoyed, looking down at you and ‘your people’ because they think that they’re where they are because they work ‘smart’ while your blue-collar families just work hard.

Maybe those people were in a community from which you felt an outsider – separated from them by language, culture, or religion.  You don’t understand why they don’t think like you, act like you, talk like you – and why they don’t seem to want to change, as you think they should, to ‘fit in better’ in their new country.  Or perhaps you’re the new one on the block, and you feel like ‘those people’ whose citizenship goes back some generations view you with suspicion, treat you as ‘other,’ subtly exclude you from things because “you won’t get it.”  You feel like they’ll probably never consider you to be truly one of them…  You don’t trust them, and they don’t trust you.

Whatever the case, the assumption you make is that those people are essentially different from you.  You assume that they have different values, different beliefs, different motives…  You figure that they don’t care about the things you care about, and – if you were honest about it – you’d admit that you don’t like them for it.

Money, education, culture, race, politics, religion – these things can be the lines upon which we divide ourselves from others; they’re at the root of some pretty deep rifts between fellow humans.

I’m originally from South Africa.

I wonder if anyone thinks, when reading that, ‘Oh, she must be one of THOSE people…’

Well, I will tell you that I do know a thing or two about the issue of ‘those people’.  I’ve been the fish-out-of-water; I’ve been the standout ‘other’; I’ve been the new kid in class.  I have also, very occasionally, been the ‘local’ with something of a history in a place.  But let’s look beyond my own history to see what History says about what happens when we get a bit caught up in maintaining that separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Apartheid was a system adopted by the ruling parties of South Africa toward the end of the 1940s.  We know now that this policy of separate development resulted in an oppressive regime in which people of one race enjoyed every benefit at the expense of everyone else – and we know now that the system of apartheid, aside from being intrinsically unjust, was one that perpetuated injustice, prejudice, and the subjugation of these ‘minority’ peoples under the rule of the others.

We know that NOW, but back then – when apartheid was first instituted – it was based upon a very idealistic (and misguided) belief by many white South Africans that it was in everyone’s best interests for each group to retain their own customs, culture, and language within the confines of their separate but parallel societies.  In theory, this was a kindness (such was the lie that was sold to the voting public).  In practice, there was nothing kind, respectful or just about it; apartheid was simply the institutionalization of racial discrimination.

We know THIS: History has proven that the separation of people based on these divisions – ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ – results in greater misunderstanding, greater prejudice, and greater rifts between one person and another.

Not knowing people personally, but instead confining them to a category, leads to a kind of small-minded cynicism about their motives as well as a hard-heartedness towards them as fellow humans.

Remember that assumption I mentioned earlier?  That ‘those people’ are essentially different from you?

We’re all ‘other’ to someone else.

This post isn’t me being political; this is me being personal.  I’m not immune to these lines of division. I have also sometimes been caught up in concern about ‘others’.

I love diversity.  I think that one of the special things about our world is the colour and texture provided by different cultures, languages, traditions – even ethnic differences; the spectrum of eye colours, hair colours, skin…  I love it that, just the other week, here in New Zealand a pair of little girls from our school – one Sri Lankan and one South African – joined together to perform at a local Chinese singing competition (and they won an award!).  So sometimes, when I’ve been thinking about the potential for one nationality or another to dominate all the others because of that nationality’s increasing population, I’ve been concerned about the dilution of that diversity.

I was struggling with this recently, because I try to be conscious of identifying and erasing those lines of division in my own heart that separate me from my fellow humans; and I said to God,
“But if one group or another of us kind of ‘takes over’ then we’ll lose all that diversity that I love so much!”

I felt instantly convicted by this response:

“That stuff doesn’t matter to me!”

What???  But why did God create such interest and diversity if he didn’t care about all those differences?  Variety is the spice of life!

The truth is, our world will always have diversity.  Between the crazy and wonderful gene combinations we’ve got floating around, the variety of physical characteristics, personalities, styles of dress (and other forms of self-expression), and opinions – which we know will never align completely on this side of heaven – we’ve got plenty of diversity.  What we need to do is to ensure that those distinctions don’t become a barrier to connection between ourselves and others.

We’re all equal before God:

“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28

Ultimately, all the differences we see – those things that separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ – are nothing to God.  Clinging too tightly to our national/ethnic identity has a way of blinding us to the hearts and virtue of others; God wants us to recognize our kinship with others.  We’re all His children.  And there’s none of us – not a single one – that God wouldn’t be glad to have in heaven.  We all have equal access to Jesus – and His heart is that we’d all accept him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, so that we can spend eternity together.

So what are we doing drawing divisions where none truly exist?  Really, the only ‘us’ and ‘them’ there can be are those who’ve answered His call and those to whom He’s still calling.  We’re all his children – and that makes us family.

Go out today and greet your brothers and sisters with love and warmth.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

-Matt.22:37-39

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