From "Other-ing" to "Neighboring"
The conversation escalated quickly. I always get roped-in more than I intend to. I was practically sitting on my hands and biting my tongue when my uncle exclaimed, “Jesus talked more about hell than anything else in all of the gospels!” I was frustrated and stunned. It took everything in me to keep from saying, “That is a bold-faced lie!” In my southern Black family, the baby niece would never be permitted to call her uncle a liar. I eventually erupted into comebacks and questions. The entire conversation quickly went off the rails and I quieted down, defeated yet again by a man so steeped in what he believed to be true that he could not even hear another perspective.
It would be easy judge him if I wasn’t so similar. I get so caught up in what I think, how I feel, and what I believe about scripture that it becomes nearly impossible for me to receive any feedback or input that does not affirm what I’ve already decided to be true. I’m tellin ya, as a person who wants to move towards reconciliation and justice in every area of my life, being close-minded is not something that I can afford. At the very heart of reconciliation is the conviction that the “other,” however defined, is someone that I need in order for me to be complete, and that they bring something to the table that we all need to become the full body of Christ. And if that’s the case, I am going to have to learn how to hear and respect perspectives, stories and worldviews that do not conform to my own.
This ain't easy, folks.
In Reverend Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s book, Roadmap to Reconciliation, she spends some time discussing the hang-ups that faith communities encounter in their reconciliation journeys. One of the biggest hang-ups surfaces when the community is challenged to really embrace and empower someone who is not a part of their tribe. Communities and organizations form tribes all the time. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, until you look up and find that everyone in your tribe looks, thinks and acts like you. So what then? What do you make of that “outsider” who you know that you need to become complete (see Revelation 7:9) but that you don’t have the cultural competency to make room for?
What then? When that “other” offers up a worldview that is so far outside of your own that you can’t possibly invite them to the decision-making table?
What do we make of reconciliation now?
I’m not proposing that I have all of the answers. But I am proposing that we must grow in our awareness of how we frame people who are unlike us as “the other.” We must consider what this “othering” does to our relationships, churches, and our perceptions of the mission of God. I left that conversation with my uncle with a desire to never engage him in theological conversation again. Yes, this was partially due to the heated nature of our debate - namely because of both of our unwillingness to listen to each other - but that impulse to disconnect also reflects our collective tendency to distance ourselves from people who don’t look like, think like, believe like, or act like us.
Again, I am no expert – cue Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ, which I am reading now. But I am willing to bet that angrily engaging those that we don’t understand or simply disregarding the people that we think are too different from us, are sure-fire ways (that’s my southern training coming out) to keep us from becoming the unified, diverse, incredibly free people of God!
Earlier today, I heard a powerful sermon on Psalm 133. It reads:
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
For there, in the unified place, the Lord ordains his blessing.
If you are anything like me, which you may or may not be, its likely that you have some work to do to move towards loving your brother, neighbor, and dare I say, your enemy. What is in your thought-life towards people who are not like you? It’s okay to be honest, because as I’m learning through Dr. Cleveland’s work, we can actually change the ways that we think about people. We can stop “other-ing” and we can learn the art of neighboring. It is possible. But it starts with being honest and with humbly confessing – to me, to yourself, to a friend, or to God – that you have a lot of work to do.
There's no shame in that. Lord knows that I do. Let’s journey together.