I have often wondered, as many have before me, whether it is truly possible to know and understand others. Even those that I know and love the most can be a mystery to me. Just when I think I understand them or know all there is to know (even after 15 years of marriage, for example), something surprises me and changes how I perceive them.
So often, without realizing it, I put my own assumptions, prejudices, and perspective on who I think other people are. This is normal. It’s part of how we are able to function in the world, but if these things go unexamined they can become dangerous and turn into all kinds of isms (racism, sexism, etc.).
There are so many things that make the human family diverse and distinct; culture, language, customs, dress, religion, norms, etiquette, etc. These things don’t have to divide us, but they often do.
There are also many things that we have in common across all these differences. They are expressed in different ways, but underneath the cultural practices are common values such as security, and well-being of the family, community, and tribe.
As Christians, we believe in a God that is both transcendent, completely other and unknowable, and immanent, accessible and relatable. The incarnation of the Divine in Jesus of Nazareth is the ultimate and foundational act of crossing over to the Other. For this reason, the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas as the most important feast of the church year. While Easter is still central to Christian faith, it is not even possible without the cosmic mystery of the incarnation.
Unfortunately, Christian history is filled with stories of those in the church creating ways to “other” people rather than follow the Incarnate One. I am currently reading Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings in which he unpacks the way that the concept of race is intimately tied to the church’s role in colonization as it sought to spread the Gospel.
The various shades of bodies that my European ancestors encountered, colonized, and enslaved demanded an accounting and reckoning as they were forcibly displaced from the lands that defined them. This theology transforms these bodies into others who were more or less able to acquire salvation depending on the hue of their epidermis.
Long before the movement for gay rights and then LGBTQ rights we have othered those who did not fit into our understandings of sexuality, gender, or relationships. If we are being honest as cis-gendered, heteronormative people, we feel discomfort at the thought of the bodies of LGBTQ people. Othering them keeps us from having to reckon with their experiences and realities.
Put another way, othering people always allows us to maintain the status quo of injustice, sin, and brokenness in the world. It also makes it possible to ignore the real, radical message of Christianity: the brokenness that we have created through transforming bodies into others can and has been redeemed and reconciled through the transformation of Jesus’ body in the resurrection.
Featured photo of captives being brought on board a slave ship on the West Coast of Africa (Slave Coast), c1880. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)