The present conflicts in Syria, Egypt, Sudan and the Central African Republic arise from complex backgrounds but they all display a rejection of the ‘other’ who thinks, prays, looks or acts differently. This extract from ‘Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World’ examines this tendency to reject and exclude which can have catastrophic results.
Ethnic cleansing, with its roots in a search for (false) purity and security, provides the worst examples of excluding and rejecting the other. Hutu against Tutsi in Rwanda, Serb against Bosnian in the Balkans and Aryan against Jew in Germany are some of the worst forms of ethnic cleansing in recent history and they are all embodiments of the rejection of the other. Rejection of the other is not confined to history and there are many examples today nearer to home. Whenever a group of people’s presence or ways of thinking pose a threat to the interests of the established group, whether that group be community, church or family, they may be identified as an ‘enemy’ and rejected. Of course, it is important for the established group to challenge and ask questions where appropriate, but the climate in which this is done is vitally important. Indeed, in order to grow as human beings, there needs to be competition as well as affirmation, but all competition and no affirmation are as inimical to growth as all affirmation and no competition. Christians need simultaneously to live in two worlds which are difficult to inhabit at the same time: to be people of conviction and at the same time to be open and vulnerable to new insights which God is trying to provide. There needs to be a true spirit of listening otherwisedifference becomes division through exclusion of the other.
The tendency to exclusion is subversive. Even though people may boast of inclusive policies and attitudes, the shadow side, the irrepressible urge to exclude, is not far away. For example, many western governments quite rightly place high value on human rights and equal opportunity agendas, championing the rights of minority groups, yet at the same time in their approach to other countries some regard all forms of culturally appropriate government by consent a threat unless they are western-style democracies. The important point here is that while an enormous amount is owed to western democracy, political otherness is regarded as unacceptable on the international scene. It is not uncommon for otherness to be embraced in one aspect of life only to be rejected in another.
Tendency to exclude is part of human nature – even the most enlightened of people have exclusionary tendencies. What is important is an awareness of them. But what is very concerning is when religious organizations use religious language to justify excluding the other. Jesus himself was constantly fighting against the way in which his community regarded social outcasts as sinners. There were certain groups within society who were excluded from membership of Jewish religious society whom Jesus sought out and affirmed. Tax collectors were referred to in the same breath as sinners – Jesus, to the consternation of the religious establishment, called down Zacchaeus from a tree and went to dinner with him. Samaritans were regarded with hostility – Jesus used Samaritans as examples of righteousness (Luke 10.29-37; Luke 17.16). The story of the man born blind (John 9.1-41) illustrates the belief that the man is blind because of his sin (John 9.2&34). Jesus challenged all these stereo-types and paid the price for his challenges but his example shows the dangers faced by organizations of good people set up for good reasons. It is easy to point a finger at the religious authorities who were active in the crucifixion of Jesus and dismiss them as innately evil. There were certainly dark forces at work within their activities, but the majority of the people were undoubtedly good and pious people wanting to do the best for their beliefs. Are religious establishments any different today? Which are the groups being excluded today?
The tendency to exclude the other may also be subtle and done in a controlling way. Some forms of exclusion are presented as inclusion. Assimilation is a form of exclusion of the other in that it incorporates one group into the ways and customs of the dominant group, expecting them to conform. Assimilation is very much a live issue in Britain at present as the multi-cultural nature of society is high on the agenda. Assimilation says that you must become a clone of me, whereas those supporting the multi-cultural approach say that you and your people can live here keeping your own customs and traditions provided there is no clash with our customs and traditions. Assimilation rejects your identity and otherness in order to achieve unity: multi-culturalism allows otherness and identity to continue and flourish but its proponents are not strong in articulating a vision which can be owned and debated by society as a whole. This is an important debate to be had, but the recent swing of the pendulum is worryingly close to assimilation where other cultural and religious identities are not respected. Assimilation can also be an issue in personal relations. It is possible in a relationship for the identity of one person to be subsumed by another. When love is confused with control, there is an exclusion of otherness.
Another form of exclusion is abandonment. It is possible simply to ignore deliberately a group or a person with whom there would normally be contact because to be in dialogue with them would be too costly. Such a group may be people crying out because of hunger and injustice in Africa, the travellers who have made an encampment in our community or a member of our family imprisoned for an unspeakable crime. This is well exemplified in the story of the Good Samaritan where the priest and the Levite did not engage with the man who was beaten and left for dead fearing that to do so would prevent them from carrying out their role as religious officials. (Luke 10.29-37)There are many causes and people who jostle for our attention and it is not possible to respond to all, but to turn away through fear of engaging with otherness is a form of exclusion.
It is possible to check whether the otherness of a person or group is being excluded by asking how far their otherness is being respected and how much space they are being given to flourish and become the people that God has created them to be.
Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.