Deenabandhu Manchala, a pastor in Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church, is Executive Secretary in the programme area of Unity, Mission, Evangelism and Spirituality, World Council of Churches, Geneva. In this post he reflects on the other and the processes of othering.
Something I heard in a movie The Rum Dairy has stayed on my mind. Johnny Depp, the actor, in his drunken verve, says that of all the living species, it is only the human species who created a God, prays to God, swears by God and talks about God but destroy that everything that God created.
Doesn’t it make sense? To me it certainly does I have recently been involved in a number of events related to the migrants and migration. I have heard many stories of forced migration, of cheating and exploitation in finding employment, of people working for 16 -18 hours a day and sleeping in tin shacks at 50 degrees centigrade heat, of people dying in boats and containers, of detention and deportation, of abuse and discrimination, and of estranged relationships and emotional trauma. You begin to wonder why human beings are so bad, bad against each other, and unscrupulously exploitative ¨when it is towards the needy and the vulnerable.
The other, the outsider, the one who is different, and the one in need is always seen as a problem, an unwanted intrusion or a cheap commodity. With our loyalties often insanely tied up with identities – national, religious, linguistic, caste, etc., we tend to completely diminish that life-affirming and life-sustaining, positive energy that lies deep within each one of us. Sometimes we resist or mistreat outsiders for the fear of what such an intrusion could mean to our own power, resources, and economic well-being.
Most world religions, including Christianity, while furthering their self-perpetuating missions, have played a major role in this process of ‘othering’. Operating alongside nationalism, ethnicity, racism, patriarchy, and casteism, religions have always encouraged people to nurture inflated self-understandings along with detrimental understandings of those who do not belong to their fold. In fact, this common but often ignored trait of ‘othering’ has been the source of most evils. Whether colonialism and neo-colonialism, slavery and modern forms of slavery, violence against women and other vulnerable groups, child labour, environmental exploitation, different expressions of injustice, war and violence, or corruption and abuse of power – name any, all have their roots in this dynamics of ‘othering’.
‘I am more important than you; my needs and wants, my comforts and luxuries, my dreams and fantasies, my safety and security, my health and wealth are more important than yours because I am special and even ontologically superior to you!’, is the attitude that makes some trample over the dignity and rights of many. It is a kind of collective insanity that seems to overwhelm us, making us wrap it up in the language of culture, policies and strategies.
In a couple of weeks from now, around 4000 people from many parts of the world will gather in Busan, South Korea for the 10th Assembly of the WCC focusing their activitews around the theme: God of Life, lead us to Justice and Peace. Once question that we need to ask perhaps is: How do we liberate the God of life, and all life, from this parochial conscience of her/his believers?
The Just and Inclusive Communities Programme of the World Council of Churches has just released a statement: The Other is my Neighbour as a theological response to the concerns of forced migrants. It argues that the neighbour in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, is not your next door friend, family member, or work colleague, but the nameless, faceless victim, beaten and bruised, and left abandoned by the roadside. It reminds that Christian love for neighbour cannot be contained within circles of familiarity but one that actually requires profound spiritual courage and commitment.
I would further elaborate that point. Jesus was saying that you must not only love your neighbour because she / he is in need or suffering but also even if you don’t know them by name and face, even a stranger! To that extent, all of us, human beings, are neighbours to each other, even if their identity markers are different from ours. Recently, I was at a huge gathering addressed by an Indigenous People’s leader who began his speech with: “My dear relatives…”, and not with Ladies and Gentleman. This is the sense of interconnectivity of life among ourselves and with nature that we need to reclaim as we live out this love for our neighbour.
Therefore, it is not unity but inclusivity that we are called to seek as Christians, in this increasingly exclusionary world. We must ask: Why do we seek unity? Unity is oppressive when the weak and the vulnerable are forced to accept the identity and submit to the powerful. Unity is deceptive when it is claimed alongside the presence of derisive notions of the other. And unity for the sake of safety and stability is selfish and smacks of our appetite for more power and prominence.
Inclusivity, on the other hand, is more than a superficial expression of unity. It recognizes the rights and dignity of the other. It is not merely co-opting but embracing the other despite all the difference. It implies being respectful, affirming the dignity and embracing the other even though the other may be distinctly different. “Accept one another as Christ has accepted you for the glory of God”, St. Paul writes to Romans (15:7).
Why then do we discriminate people right within our churches on the basis of gender, caste, class, region, etc.? Discrimination or exclusion in any form is actually a violation of the commandment of Jesus and a betrayal of the call to witness to the coming reign of God as church. If I may put it sharply, attempts to exclude others on the basis of their identities and status run the risk of rejecting or abusing God’s grace.