“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Out of great struggle rise great women and men, to do great things. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of these. His voice gave dignity to African-Americans in a world that gave them none. His example of nonviolent resistance gave others the courage to stand for truth in love. His ideas fueled a movement toward freedom and equality that continues to this day.
MLK’s legacy is an American treasure. But it is a treasure big enough for all people to share.
I was reminded of the above quote from MLK’s book, Stride Toward Freedom, a couple of weeks ago when I preached on Epiphany Sunday. My sermon was on diversity, on the ways we “other” others. Sound odd? Here’s an excerpt…
“Others,” and How They Are Made
It happens all the time, and we’re all prone to it. We all like to be around people who are like us, people who generally think the same way we do, who dress much the same way we do, who speak the same language, like the same food, have similar interests. But then someone new arrives on the scene, someone who doesn’t quite fit the mould, someone who looks a little different, who speaks a little different, who likes different things.
It’s so easy for us to fear the different. Often this is motivated by ignorance—we just don’t know what to make of them, we don’t know what their presence might mean for us. And so we’re afraid: there’s something threatening about their differences, as if we think they might undermine our own comfortable life just by their presence, as if the fact that they think and do things differently might call into question the legitimacy of the way we think and do things.
At this point things are still salvageable. Difference is not the problem. But when, out of ignorance and fear, we push differences to the outside, we make the different into the outsider, then we have a problem. They are no longer “us”; they’re not even “you’s” anymore, people we address directly. They are simply “them,” “those people,” consigned to third person pronouns.
But things can even get worse. When someone we’ve labeled an outsider actually does something to us, or our family, or our community, when one of “those people” does something that threatens something we hold dear, the outsider can become the enemy. Then it’s not simply “us” and “them”: it’s “us versus them.” Suddenly “those people” get blamed for everything that’s going wrong. Suddenly the greatest threat to our world is Muslims, or evolutionists, or gays, or whatever we’ve made into our polar opposite—and if nothing is done, we believe, the world as we know it will be lost. Again, more ignorance and fear.
The different becomes the outsider, the outsider becomes the enemy—but we’re not done yet. In extreme cases, we then demonize these enemies, we de-humanize them. Think of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden: by the time they died they were no longer seen as flesh-and-blood human beings, regular people who still had to get dressed every morning, who still laughed and loved with friends and family. Our greatest enemies become symbols of something greater, something more terrible; they become icons of evil. And then we can imagine horrible things done to them that we would never wish on any flesh-and-blood human being.
The different becomes the outsider, the outsider becomes the enemy, and the enemy is demonized, stripped of their humanity.
Reversing this “Othering”
But this is not the way of Jesus. This is not the gospel. Jesus is about breaking down walls, erasing lines in the sand, widening circles, extending tables.
In a brilliant passage that deserves careful, repeated reading, Ephesians 2 describes how Jesus has come to “destroy the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles: he “preached peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near,” in order to create “one new humanity” and thus “bring peace” (Eph 2:14-18).
Here’s the hard part, the more excellent way, the narrow road. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, motivated by love, we are called to reverse this process of “othering”: to humanize our enemies, to bring the outsider in, to celebrate our differences.
“There is no fear in love,” we’re told in 1 John 4, “but perfect love casts out fear.” So we begin to follow Jesus in this by replacing fear of others with love. We don’t fear those who are different simply because they are different; we love them.
This sounds so idealistic, and it is—the gospel is idealistic, the kingdom of God is the ultimate in idealistic, imagining a world better than the one we’ve got now. But this love can still take seriously the dangers around us. Sometimes we have legitimate reason to fear other people. Sometimes other people’s actions do threaten something or someone we hold dear. We should be cautious in a dangerous world. We still lock our doors at night; we don’t leave our keys in the ignition; we don’t let our kids walk alone across town. We promote just laws, and compassionate policing, and restorative justice.
Yet if this appropriate caution becomes a fear that drives us, defining the way we interact with those we meet day by day, defining the way we engage those who are different than us, making the different the outsider and the outsider the enemy—then we need love to drive out that fear. That kind of fear-based approach to those who are different just doesn’t work. It has got us as a human race into a mighty mess—polarized politics, radicalized religion, angry fundamentalism, culture wars, real wars—and we need love to drive that fear away.
This love is not a sentimental “smile and nod” kind of love. It is heartfelt, active, Jesus-love. It shows interest in the other person, in their loves and longings, their joys and sorrows. It learns about that person, where they’re from, what they eat, what they like to do, how they live. It reaches out to that person in their need—loneliness, despair, hunger, illness, grief—and accepts help from that person when we’re in need. This Jesus-love is a love that gives itself for the other, even when it hurts, even when the other is different, an outsider, an enemy.
And when we love like this, the process of “othering” someone else turns back on itself. That enemy we have demonized, is humanized. We see them for who they are: people just like us, just as frightened as we are behind their pomp and power, feeling just as threatened in their world, with things they value and people they love, longing for the basics of a meaningful human life—good and nourishing food, clean air and water, warm shelter and clothing, personal freedom, a safe home, loving relationships, dignity and respect.
And when we love like this, the outsider is brought in. It’s no longer “us versus them” or even just “us” and “them”—the third-person “those people” becomes a second-person “you” as we engage them directly, and then even a first-person “one of us.” We break down the walls that divide us, we erase the high-stakes lines in the sand, we widen the circle, we extend the table and invite them in for Faspa. Whatever “those people” we’ve created, we open our arms and say, “Welcome here.”
And when we love like this, the different are celebrated. Love doesn’t erase our differences. We recognize that just as we’re all the same—humans together on the same planet hurtling through the galaxy around the same sun—so we recognize that we’re all different. Different abilities, different ideas, different interests, different dreams, different clothes, different shades of skin, different shapes and sizes, different names, different people. And we celebrate this: we welcome the Magi from the East just as we’ve welcomed the shepherds from the hill country, and just as God welcomes slave and free, Gentile and Jew, male and female, from every tribe and nation and people and language.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.