Growing up in Florida, I knew moving to Denver, Colorado was going to be a big change. Freezing temperature and snow replaced suffocating, humid heat and constant thunderstorms; big city attitude replaced southern hospitality; and good southern cooking is now precious commodity. I realized one of the biggest changes when I started using public transportation, something that Florida does not really have.
Using public transportation in a metropolis can teach you a lot about people and even disrupt your preconceived notions about those who are radically different than yourself. You are often be forced to sit by someone who looks, acts, and thinks seemingly quite different than you. This causes us to either ignore those around us, or invites us to disrupt our personal space by inviting someone else to be a part of our lives, even if just for a brief moment. Perhaps this disruption is just what we need in a day and age when we are constantly faced with the “Other”—the other race, the other religion, the other lifestyle, the other nation-state, and so many other types of “otherness.” As I read stories like the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), I can’t help but think about my own embrace (or exclusion) of the human beings I encounter on a daily basis, especially those who are different than me.
As the global nature of the world becomes the new norm and our ability to seclude ourselves from those around us is nearly non-existent, Christ-followers must find a new respect for the humanity of the Other. This does not mean we give up our individual uniqueness. Even more importantly, this does not mean we cease to use Spirit-led discernment in our lives. However, we should adopt ways of thinking/practices which make our encounters with otherness redemptive and contributive to the betterment of God’s complex—but beautiful—world.
How do we begin to encounter the Other?
- Deep Self-Knowledge – Plato, the Greek philosopher, once said, “The essence of knowledge is self-knowledge.” We spend our life gathering knowledge about the world around us; this is an important part of being in society. However, this knowledge does not really impact us until we can put it in relationship to ourselves. Even more importantly, we cannot truly begin to understand the world around us until we understand ourselves—on an individual and communal level. The starting place for encountering the Other forces us to encounter ourselves through taking note of what has formed us into the types of human beings we are.
- Intentional Displacement – During my senior year of high school, I spent a couple weeks in Athens, Greece as a short-term missionary; I experienced difference in a way I never had before. There is a value in putting ourselves in situations which force us to interact with people who live radically different lives than our own. Too often, we make judgments about people from a distance without actually getting up close to see if our preformed understandings are actually correct. We must find ways of leaving the comfortable familiar and entering into the destabilized unknown.
- Open-Mindedness – For those of us who come from Evangelical of fundamentalist circles, “open-mindedness” often hits our ears as a sort of pun for uncritical acceptance. Indeed, there are those who make the argument—in some cases, quite academically—that open-mindedness must lead to changing one’s mindset, beliefs, or convictions…no matter what. Pushing back on the imperative, I want to suggest that being open-minded may lead to us changing our minds about certain things. Furthermore, it may actually put us in a better position to be more receptive of those around us. Rather than having our minds made up about the Other, open-mindedness actually allows for our assumptions to be challenged and some cases, critically changed. It is also through this critical engagement with the other that we can truly begin to understand our own beliefs and worldview.
- Seeing Humanity in Others – Part of the work this displacement thought does is found in its exposure of what we really mean with our words. When we apply this to the concept of otherness, it becomes apparent that when we label something “Other”—that which is not us—there is a chance than we actually mean to inscribe something much deeper. In fact, our society often unintentionally (and sometimes, intentionally) uses otherness to inscribe less-than-human status to those who are different. If we are going to follow Christ, we must counteract demonizing the Other by seeing the human element in those around us as we simultaneously see their difference. In a real way, honoring difference is a critical aspect of encountering the Other. Difference, rather than sameness, seems to be the one constant in God’s creative work.
There are many complex issues facing today’s society, especially those which diminish the humanity of many people in the world. It does not take long to realize that many of the problems we are facing are rooted in the way in which we encounter the Other. Through deep self-knowledge, intentional displacement, open-mindedness, and affirming the humanity in those around us, we can begin to practice redemptive encountering of otherness. Rather than being uncritical about difference, we can begin to embrace our God’s complex—but beautiful—world.