Violence is familiar to me, having grown up in Beirut, Lebanon and spent most of my life traveling to the neediest places on earth. Many times I have experienced the scourge of deadly warfare. Headlines are full of racially-charged tragedies. And while the circumstances are different, the underlying causes that perpetuate a culture of distrust and hysteria, that escalates and threatens to shove society into the oncoming traffic of anger and hate remains the same.
It’s what philosopher Michael Foucault referred to as “othering.” When we see ourselves as members of a group described as “we,” and other people are formed into a different membership we call “they,” we begin a process of alienation that can quickly decline into dehumanizing others. As we perceive our circumstances to be declining, we begin to blame the “other” and vice versa until we fall into a self-fulfilling fulcrum of fear and paranoia.
Foucault’s theory is built on our desire to maintain power to protect the “we,” and “knowledge” is instilled amongst our young to protect ourselves from the “other.” Survival is maintained by illuminating weaknesses in “others” to make ourselves feel better. It is a powerful weapon that, left unchecked or unchallenged, will get people killed.
The media, politicians, and—sadly—many of our religious leaders fuel the embers by reinforcing our differences and obscuring the majority of similar values and beliefs that hold society and culture together.
“The choice for the church in every age will always be, Will our identity be shaped by Scripture or by our culture—by the biblical story or the cultural story?” Leslie Newbigin
Our culture has become hypersensitive to language and we have co-opted words into different positions. People hear what you say and read into it what they think. Standing for “this” is quickly misconstrued as standing against “that.” The challenge in our current discourse is that the “this” and “that” are not ideas or ideals—they are people. Black and white represent individuals made in the image of God bearing intrinsic worth and value.
The Bible is clear about our response in times and circumstances like this. Our focus should not be on “we” versus “others” or “this” versus “that,” and instead about “me.” Psalm 139 is King David’s honest self-reflection before an all-knowing, all-seeing God.
David understands that he is filled with bias, unable to trust his own thoughts. Later in the chapter, he even lapses into a commentary on “God’s enemies” but retreats in humility, understanding that he is not fit to judge. This realization lands him in a posture of prayer. A prayer of surrender.
“Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” Psalm 139:21-24
Jesus, of course, takes it one step further beyond self-reflection to self-sacrifice. The one with all power gave it all away; a loving God donated himself for a sinful, angry world. Applying God’s gift of reconciliation to us, Miroslav Volf says, “At the heart of the cross is Christ’s stance of not letting the other remain an enemy and of creating space in himself for the offender to come in.”
Who is the offended and who is the enemy? Of black lives matter or black vs. blue? Both are offended and both are the enemy, circumstances of an escalating culture of real violence, paranoia and fear. And if I am honest with myself, it lives in me.
It was in me one Saturday night when I walked back to my car in the dark parking lot of Walmart and was startled by a young black man in baggy jeans stepping out of the shadows. For an instant he was the “other” and I was the “we.” It was fleeting, but it was there. I hate that it was there. I nervously smiled at him and he nervously smiled back. I got in my car and was reminded that Christ sees the both of us as David describes:
“Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Psalm 139:12-16
I am first and foremost created by God. Not as a white man or an American, but as His child. Not governed solely or ultimately by the law of my country or culture, but by the laws and direction of my God and what He requires of me. The apostle Paul puts it like this, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” Galatians 5:14-15
Jesus did not call us to take positions against each other, but towards one another. We are to love even our enemies, even if they are “anti” you! I can empathize with the offender, serve the offended with compassion, and demonstrate extravagant love to all. I am to love all and make room to draw them in and toward a God who passionately loves us!
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:8