Seeing the "Strangeness" of Others, and taking off the Binoculars

Like most of us, my thoughts have been consumed this past week by racism, violence, grief and frustration.  It has been a terrible week of tragedy–Sterling, Castile, and the police officers in Dallas–terrible not because fatal shootings are so rare in this country (they most certainly are not), but terrible because of the shocking nature and scale of them. As Martin Zimmann wrote in his excellent post for Living Lutheran, it really is “enough,” isn’t it? [Read it here:  Enough]

Thanks to some other things I was reading last week, I have been thinking about these shootings in a larger frame of “otherness,” because I think at least part of the problem we are dealing with in this country is our inability to understand and empathize with the “Other.”  In an article coming out in the fall issue of Dialog, Richard Payne talks about the religious “Other,” and how we too often [and too quickly] “reframe the religiously Other in such a fashion as to fit into one’s existing understanding,” seeking to make the strange familiar.  That is, I do not work to understand the “strangeness” of my Muslim sister on her own terms, but rather too quickly force her into a familiar pattern based on my own Christianity.  [And either accept or reject her on the basis therof.]  Payne describes this process using the phrase “re-occupied positions” [he takes that concept from Hans Blumenberg], which points to the way religious views “wind up being reformulated in familiar forms”–making Buddhist concepts answer Christian questions, for example.

His basic insight was echoed by a powerful piece in The New York Times by Michael Eric Dyson [Death in Black and White].  In that essay, Dyson talked about the “binoculars” that white people receive at birth, which allow us to see black lives from a distance, and filter everything we see and hear through mostly invisible lenses of systemic racism and white privilege.  Many of us go our whole lives without even realizing that those binoculars are there, assuming that what we see is just “the way things are.”   These binoculars function like Payne’s “re-occupied positions;” that is, they enable us to reinforce our basic beliefs about other people [and the world in general] using our own familiar categories and stories, avoiding the difficult and painful work of stepping out into the “strange” and disorienting.

It takes a great deal  of persistent effort to remove these binoculars and see through the lenses of another, but we must find a way to do that if we are ever to break through the silos of religion, class, race, gender and sexual orientation that alienate and divide us.  We’re called to listen, to learn, to open our hearts and minds to others’ stories and experiences, and then to act:  to be changed, and to see and live differently.  It’s as hard as it sounds, and equally as necessary.

This is especially critical for race relations in the United States–and interreligious relations as well [particularly Christian-Muslim relations]–but it also is important for how we view other “Others” as well.  For me, given the frighteningly xenophobic comments Trump and others have made lately, I think this is particularly true about refugees and immigrants.  In that context, I want to share two things I read last week.  The first was a New Yorker article about the current situation in Syria, where Assad’s government is conducting a systematic assassination of doctors, working to deprive the entire country of any level of health care.  The article reports that in the past five years, the Syrian government has tortured and killed almost 700 medical personnel, including the last pediatrician in Aleppo and the last cardiologist in Hama.  Can you imagine living in a country like that, where medical aid supplies aren’t allowed to get through, where hospitals are intentionally bombed, and where the few doctors who are left rely on Skype and texts to foreign doctors to complete emergency procedures for which they were never trained?  Think about that the next time you see a picture of desperate refugees fleeing the country.  The other thing I have been reading is a book called The Power of the Dog.  It is a heavily researched fictionalized account detailing the role of US government agencies in the War on Drugs, and the awful toll that violence took on Mexico in particular and Latin America in general.  Can you imagine a society where the police work on behalf of drug lords, kidnapping and killing people at the will of vicious criminals? Think about that next time you hear someone talk about “illegals” and building walls.  Before we assume we know who they are, before we assign them a value or not, based on our own view of the world, we should take the time to hear their voices and learn their histories, and then accept their “strangeness”–and how that disorients the familiar stories we tell about the world we live in.

I tend to be very optimistic in general, but I have to admit, this week has made me feel very pessimistic about our society and what lies in store for us.  I don’t know if we are heading downward or upward, but I know for sure that without more genuine and humble understanding, more empathy, and more acceptance of others’ “strangeness” things are not going to get better.  Our binoculars simply have to come off.


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