The Work of Dehumanization and the Gospel Challenge
We are constantly exposed in our culture to subtle and not so subtle messages meant to dehumanize others and to make us less empathic toward the suffering of others. These messages are a basic part of our culture because our culture, unfortunately, is deeply rooted in war, domination, and racism.
In the United States, our rhetoric soars with justice, equality, peace, and freedom for all. Our Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and political speeches that echo from the hallowed halls of history give us hope for the ideals of what this nation could be, what is it’s potential. But, we have to be honest.
This country exists the way it does because of slavery, war (sold as redemptive violence … fighting for freedom and democracy!), racism, and economics that exploit the resources of others. This country is a place built so that some thrive and others do not. In order for these injustices and violences to thrive, we have to spend significant time dehumanizing others (because, really, I think we humans have something at core that connects to other human beings and we want to believe — and live — our soaring, beautiful rhetoric).
So how does our social messaging help to dehumanize others? I made a helpful “how to” list. I’m sure you could add something, though. It’s not exhaustive.
How to dehumanize people and reduce empathy for people different than yourself:
Categorize all people in a group different than yourself as the same. This is a natural human tendency — we find categorization easier for our brain: dog, cat, tree, flower, etc. It helps us survive, or it did back when survival was a matter of split second decisions all the time. You know, like on the open Savannah:
“Oh, a lion.” brain: Lion = DANGER *runs immediately*
Not: “Oh, a lion” brain: I wonder if that’s a full lion or a hungry lio … *gets eaten*
Judge all people in the group by the worst offenders of universal moral norms. Give them the labels of those offenders: terrorist, drug dealers, rapists, murderers … this makes it easier for our primal brain to think as above, person from other people group = DANGER
Find ways to back up bias with pseudo (read fake) science. Then it’s not about feelings! Apparently, it is really common for people to think of other people groups as less evolved than them. I’d like to think that Darwin is rolling in his grave. Don’t believe me, check out this disturbing article.
Use language to describe people in the other people group as not human. For example, the Nazis regularly called Jews “rats.” And during the Rwandan genocide, Hutu officials called Tutsis “cockroaches.” And during the argument about welcoming Syrian refugees, Americans opposed to refugee resettlement re-framed the argument as being about poisonous skittles. This makes people easy to discard because they are re-categorized in our minds as pests, inhuman, disposable. Right, because you can’t have empathy for a skittle … oh, and of course, poisonous skittles and infestations are threatening.
Find other ways to make people in other people groups laughable. Come up with jokes, caricatures, and memes. This makes them seem more unreal, easier to laugh at, and less valuable. It also normalizes hate speech and makes it comfortable. If we laugh, it must be okay (the double edged sword of humor) Read more here: Humor and Hatred
Make our worst tendencies toward others seem good. Make them patriotic, brave, or fun. Revenge isn’t bad: it spreads freedom and justice. Or maybe it’s just natural. Killing people is brave … especially lone gunmen out to save the world. (note also movies that make the hero a lone gunman who saves the day by killing lots of “bad guys”) A lynching is a picnicking event.
Please don’t act surprised that some people who live more in the midst of this dehumanizing rhetoric and who have more fear and less empathy go on shooting rampages to “rid the world” of some group, like what happened in Christchurch, NZ. Quit pretending to be shocked and convinced this comes out of nowhere. We’ve taught them to do this! No doubt, it’s wrong. It’s absolutely reprehensible. It’s shocking and horrible and too hard to believe that people could just take so many human lives like that, in an instant, in an act of hate. But it’s not like it comes out of nowhere.
I really do believe, though, that this is wrong. That this is against what God wants for human life. That this is evil. And I think that the life of Jesus invites us constantly to challenge these dehumanizing messages. And I think that to be a disciple of Jesus concerned about the reign of God in this world (God’s reign being about that kingdom that we pray would come and God’s will be done … you know, on earth as in heaven), we are called to constantly work against such dehumanizing messages. We are called to challenge even the most basic of these dehumanizing messages: that people who belong to other people groups are “them” at all. We are all human beings created in the image of God. And that’s the truth.
What else did Jesus do that challenged messages of dehumanization and the numbing of empathy toward others? I made a helpful list. I’m sure there’s more, though. Maybe you could add something?
What Jesus does and challenges any who would follow him to do:
Learns from strangers — even ones he doesn’t seem to like
Talks to “enemies” (remember: Jews and Samaritans were at times deadly enemies)
Consistently, the Gospel makes the “outsider” the hero of the story
Mark 15: 42-47
Admonishes the disciples to “love your enemy” and “pray for those who persecute you.”
Actually forgives the people killing him while dying on the cross
Luke 23: 33-34
Treats and teaches that all people are individuals with individual value
John 9: 1- 7 (this echoes Ezekiel 18:1-4)
Holds up the faith of “outsiders”
Luke 4: 24-30
Makes people reexamine their assumptions about who is “in” and who is “out” and which group is blessed by God.
John 8: 32-47
Luke 4: 24-30
John 12: 20-32
Cautions that violence toward others in quite literally a two edged sword
Can we work on this? Can we work on regularly noticing the way that the messages around us dehumanize others? Can we work consistently on pointing it out (because laying it bare reduces it’s power). Can we seek to follow Jesus in actually being changed by, learning from, and welcoming those who are different from us?