Dont Interact With “Those People”

My first year of seminary, a friend and I decided to move to an apartment in Aurora, a suburb just outside of Denver. I can remember quite clearly the first time we visited. The apartment complex was littered with cockroaches, reeked of ethnic food and rarely washed bodies, and everywhere we turned there was a different language being shouted. The concrete courtyard boasted two trees full of birds, a chaotic collection of children’s bikes, and ragged, barefoot children who were the most resilient beautiful creatures I had seen in a long time. I remember looking at the cockroaches in our would-be-apartment and shrugging at my roommate, they were smaller than what I was used to as a missionary kid in Latin America and Southern California; how bad could it be? And so we headed to life surrounded by neighbours from at least six different countries; nearly all of them refugees of some sort.

The complex, however, was just two blocks from a road called Colfax, a place notorious for prostitution, drugs, violence— all the worst things a city harbours. When we started telling folks about this transition, I was startled by their responses. Many in the faith community we both belonged to vehemently disagreed with our choice to move “out there.” We were vulnerable, they argued. Two, young, single women living on their own, in a place off Colfax? They would try to persuade us, “no, you don’t want to live with those people.” It simply wasn’t safe or wise. We didn’t listen. We moved in, we made friends with the community of refugees, we tutored kids, we ate in their homes, we advocated for them, typed up resumes, drove them to school, and contrary to what people had predicted, we never felt unsafe.

Looking back, a common thread runs through much of the advice we received from people. It was fear, fear of the unknown. It was easy to put that “side” of town out on the edge, to hold it at arm’s length and never engage it or the people who dwell there. In treating the folks who lived there as those people, as a faceless mass, they were effectively dehumanized, stripped of almost anything beyond a stereotype of a danger to be feared. This is what happens in conversations about race, war, enemies, anything where one side must triumph over the other.

When a person or group is dehumanized, they become little more than an object. In our case, the people we lived among were an object to feared. There was a palpable sense of racism that came out as “I don’t dislike you, but I fear you.” Such fear forces distance between differing peoples, and sometimes end in resentment or distrust, born of failure to overcome fear. When a person or group of people is only an object, they become the “other.” Seeing another human being as this nameless, faceless entity, relieves us of the responsibility to engage them as human beings with dignity, value, worth. We forget that those children and adults have hopes and dreams; that they may even be afraid of us in the same we are afraid of them (whoever “us” may actually be).

This is what is happening across the world the past few weeks. The militants of ISIS (or ISIL) refuse to accord their victims dignity and respect as humans. In Ferguson, we’ve forgotten that despite skin colour, those are really human beings on either side, trapped in systems so ingrained they are like oxygen in the air, and we don’t even see them. In Israel and Palestine, each side is the enemy, a nameless force that simply must be overcome. But that enemy is made up of individuals. Persons who are brothers, sisters, parents, wives, husbands. They have dreams, for themselves, for their families. They have hope that things will change tomorrow, and they have fear that things will always be the same. They cry salty tears, and their blood runs red just like ours.

Recognizing a common humanity is important, but there is more to those other the other side than even that. Genesis 1 & 2 describe the creation and significance of humankind by saying that each individual person is created in the image of God. It is this which gives each of humanity unique dignity and value. It is not the things we accomplish, our athletic or intellectual prowess, not our skin colour, our education, religion, or nationality. It is simply that we have all been created by a God who values life, shaped into bearing his image, and endowed with worth because he declares it over us – in the creation, and by coming to save us in the person of Jesus.

Even after sin, evil and death have entered the world, God still sees humanity in his image. In Genesis 9, God declares human life is so important that taking life from any human being “will require a reckoning.” This value is once again linked with the imago dei when God says that, “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made humankind in his own image.” (Gen. 9.6) Human life has inherent value and worth, and is incredibly important to God.

When we look at any group or individual and we categorize them in any way that ignores the image of God, we have failed to see them as God does. And when we fail to regard their humanity – as beautiful and broken as our own – we are enabled to treat them as mere objects, and in turn are given the ability to mar the image of God in ourselves. Because to be in the image of a Creator means to nurture life, not destroy it.

The problems facing us across the globe today are complex and multifaceted. But perhaps one starting point for reconciliation and hope would be to acknowledge our common dignity and value, grounded not in ourselves, but in the one who shapes us and has declared us to be his image-bearers. It may not solve everything, but it would cause us to stop and consider our actions more keenly. This is not a nameless entity that we fear or attack, it is another human being who was created in the image and likeness of the Creator, Sustainer, and Saviour of all life.

Sara once hoped to move to Central Asia and create world peace via her kitchen. Instead, she ended up in grad school. When not sorting through potential thesis topics for her MATh at Denver Seminary, Sara can usually be found working on her chaco tan in the mountains or drinking coffee like a snob in the city.

3 Comments

  • Reply August 26, 2014

    Matt Baker

    Assuming your theology originates with scripture. As you did cite the bible. So I have some bible questions that could affect your perspective. I’d like to see you address how God himself has often ordained the killing of many. Amelikites, Issac, Jesus, Samsons enemies, the enemies of the Judges, and even under a New Covenant God grants “the sword” to governmental authorities to condone good and punish evil as per Romans 13. Pulling that all together with the reality that God never changes and that the moderns King heart is still a river in the hands of The Lord, directing it wherever he pleases. I am with you in a sense. That seeing enemies as image bearers would lead is to pray for our enemies. The church praying for it’s enemies would include praying for ISIS, counter-Christian communities, and communists (okay, that last parts a joke).

  • Reply August 26, 2014

    Sara Evans

    Hey Matt, those are some good points. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I understood everything in your comment. It could have been the way my computer was communicating with the internet this afternoon, but some punctuation and things appeared to have been lost in translation. That being said, I’ll try my best to respond to everything! Some of what you said seems to take us on a divergent path from the original intent of the article, but I am happy to address these in light of what I previously wrote (this is particularly the case in #3 and #4 below). It is kind of long, so I put in numbers to help mark the transitions as I moved through your comment.

    (#1) Hopefully my theology originates in Scripture! Despite being open to things like tradition, experience, reason, as a born and raised evangelical, Scripture has long been at the forefront of my theological studies. If it doesn’t at least start there, then I probably need to be rethinking most of the books in my living room and my massive loan debt to a Christian seminary! ☺

    (#2) It is always important to read passages like Judges, Joshua, Genesis 38, 1 Samuel 14-15, etc in context. That way, we understand what’s going on to have precipitated the actions and helps us understand what God is trying to teach us (and the Israelites) through the events and their later retelling. I recently read a new book on the veracity of the Bible by Craig Blomberg (NT professor, PhD, NIV translation committee). He wrote specifically about the genocide issue, and I think it will be helpful to quote him at length:

    “…Unfortunately, this very label [attempted genocide] misleads. The only offensive war ancient Israel ever fights is against the Canaanites when they entered the promised land; all the others are defensive (even if individual battles within larger wars are sometimes initiated by the Israelites)…Even then, archaeological research has increasingly shown that of the few cities Joshua describes the Israelites actually attacking, several were probably little more than armed encampments, much like modern-day military bases, where the only civilians present are the family members of soldiers and a few basic service personnel. Moreover, all of them had heard of the Israelites and their God, as proved by Rahab’s testimony and action in Joshua 2….”

    Several things are important in this – we’re not talking about massive genocide (like Darfur, Armenia, or Rwanda), and those who were killed had an opportunity to lay down their arms and convert to follow YHWH rather than close themselves off to him and his people. Even though God ordained/allowed for the destruction of these peoples, this was not a first resort on his or Israel’s part, nor does their killing in any way deny that they were made in the Image of God and still had inherent dignity and worth.

    (#3) Romans 13 is an interesting passage to bring up. I don’t actually recall saying in my article that killing or war was never justified, or that we should all become pacifists thanks to seeing other human beings as image bearers. I might lean in that direction, but I am certainly not a full-blown pacifist. I would advocate for Just War Theory, which stipulates a process of attempted reconciliation and peaceful cooperation before going to war. If one must go to war (say in the case of England vs WW2 Germany), then there must be clearly defined goals and exit strategies; war is to be fought for protection of human life, not for decimation. As Saint Augustine said “the purpose of all wars is peace,” and I would tend to agree (I believe that quote comes from the Enchiridion, but I could be wrong). I think that these decisions belong ultimately to the State; though in an ideal situation the State could be informed by a Gospel loving, Christ following Church.

    (#4) I don’t have time or space to address the statement that “God never changes” as this is already getting exorbitantly long and the issue is way off track from the original article. But the statement “God never changes” can be understood in several ways and is not something which all Christians assent to in exactly the same way.

    (#5)There are so many ways we could go with this quote from Proverbs! Philosophically/ theologically, how we understand the guidance and direction of the Lord is a discussion that’s been occurring since at least the 5th century.Today I can think of three pretty common ways of understanding this: Mohlinism or Middle Knowledge (involving God’s knowledge of all counterfactuals but actualizing one specific reality thereby maintaining both human free choice and divine sovereignty), a more liberal Arminian picture in which God is more involved in a general/ultimate goal kind of sense, and the relief that many Reformed folks feel when they discover quantum physics. In Newtonian physics we have direct, linear causality in which one action necessarily causes a specific reaction. Most arguments around sovereignty/predestination operate in this sphere. But Quantum Physics has totally blown this out of the water. Now, we realize that two seemingly opposite realities can be true at the same time (like a paradox). This means, that God may be directing things, but we are still able to make authentic choices.
    Regardless of which tack you take with the Proverbs passage (or many others like it) I would ask whether or not God’s involvement might somehow relieve us of our responsibility to see other as image bearers and to treat them as such? The obvious answer is no. Even as a hard line Calvinist, you cannot say that – Calvin, Beza, Zwingli, the Neo-Reformed, the Neo-Calvinists (a la Kuyper), would never say this. Neither would any of the Neo Puritans today whom I have read or listened to (i.e.: Piper, Chandler, Driscoll, Keller). We are responsible for how we treat others – Jesus declared this to be the second greatest commandment, second only to the first which is to love God.

    (#6) Yes, God calls us to pray for our enemies, and I agree with you so I think we’re largely on the same page. And I’m glad we’re joking about the Commies. I mean, I don’t remember November 1989 very well, but I’m pretty sure it happened. 🙂

    I hope that helps put some of this back in context, and I hope it didn’t stray too far from my original point — God has made all humanity in his image, and despite all of our flaws (our avarice, rudeness, arrogance, destructive tendencies, etc), we are still in his image and it’s time we started acting like it.

  • Reply August 26, 2014

    Matt Baker

    Great response. It’s probably an odd question in some circles whether we’re starting with the bible or not but when playing a game it’s good to know we’re playing by the same rules. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to respond to nearly all of those passages. They weren’t cited by you originally but when I read your blog post they came to mind. However, the problem I think we’re running into, an unfortunate one, is that I believe God’s delegation of “the sword” to the condoning of good and punishment of evil to Govermental entities is highly questioned. Not accusing you of pacifism but I think most end there when diving into the doctrines of man. And when we get “there” I believe a God given mandate becomes challenged. What do we want then; a government that condones evil and punishes good? Yes, life matters but some life will not waiver in their evil. Thanks for your input.

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