Letter from the Editor: The Company We Keep

Our closest friends reveal much about who we are. The company we keep will shape us in profound ways, in attitude, perspective, opinion, speech, deed, and faith. We become like those we spend time with. We are influenced by them, affected by them.

Whoever is close to you will change your life. Change can be scary though, triggering fear in our hearts about people who are different getting too close and changing life as we currently know it. Fear causes us to back away from people who aren’t like us. So we shrink our worlds down to comfort zones containing people with similar backgrounds, abilities, intellect, faith, ethnicity, and ideals.

Anyone who might disturb the status quo is shut out.

We all do this to a degree; most of us feel the heat of shame when we realize how readily we distance ourselves from the unfamiliar. But in recent months, this practice has become public with our country’s change in immigration policy. Instead of shame, many are cheering the wisdom of keeping a tight grip on the status quo, of keeping Others from getting too close.

In this issue of the Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, we look at the company we keep and the measures we take to maintain sameness for the sake of comfort. The features and curated support articles help us think through our tendencies to befriend only those who make us feel safe and comfortable.

Julie Ooms leads the way with a look at two novels: Mark Twain’s controversial classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 science fiction novel Left Hand of Darkness. In “Beyond Otherness Is Where Friendship Begins,” Ooms admits:

On the face of it, these two books have little to do with each other, let alone with contemporary immigration laws. But I’m struck by how similar—and how applicable—they are nonetheless. Their shared themes provide a counterpoint to what I saw every time I turned on the news or scrolled through my Facebook feed. Both books’ protagonists are befriended by people they’ve been taught to view as alien, other, or lesser. And both learn—painfully, and incompletely, but they learn—to see past these preconceptions and fully value the humanity of these others who have become their friends.

Learning is truly key to befriending the “alien, other, or lessor.” We need to see our propensity to see others as less than human, which is what Michael Morgan speaks to in “Survivolatry: American Darwinism via The Walking Dead”:

Though Christians won’t likely face a zombie apocalypse anytime soon, we can’t dismiss Carol’s travails as mere dark fantasy. The fiction reaches into our nonfiction hearts and draws to the surface survivolatry we excuse in ourselves. Divorced from the implications of the transcendent, which is to say lacking the fear of the Lord, the attentive dread of death makes our culture intensely Darwinian in its own right. And, the specter of terrorism has given a whole new life and intensity to our fear.

[. . .]

When you boil it down, the law of the jungle is about single-minded self interest. That’s what drives animals to compete and eke out their own existence by devouring and displacing others. Our human condition has kept this self-interested ferocity wholly intact, though we have gussied it up in manners and politics. If anything, our fanatical absorption with this present life has only intensified as it echoes back from the idea of blank nothingness at the end of life. On top of fearing for our lives, we now also fear—perhaps even more so—for our way of life.

The way we see life isn’t the trouble—it’s that we think our way is THE way, the right way, the only way. This positions us as those who have arrived, which automatically downgrades any other perspective. Associating with people unlike ourselves breaks down the us vs. them barrier. In “The Disabled Sainthood of Speechless,” Allison Barron highlights the lessons we can learn from a TV show about how to befriend those with illness or disability:

I am not a saint because I have a chronic illness, nor do I want to be. Yet, sometimes society puts those who experience some sort of disability on a pedestal or considers them something “other.” Sometimes we make assumptions about people with a disability or a physical impairment, and we treat them in a way that makes us feel good rather than how the person actually wants to be treated.

A willingness to examine our motives for how we treat those who are different is needed. Such an assessment exposes the ways that we justify self-preservation at the expense of others—a painful realization, to be sure. Self-sacrifice sounds good, until you have to do it. Then we need a love greater than self; we need to love our neighbor fully, and we will not love them unless we know them. John Graeber helps us by sharing how his family has been affected by the recent immigration policy changes, in “Tearing Down the Statue of Liberty”:

I have never met my sister. Travel to Kenya is prohibitively expensive, even more so when multiplied by the five members of my own family. Cost and the occurrences of life have gotten in the way. My parents have also made a commitment to make sure that one of them is always with her. Which means I have not seen them, together, in years.

[. . .]

I have a lot of thoughts about the President’s plan to bar refugees from countries he considers a threat to our national security, but primarily I’ve been thinking about my sister. In my mind, my assumption was that in time, perhaps a long time, her status would be resolved and she would be able to travel to the United States. Now I’m not sure that will ever happen.

The people who are not like us are, nonetheless, people. They have families and lives and hopes and dreams, just like us. Learning to befriend those who are not like us, in whatever way, breaks down the barriers in our own hearts and minds. National policy may be in the news, but we all know what’s in our own hearts—it’s not much prettier in there. Learning to befriend those who are utterly different from ourselves is nothing short of a miracle. We need God’s grace to soften our hearts, weaken our defenses, embolden us to step out in faith. Befriending others will change us. And change is good.

In This Issue