God commands us to love and care for people. It is one of our greatest and most rewarding responsibilities to do this work for God. But do we always listen? Or do arguments sometimes arise in words of fear, of anger, of hatred? Our world gives us many reasons not to care. It is always ready with a reason we should not help. With those reasons at the ready, we often forget to ask God what He wants.
Christians are called to live differently and do difficult things. We are called to lend a hand when others are in trouble or troubled. But those worldly excuses are still so very appealing. They appeal to our longing to forget and our desire to categorize. Most of the time, we don’t even realize we are using them. They sneak into our thoughts in small ways, heard in the words used by us and by our friends, the dialogue in our favorite shows or movies, and even by our preferred political candidates.
God never equivocated when it came to His command for us to love and take care of others. So what makes it so easy to dismiss this call?If we know we are called to care for people—to get in the trenches with them—why is it so easy to convince ourselves not to?
Some helpful insight is found in social research. For decades, social science has examined the way we talk about other people to understand why we make excuses for loving others and acting on that love. Our reasons for not caring—for not stepping in when others need help—mainly fall within four categories: othering, essentializing, dehumanizing, and demonizing.
This way of thinking starts out simply enough: “These people aren’t like us.” We draw a line somewhere between “us” and “them.” Even if we have nothing in particular against them, the distance makes it easier for us to refuse involvement when something bad is happening to them.
Edward Said brought the issue of othering to the forefront with his discussions of Orientalism—the Western view that the Orient is a place exotic, different, and alien. In the concept of othering, there is a dichotomy. On one end, you and everything that is normal and familiar to you. On the other end, people who are different in ways that are abnormal and foreign to you.
In one study of offices with disabled employees, Nanna Mik-Meyer found that when speaking of people with disabilities, coworkers would begin to speak about and draw comparison to different kinds of “others,” such as racial others or immigrants. Even though these groups have little to do with each other, they became related in these people’s minds as “the different ones.” It is possible for these different people, despite being in different groups, to become huddled together at the end of spectrum far away from us in our minds.
This is where we start saying, “Those people . . .”
Once we have grouped people into neater categories, it becomes easier to essentialize. All of those people over there are alike in some way, are they not? Maybe something about their similar distinctiveness explains why these terrible circumstances are happening to them.
This, too, was part of Said’s discussion of Orientalism. This means we begin to think of social categories as stable and inherited, and we associate character traits to these people based on the categorization. It means we think a group can be boiled down an “essence” that speaks for everyone within it. This type of thinking is often associated with negative attitudes and prejudices toward people in those groups.
This is where we start saying, “Those people all . . .”
Once we have people who are alike in a separate category, it becomes easier to think of them only as that category. We start to lose the human element of the conversation. The people—the individuals—within the group begin to slip away.
Think, for example, of the way we talk about refugees. In a study done about refugees protesting immigration detention in Australia, social scientist Lucy Fiske found that the narrative surrounding refugees was dehumanizing. They were portrayed as the victims or the villains, but not as people. They were thought of as a homogenous mass. She explains a study in which every refugee protester in an interview—with no prompting—said, “I am human” or “We are human.” Additionally, Christina Gerken analyzed the discourse on illegal immigrants, demonstrating how politicians used language to describe illegal immigrants as a homogenous mass.
Immigrants and refugees are far from the only group spoken of in this manner. Think about the other homogenous masses that you hear people talk about on the news. The poor. The homeless. The Jews. The Muslims. And on and on. The further people get away from being “people like us,” the easier it is to forget they are, indeed, people.
This is where we start saying, “Those (insert group name here) are all . . .”
At the end of this process, once we have separated these people from ourselves, once we have given them the same (mostly negative) characteristics, once we have taken their humanity out of the equation, we can start to think of them as something else entirely: the looming evil. When Native Americans were the target of this narrative, they were “the savages”—different, evil, irredeemable. In times when tensions were high, the Pocahontas song “Savages” painted an accurate picture of the kinds of rhetoric used in these cases:
“They’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil.”
Throughout history, the subject of the story has shifted, but the words remain the same. This discourse is how Jewish people were painted as the great evil in Nazi Germany. We should recognize it well, as even Christians have been targets of this rhetoric.
Consider our current examples. We represent the poor with the “welfare mom” and equate them to parasites. We represent Muslims with terrorists to paint them all as vermin. We represent people with drug addictions as the perpetual criminal. We speak of anyone coming into the country—or even sometimes those born into the country—as an invasion coming to destroy our way of life.
This is where we start refusing even to use the group’s name. We say, “Those parasites.” “Those barbarians.” “Those vermin.”
At one point or another, all of us have been guilty of thinking or speaking in these ways. We probably do not even realize we are doing it. It comes easily. It helps us to stop caring about the people we have safely packaged up and put elsewhere.
Nevertheless, God was clear about what our responsibilities are as His people: feed the hungry, give hospitality to the lost and homeless, give provisions to those who have none, care for the sick, and love your neighbors (Matthew 25:34–36, 40). God did not falter on our responsibility to love and care for others even when they hate us (Luke 6:27–33).
The overwhelming message from God is love. Because God is love. Jesus considered “love thy neighbor” so important that he said it was the second most important commandment after loving God.
Even knowing that, it’s still difficult to break that othering pattern of thinking. I grew up in a very homogenous place where it was easy to make assumptions about people who were unlike me, even to hate those people despite never having met them.
It was only when life threw me into a diverse environment that I realized what I had been doing. These people had not been people to me before that point. As you begin to get to know them, it gets hard to hate. It’s hard to hate those of a different sexual orientation when you’re comforting them as they cry. It’s hard to hate those of a different religion when you see the fear in their eyes. It’s hard to hate those of a different nationality or race when you see what they must face every day.
I do not think there is any better reflection of God’s love than the happiness and relief on the faces of my friends and neighbors when I offered them what I had to give—even if it was just my time or a few kind words.
As soon as I made an effort to get to know and care for people different from me, things started changing for me too. People saw God’s love in my heart. And they wanted to know more about it. People who were staunchly anti-religious were asking me about God. They saw God’s love through someone who cared about them, and He started to represent something different to them.
I see God’s love now in the people who reach out to those who need it, whoever they may be. I see God’s love in my sister, teaching children of different nationalities and backgrounds than her own and making sure they know they matter. I see God’s love in my brother, spending his weekends working with the homeless to see they are taken care of. I see God’s love in my mother, going out of her way to get to know her diverse neighbors and help them feel more welcome. God’s love is all around us in the form of people who do not let our differences divide us and commit to love and care for all people.
If we know we are called to care for people in this way, why is it so easy to convince ourselves not to?
Part of it is that we have a reason for wanting to think that way. We want to ignore some element of humanity in another group of people to make the decision between two options easier. The problem with this is that there are far more than two sides to any issue. The world rarely works in black and white. Such thinking closes us off to other options on the spectrum. However, I imagine a large part of holding to an othering mentality is that it blinds us to something we do not want to see. If we actually started caring about the suffering of people the world over, not just the ones easiest for us to relate to, it would hurt. The suffering in the world is great, and the weight of all of that hurts.
I ask you to let it hurt. Let it hurt enough that you want to fix it.
Let it hurt enough for you to seek these people out in any way you can. Listen to their stories. Get to know them as people. As soon as this happens, someone different will never be “those people.” They will become your friend, your neighbor, your favorite author. They will be close confidantes or admired public figures. It may be hard, and it will probably hurt, but you will never miss out on the chance to show God’s love to the amazing people around you.
Let it hurt enough for you to speak out against othering in all its forms when you hear it. It may be difficult, but you will be helping to break down the barriers that keep us from fulfilling God’s commandments.
God intended Christians to be a force of love in the world. He intended us to take care of each other. It is time we break down the barriers in our thoughts, our words, and our actions that separate us from each other. Let us only argue about how best to care for people and what more we can do. Let us put divisiveness behind us and focus instead on God’s love.
Look at the people all around you and see their humanity. Listen to their stories and their pain. Don’t distance yourself. Don’t drown it out. You may find yourself seeing someone more like you than you ever expected.
Fiske, L. (2016). Human rights and refugee protest against immigration detention: Refugees’ struggles for recognition as human. Refuge 32(1), 18–27.
Gerken, C. (2013). Dehumanizing the undocumented: The legislative language of illegality. In Model immigrants and undesirable aliens: The cost of immigration reform in the 1990s (111–150). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Linares, S.M. (2016). Othering: Toward a critical cultural awareness in the language classroom. HOW: A Colombian Journal for Teachers of English 23(1), 129–146.
Lutman, B., Lynch, C., & Monk-Turner, E. (2015). De-demonizing the ‘monstrous’ drug addict: A qualitative look at social reintegration through rehabilitation and employment. Critical Crime 23(1), 57–72.
Mik-Meyer, N. (2016). Othering, ableism and disability: A discursive analysis of co-workers’ construction of colleagues with visible impairments. (em>Human Relations 69(6), 1,341–1,363.
Segall, G., et al. (2015). The intergenerational transmission of ethnic essentialism: How parents talk counts the most. Developmental Science 18(4), 543–555.
Semmerling, T. J. (2008). Those evil Muslims: Orientalist fears in the narratives of the War on Terror. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 28(2), 207–223.