Everyone (Who Counts) Is Just Like Me
In our culture its easy to fence ourselves off from people who aren’t like us. Chances are we live in a neighbourhood where people are from a similar socio-economic background. The people we work with are often like us. We worship at churches where there is very little diversity. All of our contacts reinforce the idea that the way we live is “normal.” Sure, there are other people out there who don’t fit into my concept for normalcy, but they must be an anomaly, an exception to the rule. Most people must live like me. We begin to create an understanding of reality that places my experiences and preferences at the normal centre and looks at deviation from them as an aberration. We have two ways of dealing with those who aren’t like us, we either pretend they don’t exist (or at least not in significant enough numbers that they should discredit my ordering of reality) or we construct a stereotype with which we paint them all. We do this politically when conservatives look at liberals as a bunch of bleeding hearts and liberals look at conservatives as universally greedy and uncaring. We can do this socioeconomically when we look at those with more than us as fat cats who are exploiting us or when we look at those with less as lazy and unmotivated. In each case, our understanding of the other is built from ideology and not from real experience. Perhaps we have a hard time distinguishing reality vs. stereotype.
Understanding the Tension: Reality vs. Stereotype
In my time at nightlight, I’ve come to understand that there are no shortcuts in getting to know people. No political ideology or stereotype is sufficient to understand whole groups of people. I had ideas about what people at the margins were like, but it wasn’t until I met and interacted with quite a few of them, that I started to understand something about the lives of the particular people I’d met. I can make some more informed generalizations, but even there, I simply risk making a more informed stereotype. All people aren’t the same, even those who share certain characteristics.
Breaking down this sort of stereotyping is an important goal. After all, beliefs that whole groups of people are the same (always in some undesirable way) have we have seen such evils in history as chattel slavery or genocide. Stereotypes about certain racial, ethnic, socio-economic or political groups allow us to dehumanize them, to blame them for what we believe is wrong with the world and to absolve ourselves to any responsibility to them. Like Cain, we refuse to be our brothers’ keeper.
In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus challenges our categorization of others. A Samaritan, reviled by Jews for his ethnicity, showed kindness that religious Jews would not. It’s fair to say that part of what Jesus is saying is that people can surprise you. The people who are like you aren’t necessarily your friends, and the people unlike you don’t have to be your enemies.
What Would Jesus Do?
How has the church done? There’s evidence that many of us haven’t done well (forgive me painting with such a broad brush). Perhaps we’re guilty of disowning our brothers and sisters in Christ because they interpret certain passages of scripture differently than we do. We’ve vilified those whose political leanings aren’t the same as ours. We’ve written off people from other Christian denominations: what do we think of Evangelicals? Mainline Protestants? Catholics? Orthodox?
Outside of the church, how do we view the poor? Are they all a group of people who deserve their place because they’re lazy and immoral, or does our view of reality allow for more nuance? Do we understand that there isn’t always a clear line between victim and perpetrator? Do we understand the difficulty of those in poverty getting out of it? Might some be victims of circumstances outside of our control? The existence of people who are other than me might seem inconvenient to me, but it’s only as I interact with that inconvenient other, that I see them for who they are, not as an abstraction, but as a human being for whom Christ died. A human with hopes and dreams and talents whatever their flaws.
The next time you’re tempted to write off a whole group of people because you believe they’re all the same, resist the temptation. If you don’t like the poor, make a point to meet some of them. If you don’t like people form a certain denomination, meet of some of them. After all, Jesus could always have said, “human beings. They’re all the same. They’re not worth the effort to save. Let ’em burn.” Instead, Jesus sought and saved wayward people like you and me. It’s our job to do the same.
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PS. nighltight is a multi-denominational drop-in centre allowing Christians from many different denominations to serve people at the Margins. We’re currently open in Belleville and Kingston Ontario. it’s a great place to meet people who are differen than you are, whether they be the poor, the lonely, the needy or Christians from a different denomination. Find out more about volunteering at one of our drop-in centres,