Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Who is human?

"Christians are called by Christ to humanize those statistics." - Archbishop Wilton Gregory (Atlanta, GA)

This week's topic: God and the Human Being. In our class discussion, we talked about theological themes that appear in public discourse. One undercurrent I've noticed is dehumanizing the "opposition". This is certainly nothing new. Some places this comes to mind -

The business world: how many times do we make our opponent into an 'it' rather a "he/she/they"? Plenty of examples here - supervisor/employee, salesperson/competition, employee/customer. All of a sudden, we move from business transactions to demonizing the other, to treating them as if they are a thing, not a human being with emotions and feelings, all in the name of winning.

The immigration debate: Forgive me for indulging in what seems to be "topic of the year" for me. But I have noticed - and continue to notice - a tendency to remove undocumented immigrants from their status as human beings, and treat them as "things" that are out of place.

This is not a clean comparison, but a partial illustration of the point. Imagine, for instance, a compost pile. Think about spoiled and wasted food. Rotten vegetables, quasi-unusable pieces, peels, coffee grounds, eggshells. My grandmother used to call it swill. My daughter would call it yuck. In the refrigerator's produce drawer or out in the open in the house, it would be disgusting. On the patio, same deal. But put it in a box, or a pile further removed from the house, add a few worms, and suddenly it changes character. Now, we have a compost pile, folks! Unclean has been transmuted into clean.

Likewise, undocumented immigrants are ok when they're silent or out of sight: cleaning our hotel rooms, busing our tables, processing the canned vegetables that will grace our tables this winter. But let them make a mistake, become visible in the newspaper, ask for help, seek change, speak to issues of import in the community, and suddenly they are a threat.

If people are near us - "invading" our schools, communities, seeking help from social service organizations - they become a threat. We deal with the threat by dehumanizing the real human beings here. Treat them like things that one can arbitrarily move at a whim, it's something entirely different. Here in "my" community, immigrants are unnatural, unclean, intrinsically disordered, dangerous. Safely elsewhere? Out of sight? Isolated? Not nearly the threat. It makes me want to re-read Mary Douglas' book, Purity and Danger, that I highly recommend if you're interested in this train of thought.

More on immigration? A recent forum called for compassion for undocumented immigrants - compassion, what we show for living beings, not things. Pigeonholing people, assigning them a category, labeling them, is the first step at dehumanizing them. Not to get overly philosophical here, but what is more real - the label, or the human being in front of you? The box we construct to contain a living, breathing child of God? Or the child?

Class conversation roamed all over the place. We also had some talk of body image and eating disorders, and I would leave you with this thought: Dehumanizing is not something we only do to the other, but also to ourselves. We can make our body the enemy (especially thinking of the diets of the holiday & post-holiday season) that betrays us, the body a thing that offends us - or recognize that it, too, is part of creation. What would happen if we began treating our own whole selves as sacred?

Clearly, I'm not much in favor of dualism. More on God & the Human Being after our next discussion on the soul.

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