The Politics of Otherness

 

“It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Armstrong, and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as to when the service is rendered to a member of my own race. I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.”

Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, 1900

Tourtoirac is a beautiful wee place, if in a kind of ramshackle way. Its intriguing maisons and petit chateau have a grandeur which, if somewhat faded, nevertheless retain a charm which deliver the sort of mystique that I was looking for on a maiden family holiday to France. Throw in a meandering river running through the centre of the village and the chance to buy fresh bread every morning from the bona fide boulangerie opposite the medieval Abbey, and you could say that I was happy with my holiday choice.

It’s the kind of place that seems untouched by the world. But not just by the apparent absence of satellite dishes and Dom Jolly-esque mobile phone etiquette; it gives the impression that the world has always passed it by. There is no urgency in Tourtoirac, and that is something I was very glad to experience.

And yet there is one very visible reminder that the paysage francais has not always been the sleepy, presiding reality in this Dordogne village. Situated beside the Post Office, opposite the village square, is an obelisk-shaped war memorial adorned in French flags, the state of which clearly shows the place of importance that it holds amongst the local population.

Tourtoirac War Memorial cropped

Around the base of the monument dozens of names of local men killed during the First World War are listed, grouped around an engraving which proclaims: ‘Tourtoirac, to her children killed for their country 1914-1918’. On the same level, but on a different panel is a smaller, but still lengthy, list of local men killed in their turn during La Deuxieme Guerre Mondiale.

In a sense, this monument and its rude interruption into my family holiday should not be a surprise. It stands to reason that most towns and villages in France, much like those in the area that I grew up in Scotland, have war memorials to those lost in the two conflicts which were played out largely in Western Europe, and largely in France. But I nevertheless felt a dissonance to the surroundings which I was enjoying and the peace that I was experiencing.

A plaque on the upper part of the obelisk particularly caught my eye. On that plaque are listed five names. The names have a decidedly Jewish tint – Kohn, Aaron, Samuel – and the testimony which accompanies them is chilling: Assassines par Les Nazis (assassinated by the Nazis), Le 1er Avril 1944.

Tourtoirac Jewish names cropped

I have visited a concentration camp. Yet this plaque particularly shook me. Since encountering the Tourtoirac War Memorial, I’ve found it difficult to forget. It may be that I’m feeling nostalgia for my grandparents and their experience of the Second World War, at a time when we as a family are marking the first anniversary of my Gran’s death, a particularly poignant loss for us as the last surviving member of my family from that generation.

However I think that my awareness of war, violence and hatred, and the dissonance to that peaceful place, was particularly heightened because of what was – and is still – going on around the world even as I was reading the names on that monument.

This year alone we have seen vicious civil wars taking place in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. We’ve seen hundreds of young girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. We’ve seen Iraq fall apart in a sectarian blood-bath. And that was before the horrors of ISIS and the so-called Islamic State began to be visited upon much of that country. We’ve seen civil unrest in Missouri as yet another young African-American man is shot dead by the police. And, of course, we’ve witnessed the continuation of the ancient conflict in Israel-Palestine with thousands killed, maimed and displaced, predominantly in Gaza.

These conflicts bear witness to the triumph of fear and of scapegoating. They exemplify the politics of division, and the worldview which says; you can’t be part of this community unless you look like us, talk like us, think like us. It is, and always has been the politicisation of the Other: whether the Jew, the Russian, the Kafir, the Palestinian, the African-American – the list is endless and changes depending on where you’re standing.

Where have all the big ideas gone? The ideas which transcend identity – religious, national or racial? Many of the 20th Century’s big ideas, like Fascism or Communism, soon revealed their true colours. They were equally as hostile to the Other, and as equally prone towards using violence to achieve their ends. The Tourtoirac War Memorial shows that much.

Yet I can’t help noticing that the ideals around which we organise our world today are those which either idolise profit-making or seek to define us by the lowest common denominators. We seem to be left with either the Market or the Tradition. Important though these are, they leave me feeling cold as ideologies around which we will build our world. They lack vision, purpose, and often even a narrative. They represent the politics of survival, nothing more.

It may seem like a stretch to mention the Scottish Independence Referendum in a blog in which I’ve also mentioned Boko Haram. However – in a fundamentally much more benign form, of course – these are the terms on which even this debate is being conducted. Most of the key arguments on both sides are being made via appeals to Tradition/Identity (whether, Scottish or British) and the Market (i.e. which settlement will leave Scotland better off financially). This amounts to a great deal of heat and not a lot of light.

What inspires me are the possibilities that we have in this world to transcend otherness whilst recognising our differences; to find our shared humanity when it’s tempting to simply use labels to demean; to work for a whole that is greater than the sum of our parts; to aim for solidarity when it’s easier to divide.

In a word, Unity.

Jeremy Bentham’s Lost His Head

‘Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher”, they said, ‘We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking”, Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” “We can”, they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to whom they have already been prepared.”

‘When the ten heard about this they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As the founder of Utilitarianism, a particularly influential 19th Century political theory, you could argue that Jeremy Bentham was entitled to be proud of himself. His critique of social values, and pursuit of ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ was already beginning to shape the thinking of political leaders of his day – and as it turns out has continued to do so up to the present. But leaving instructions in his Last Will and Testament for his body to be embalmed, stuffed, dressed in a suit and placed in a glass case at University College London was perhaps a step too far.

And his acolytes have not stopped the posthumous grand-standing there. Each year this ‘auto-icon’ is rolled out for a meeting of the College Council, where Mr Bentham is recorded in the minutes as ‘Present, but not voting’. This hubristic tale is mitigated somewhat by the frequent student pranks over the years since in which his head has been repeatedly pinched and ransomed back to the University. But the impression of an ego writ large remains.

In our world, what we tend to value most are honour, power, wealth, beauty, authority, and yes, intellect. These are the things that seem to make the world go round. But these things in themselves are empty. At root, they’re an attempt to remake ourselves in the image of God, to claim even just a scintilla of his Glory.

I travel regularly to China, and it’s a fascinating country. Chinese culture values good hospitality, respect for authority and the importance of relational capital. One of the ways in which this is reflected is in the etiquette surrounding hosting guests to a meal. The table is always round so as not to offend guests by placing one person at the head of the table. And yet this nicety has been infiltrated by a convention whereby the Host is still given the ‘head’ of the table (the chair facing the door) and the most-honoured guest will sit in the seat to his right-hand side, with the second most-honoured to his left and so on. The elevation of the Host and the Honoured Guest continues with further etiquette, including serving special courses either before the other guests or to them alone, an ‘honour’ which I have at times had to face, as the picture below testifies:

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In the startling encounter from Mark’s Gospel, above, we see Jesus subverting this human will to power in his response to the egotistical aspirations of James and John. Incredibly, as the most powerful being in the universe, Jesus nevertheless submits himself to the authority of God the Father, in his assertion that even he cannot offer the right and left-hand seats to his disciples.

And, in this subversion, Jesus is not advocating a simple changing of the guard. This is not a spiritual coup d’etat in which the powerful are overthrown in order that their erstwhile subjects can take their places at the top table. It’s a root and branch revolution, a completely new way to live in the world. He is turning the world’s normative power dynamics on their head, insisting that the last should become first, and that his followers should be ‘the slave of all’. Strong words.

In a sense, I don’t blame James and John for their audacious request. In fact, it kind of reassures me. The Disciples have been lionised throughout Church history for the contribution that they made to the spread of the Gospel, and quite right too. But in encounters like this – and in basically everything that Peter did – we see the humanity of the Disciples. These were no Uber-Christians who would put us to shame with their holiness. They hadn’t got it quite yet: despite Jesus repeated teachings on his preference for the weak, the poor, the abandoned, and despite the fact that they’d actually lived alongside him for years. On a more positive note, and to their credit, you can’t fault the faith of the two brothers. They certainly believed that Jesus was who he said he was; otherwise they wouldn’t have wasted their time angling for a place at the top table.

But, ultimately, the Gospel is the great equaliser – the mountains shall be laid flat and the valleys raised up – and through it each of us become equal before God, taking on our full identity of the imago dei, the image of God. Our recognition of God’s authority goes hand in hand with our recognition of the equal and inestimable value of every human being. Yet so often we miss both.

This is not only the tragedy of the powers that be in the world; it has also been the tragedy of the Church itself. And yet again this comes back to our flawed human nature. Like the Fleetwood Mac song, we want to ‘Go our own way’ when the truth, in the words Bob Dylan so famously growled, is that you’ve gotta serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Sadly we often only realise this when the pretension that we’re in charge of our own life falls away. An illness, natural disaster or accident strikes, and suddenly we become aware of our own powerlessness. All the things that we put our stock in – intellect, beauty, wealth, even human relationships – can’t cocoon us from the messy reality of life. As the author Kurt Vonnegut sagely advises in the song ‘Everybody wear Sunscreen’, “maybe you’ll have a trust fund, maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse – but you never know when either one might run out.”

If you’ve travelled beyond Western Europe and North America, you’ll probably know what I mean. Oh what I’d sometimes give for an old-fashioned British queue in some airport arrivals halls! Everyone for themselves doesn’t cover it. Or the lifeless, mirror-shaded, eyes of the gun-toting Cameroonian immigration official who’s determined to exercise his authority before he decides to let you enter the country. Or the one on one interrogation and baggage search at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, knowing that just one mention of a visit to the wrong part of the country will see you end up in a room with nothing but a box of rubber gloves and a border guard for company. And in truth, these are relatively minor reminders of how easily our will to power is diluted.

So if, despite He-Man’s claims, we aren’t really Masters of the Universe, what are we to do? Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus dealt with a similar situation. The Disciples were once again letting their hubris get the better of them and were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Again, Jesus taught them that if anyone wanted to be first then he must become last, the servant of all. Jesus also taught that we should both have a faith like children and treat one another as we do little children. What might our world look like if we took the same approach? If politicians, journalists, soldiers, police officers, bankers, and we ourselves put others first, regardless of their status? What would it look like if we didn’t place our ultimate hope in our own power and were instead childlike in our motivation, if our attitude was innocent, simple, vulnerable even, and above all loving?

This is the world that Jesus calls us to make: it’s a world in which we serve one another, where we have a healthy distaste for the trappings of wealth and power, where each person is viewed as having inherent and equal worth, where the least and the last are lifted up by the rest and given the place of honour.

The Good News is that we are not expected to do all of this in our own power. And that’s the wonder of the Gospel: that Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3, 21-24