Humanize the Other, because That’s the Gospel

Humanize the Other, because That’s the Gospel November 8, 2013

It’s long been my contention that core to the ministry of Jesus was that he re-humanized those who had been dehumanized by the religious forces of his day. It was not only unseemly but forbidden for a Judean to touch a leper or a menstruating woman, to share water with a Samaritan woman, to heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus did all these things, and he did them with such force and courage that the Gospel writers repeatedly tell us that the crowds were astonished (thaumazo, which means amazed, with a tinge of fear) at the power of his teaching and healing.

Always and everywhere, human beings are tempted to dehumanize other human beings. It was prevalent in the ancient world of Jesus, and it’s prevalent today. Recently, Rachel wrote, You don’t hate me, you hate my brand. Some were upset, saying that Rachel shouldn’t allow herself to become a brand, hoping that she would be more authentic so that her blog and her person would be one-and-the-same. Of course, Rachel is one of the most authentic and honest bloggers around, but nevertheless, she’s a brand. And that is so because 99% of her blog readers don’t know her. That is, they don’t know her in the flesh-and-blood sense.

Last Saturday, Stanford professor Clifford Nass died. He was a researcher on and critic of multitasking. Contrary to today’s conventional wisdom, his research showed that modern people are, in fact, not good at multitasking. Not only are we not good at it, multitasking and many digital inputs per day are destroying our ability to concentrate on endeavors that demand concentration. He was famous on the Stanford campus for running dorm activities in which he forced students to sit facing one another, look each other in the eyes, and talk. He said that the old parental chastisement, “Look me in the eye!” is now more appropriate than ever.

We are, I fear, more likely than ever to dehumanize the other, especially behind the veil of technology. I’m an asshole, you have bad theology, she’s a victim, he’s a bully. Epithets fly around the internet like hive of bees that’s been whacked with a stick, and they sting randomly and without much justice. And it hurts.

I’ve tried, not always successfully, to reach out to those who have become my enemies on the internet and in the academy. Some have chosen to meet with me or correspond with me, and others haven’t. I’ve also dehumanized those who disagree with me, finding it easier to mock them than to take their ideas seriously.

I’m going to redouble my efforts to always always always humanize the other. All of us who spend time in the blogosphere need to remember that core to Jesus’ life and message was to find those who’d been dehumanized and bring them back into God’s fold, where they were again — or for the first time — fully human.

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  • for me, assigning positive intent goes a long way toward remembering the imago Dei in somebody else and not turning them into cartoon villains. but then, if we care not only about humanizing our opponents but also reconciliation and shalom, we need to practice listening, too, accounting for our own words and in/actions. good intent doesn’t absolve us from the harm we cause.

    • I think humanizing the other is an act without conditions.

      • ok, we choose to see each other as human, but then what? it’s only a first step.

        • Yes, it is the first step.

          • my point is, yes, we ought to affirm the humanity in our critics, but if we refuse to listen to each other, we stagnate, and there is no learning, healing, relationship, change, or growth.

  • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

    Tony, I clicked on this title in someone’s tweet that didn’t reference the author. I was glad that these words led me back to you. I want to be more brave about sharing my ideas, but I also want to be more humble in sorting through the reactions. I know I won’t always get it right, but that’s my hope. Bravery and humility; hand in hand. I appreciate you being part of my life conversation about these things.

  • Craig

    humanize: to make (someone or something) seem gentler, kinder, or more appealing to people.

    Is that what we should “always always always” be doing? To Putin, to Bashar al-Assad, to the Family Research Council?

    • yes, yes, and no. The FRC isn’t a person.

      • Craig

        Did you read the quoted definition? Do you really want to redouble your efforts to always make dictators and brutal tyrants seem gentler and more appealing to people?

        If so, you could find government work in Syria, North Korea, and Russia.

        There’s no conceptual difficulty in humanizing non-persons.

        • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

          Craig, I can see how some nuances of the word humanize do work here…even with dictators. It has been insightful for me on a number of occasions to read, for example, some humanizing stories about Hitler’s difficulties in childhood. It in no way lessens the atrocities he committed, but it helps me understand something about the human condition. That even people I consider to be monsters sometimes chose that path out of extreme brokenness and rage; to realize that I myself have the potential to turn brokenness and rage into great evil.

          • Craig

            Okay, but beware of the ambiguities here.

            It’s one thing to point out, or to examine the ways in which Hitler, and Hitler’s motivation, was just (or “all too”) human. It’s quite another thing to redouble our efforts to always try to make Hitler seem gentler and more appealing to people.

            • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

              For sure.

  • Yesterday, it seemed like Sarah had more grace to dialog with others over twitter. She was disarming in that she radically listened, read posts responding to her article, and actually engaged with Stephanie Drury.

    When I called you out for calling SCCL “hate” you used a metaphor about spanking children to teach them not to hit (or something). You sort of wrote me off and so Tony, I think if anything, you can learn from how Sarah engaged yesterday. I’ve worked hard to see the humanity in those that I’m arguing with and it’s not always easy, but- however, when you ignore others, aren’t listening, you are in fact dehumanizing them and I think that is the central problem here.

    I don’t think it’s fair anymore to simply say that this is your “writing style” and then write a post like the one above. I’ve enjoyed reading your latest posts about how you’re rethinking this space as I always appreciate your brilliant thoughts on theology. I just think you need to listen, or in the least, make an effort to be respectful.

    • Craig

      It’d help to try to clarify what we mean by “humanizing” and “dehumanizing”.

      When I ignore a person, am I necessarily dehumanizing that person? Presumably not.

      • See, as a woman, I feel ‘less than’ (dehumanized may be another word for it?) when I am ignored in a conversation in which everyone is supposed to be welcome at the table. It happens often. Most of the time, I am ignored until I begin to speak with force, at which point everyone wonders why I am being so emotional.

        Edited to add an example: On the playground, when a bunch of kids are playing together, and another approaches … if the group collectively turns its back on the one attempting to enter, then I think a good case could be made that they are dehumanizing the child.

        • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

          Danica, thanks for taking the risk to say that. We probably all feel slighted when our comments are apparently dismissed, male or female. I try to reply when people engage me online, but I also sometimes fail to participate as much as I might prefer because of many factors–the demands of my family, my workload, my access to gadgets, my emotional bandwidth, and sometimes, my need to give myself some space for self-preservation.

          I hope we can humanize each other with responses and also still hold some compassion for the limitations each of us might face in trying to communicate all that we are online.

          • Craig

            Here’s my small observation: it seems to me that all of these points can be made perfectly well, and perhaps better, without the words “humanize” or “dehumanize”. These unnecessary terms are used haphazardly, I suspect. We can ascribe to them a lot of different senses, and no one is really sure what they mean, or are supposed to mean.

            • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

              Language is definitely a challenge, Craig. Words often carry multiple nuances and one hearer certainly can receive any given term differently than another.

              I think I need to be more careful about what words I choose sometimes. And I also hope I can be gracious in trying not to pick apart word choice of others but to read and get to know them for intent. Good word, Craig.

          • I definitely think there should be room for recognizing the limitations of online interaction. And I think that observing how people treat others, over a period of time, gives a good gauge to whether you are ‘feeling slighted because comments are apparently dismissed’, or being flat out ignored. We know that one cannot pick figs from thornbushes, nor grapes from briers … if I am seeing a lot of thorns from a person’s interaction with myself and others, I will tend to doubt their claims to be a fig tree or grape vine.

            • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

              Thanks, Danica. 🙂 I understand what you’re saying. One of the things I took away from the discussion at SCCL yesterday was how we all carry our own wounds differently, and how we can’t always easily gauge another person’s state of healing. I think it’s possible that this plays into how or if we respond.

              There have been stretches of life when I’ve felt steady and whole and have been able to keep a level head and respond to those who challenge me. But if I am honest, there have been times where I’ve felt so worn down and frustrated that I couldn’t find the bandwidth to engage challengers.

              I think it’s preferable to engage others, but I just don’t want to conclude that every choice not to engage is mean-spirited.

              In saying that, I don’t dismiss your valid concern about feeling dismissed. I have experienced that and it has sometimes driven me to communicate more intensely too.

              • Well said. During the times when you felt worn down and frustrated and aren’t in the place where online communication was a healthy choice for you (let me know if this is putting words into your mouth, please!), did you still blog / write?

                • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

                  Sometimes. Although sometimes I probably participated just to keep my blog going (which is a function of my job as a writer), which led me to have to post ideas that were still half-formed and in process. But (and my blog’s off and on rhythms are a testament to this) sometimes I just couldn’t contribute. Maybe when we reach these moments, it’d be helpful for us to clarify our intentions, i.e., “I care, but this is hard for me, and I can’t afford the energy to respond to this right now.” The trick of course would still be that not everyone would see that communication. You explain on your blog, for example, that you don’t have the bandwidth to engage criticism right now…but half the people tweeting you miss it.

                  In the online world, there is so much opportunity to be misunderstood.You know?

                  What do you think is the best approach for me or others in times like this, Danica?

                  • I honestly think that it’s ok to say, “I’m having a really crappy day and can’t communicate right now.” I also think it’s ok to say, “I’m sorry I was mean, I was feeling ______ and that’s why I responded, but it wasn’t ok for me to hurt you with my words.” Or, “Hey, I want to talk about this but don’t have the time.”

                    Basically, I think that honesty is the best thing. I don’t think there should be pressure on anyone to always come across as ‘nice’ or ‘in a good mood’ online, but as long as there is emotional honesty, and a genuine attempt to communicate, I think we would generally stay on course.

                    And I get your point about posting somethign on your blog, vs on Twitter … I guess I stand by my original point, that as we observe people over a long period of time, and see how their actions / words generally trend, then we can have a better understanding of and interpretation for their words. If a person is generally kind and gracious, but says something mean, we know that this is unlike them and there is probably something else going on. But if someone is generally unwilling to engage and adamant about their points, and then say something kind and gracious, we would probably be wise to have some skepticism. Like I said above, observe fruit over a long period of time, and you’ll get a read on a person, whether you know them IRL or not.

                    For example: If RHE ever said something ‘snappy’ or ‘mean’ on Twitter, fb or her blog, I would probably be very likely to give her the benefit of the doubt – after all, she’s generally very loving and gracious. But if Mark Driscoll said something kind or loving, I’d probably react with skepticism, because I’ve known him to be overall pretty boorish and unyeilding. See what I’m saying?

                    • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

                      I appreciate these suggestions and think your example citing Rachel provides good reason for each of us to examine our online voice…and ultimately, of course, our heart. Thanks so much for your feedback!

            • Danica,

              Speaking as a blogger who has racked up 45,000 comments on my blog since 2004, it honestly seems overwhelming to me. For many years, I had a rule that I would never comment on my own blog. I’d let the post rise or fall on its own merits, without further commentary or defense from me. But reader asked me to engage, and that only seemed fair.

              But now it’s hard, with more comments coming in than I can even read, much less respond to. For this reason, some bloggers have shut off their comments completely, but I am reluctant to do that since so much great conversation happens here.

              So I dip in to comment threads when I can. If your comment have never received a response from me, I apologize. It’s honestly not a judgment thing by me, it’s a time thing. I do what I can, and I feel almost every day that I’ve let readers down because I haven’t responded to some really great comments. I even feel bad because so many great comments get caught up in the Disqus moderation queue, waiting for me to approve them, and I only get to that about once per day.

              I know what it feels like to be the kid who’s ignored on the playground, and I’m now raising three kids who are also experiencing that from time to time. I do hope this blog is a place where you feel heard and, on occasion, responded to.

              • Thank you for hearing and responding to me, Tony!

        • Craig

          Sorry–moving my comment. I posted it in the wrong place.

          • I agree with you on that one. I feel that a lot is lost when we use politically / emotionally charged words to communicate – for example, I tend to avoid the word, ‘feminist’, because most people associate it with hateful bra-burners. I think the same can be true for the word, ‘dehumanize’ 🙂 Perhaps, ‘less valued’, or ‘disrespected’ would work better? What do you think?

            • Craig

              Right. And good suggestions too. To me the big danger with “humanize” and “dehumanize” is the room for equivocation, and, therefore, for fallacy or sophistry. “Disrespect” is still vague, but its vagueness is obvious, and there’s less room for equivocation.

              • A) I’m using these words carefully.

                B) I’d be careful to parse a blog post so closely.

                • Craig

                  So how are you using those words? What sense do you ascribe to them?

                  Look, your blog post could be just an off-hand thought. But a closer examination of our off-hand thoughts is so often a great starting point for clarifying and improving them.

                  • With all due respect, I’m not going to start writing posts defining words in other posts. That’s a little too deep in the weeds, even for me.

                    • Craig

                      And yet you used the terms “carefully”?

                      If so, how hard should it be to specify the intended sense?

            • I’m using “humanize” and “dehumanize” in academic, theological ways. Much like I would use the word “feminist.”

              I learned a long time ago that, once written or spoken, words take on a life of their own. There’s little that the author of those words can do to control them once they’re out there. As Derrida said, the author is dead.

    • I assure you, there’s been plenty of engagement that you’re not privy to.

    • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

      Benjamin, thanks for your kind words. And thanks for peaceably engaging me yesterday as an outsider.

      I still have a lot to learn about trying to be courageous and authentic (ironically, that is something that Tony helps me feel free to be), while also committing to voice ideas with a spirit of humility and kindness.

      Some back story: I come from the evangelical world that Tony has often criticized, but in spite of that, he has shown me much grace and kindness. I have disagreed with him and pushed back on him more than once, and still found him to be a more gracious human being than the blogosphere tends to project.

      He and I have talked about this.

      As you saw with some of the threads I participated in yesterday, even though I tried to reach out to others, I sometimes failed because the words I was using to communicate kind intent didn’t hold the same meaning for my hearers that they did for me. It is a challenge sometimes to not only try to have the right heart, but to figure out how to express that heart–to choose the right words–that demonstrate that heart to others.

      I am hopeful that as Tony continues to work to humanize others, as he said
      here, that others will get the chance to observe sides of him they may not have experienced. And I hope that as he tries, we won’t be so critical and skeptical that we discourage him making the effort.

      I don’t deserve to be painted in contrast to Tony because I know we are both passionate but flawed individuals. That we both have strengths and we both have weaknesses. But we’re both growing. I hope part of what happens here is Tony and I and you and many others can work toward better ways of communicating together. Thanks for your voice in this.

  • Nathan

    Just a general comment…

    It’s important and healing to listen to others as they process their experiences, etc.

    I also know that in my own life it’s been important for me to cultivate enough self-awareness to determine where my wounds/pain and the like are so warping my engagement with others that I can only hear and see “more of the evil” and then attribute dark motivations to others. This is taking my pain and victimizing others. My “feelings” and “perceptions” aren sacrosanct, inviolable markers of reality.

    That’s why therapy and real time face to face vulnerable relationships have saved my life, my mind, my soul, many relationships, and my career. I needed to do my talking there so I didn’t victimize and demonize others and attribute evil where it didn’t belong. I had to stop playing God and claim to “know what people really mean and intend” when I have no real experience of them, and am carrying things that warp my ability to hear well.

    Nadia Bolz-Weber recently talked about preaching from scars not wounds. The same should go for our conversations. If the people around us have all the same kind of pain, then they probably aren’t really helping you become self aware…

  • jtheory

    God already humanized us. We alienate ourselves and others. We should call it dealienizing, or rehumanizing.

  • A. W. Thules

    Humans were created in God’s image, and certainly sin has marred this image.

    Ultimately the image of God is restored in humanity, not by the profane efforts of humans, but by the sacred effort of God.

    So the question then is – if the gospel is teaching us to re-humanize the dehumanized what makes this gospel something more than the mere charity of humanism?