Let’s Have an Uneasy Conversation About Immigration

I must confess that I am uneasy. I am uneasy about the stories of immigration in the news lately. I am uneasy with progressive responses to those situations. I am uneasy with Christian responses to those stories. I am uneasy about the trustworthiness of news sources, the spin of commentators, and the histrionics of disputants. But beneath and throughout all of this uneasiness, I’ve felt especially uncomfortable with how Scripture is used when it comes to questions of the “immigrant,” the “stranger,” and the “refugee.” Some serious thinking was required, and the result is something of an uneasy conversation.

Immigration_CNN_mcallen-texas-exlarge-tease

This uneasy conversation is rooted in the fact that immigration (both legal and illegal), refugees, and Christian responsibility come together in an awkward discourse, one that stretches the boundaries of any simplistic ethics. At the heart of the conflict are two, oil-and-water realities—the life of the Kingdom of God, and the existence of nation-states. Unclear thinking in both areas, to my mind, has created a great deal of misinformation and confusion. Perhaps one way to summarize the diverse dialogues and talking points is to pose a simple question: what is the Christian responsibility towards the immigrant/refugee?

The most common answers I encounter come from certain interpretations of Scripture. Consider two such interpretations now. In this first image Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are likened to refugees, fleeing Herod to Egypt. The message, implicit, is that the state of the refugee is crucially linked to the story of Christianity itself.

Immigration_Holy Family as Refugees_Kelly Latimore

An Icon of the Holy Family, by Kelly Latimore.

Another image lists a series of scripture texts, but pointedly translates the word “stranger” as “immigrant.”

Immigrant Scriptures_

I won’t take the time to analyze these images in depth, but where I want to focus is on their use of Scripture. Specifically, in both cases Christian Scripture (or an event) is used pointedly to address the current immigration/refugee issue in the US. Each is, in fact, a form of proof texting—here is a situation, here is a Scripture to address said situation, case closed.

Allow me to register a few concerns. First, modern labels such as “immigrant” and “refugee” are heavily freighted with meaning. While the Bible does indeed have things to say about the stranger in the land, they may not be the same kinds of things that modern commentators are making it say. Is the modern refugee really the same as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt? Can these texts really be applied to our modern situation without interpretation or context? For instance, in order to claim that Israel’s stranger laws should directly inform America’s immigration policy we would need to establish that the nation-state of Israel is sufficiently similar to the nation-state of America. This is a deeply tenuous connection, and one that many commentators would not be so happy to make.

In light of this, a second concern. In addition to the quoted stranger laws, the Bible has lots of other things to say about how we treat one another, specifically from the same passages of text! For example, instructions in Leviticus 18, 19, and 20 shift almost breathlessly from laws about clothing of two fabrics, to rules about sex with slave girls, to the breeding of cattle, to forbidding homosexual relations, and to honouring one’s parents. Many of the same people who reject the Bible’s teachings on some of these issues (e.g., homosexuality), are presenting contextually linked scriptures as proof-texts for immigration reform. Furthermore, when they give reasons for why they are not bound by a scripture like Leviticus 18:22, they cite the fact that we do not observing other, contextually linked passages, such as the garment laws. The law of the stranger, then, is binding, but none of the others. I find this, at best, disingenuous.

Levicitus Clobber Text

While these flaws make me uneasy, they are not themselves an argument. They are bad rhetoric, and possibly poor interpretations of Scripture, but we still must examine the Scriptural claims about what, if any, is the proper Christian response to the immigrant/refugee. We’ll need to think about this from two angles—the nation-state, and the immigrant.

The Bible and the State
First, does the Bible speak to the circumstances of the modern nation-state? In a word, not really. The Old Testament offers instruction on the management of theocratic, then monarchic Israel. Many Christians believe that these instructions ought to shape the governance of their nations, but this is by no means a simple open-and-shut Scriptural case. For example, the text points to the role of boundary stones (Proverbs 22:28), of property management (Leviticus 25), of ethnic purity (Deuteronomy 7:3), and of economics (Leviticus 25, 23:22, Deut. 23). These are instructions for Israel specifically. It is worth noting, however, that when other nations stand in violation of certain aspects of God’s law they are judged, and even destroyed, based on those violations (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:9).

And yet, apart from these passages of judgment (for moral reasons) we get no instruction on secular civil governance in the Bible. Paul tells us in Romans 13 to “obey the civil authorities” (and he says this about Nero, mind you). John in Luke 3 tells the tax collector to collect just the right amount, and the soldiers to avoid harassing people and be content with their wages. If we wish to look to the Scriptures for advice on how to govern, manage, and maintain national borders, we are going to get precious little help. Furthermore, the concept of the modern nation-state—as a non-religious, non-ethnic social aggregate of disparate persons—is unheard of in ancient Israel, and certainly insufficiently like the Roman state for easy comparison with America, if only because no ancient person had a vote like modern persons do.

EmperorMaximiam

Emperor Maximiam offering incense to Jupiter.

In view of Romans 13, however, it is worth remembering that Christian obedience to the state clearly had limits. When the New Testament was written, the early Church had an uneasy but largely unchallenged relationship to the Roman government. But in the years following the writing of Paul’s letters this situation changed—the question of obeying Caesar or Christ became pointed, and the resounding witness of the early Church was to honour Christ, even if it meant death. Thus, when a given Christian stood before the altar to Caesar and was pressed to offer incense to him as a deity, that Christian refused to obey the civil authority. Death, by the very sword entrusted to those who govern, was often the consequence.

It follows, then, that because there are no Christian states, properly speaking, but only states with proportions of Christians serving inside them, no civil ethic ever aligns perfectly with a Scriptural model, whether Old or New Testament. The default ethic would appear to be some form of Romans 13:1-7 (to honor civil authorities), combined with some form of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (to lead a quiet life). However, in those situations where the state stands opposed to Christian teaching, then we side with Christ, even if it means our imprisonment or death.

The Bible and the Stranger
Second, does the Bible speak to the situation of the stranger, the immigrant, or the refugee? In a word, yes—quite a lot, actually. While the image macro of Scripture texts above bent matters a little for its own benefit, each of the texts do speak about treatment of the stranger in the land. Exodus 22:21-24 is one of the clearest and most poignant:

21You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. 23 If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; 24 and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

Slaves in Egypt

Israel, as a people who were formerly strangers—immigrants, if you will—in Egypt, are called to remember at all times their former status and to treat others accordingly. Note: the text makes no provision for the ethnic heritage of the stranger, nor for his or her religious background, nor for his or her quality of life, language ability, or socioeconomic status. It does not matter if the stranger is a qualified worker or a slave, he or she is to be treated justly. Leviticus 24:17-22 makes this explicit:

17 ‘If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death. 18 The one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. 19 If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him. 21 Thus the one who kills an animal shall make it good, but the one who kills a man shall be put to death. 22 There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God.’

(Note: similar passages can be found at Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, Deuteronomy 27:19, and Jeremiah 22:3-5.)

In light of these passages, does the situation of the modern immigrant and refugee correlate to the biblical picture? It certainly seems so. Central to the story of the Bible, Jacob and his sons flee economic hardship in order to reside in Egypt, where they are immigrants. In the book of Ruth an Israelite woman (Naomi), on account of famine (a natural disaster) emigrates to Moab. After her sons die, she returns with Ruth (now an immigrant) to Israel, where they live, essentially, as economic refugees. Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus do indeed flee a situation of political hostility (the government, Herod, wants to kill them) and reside as political refugees in Egypt. Central to the story of Christianity is that of displaced people seeking safety and hope in foreign lands, and crucial in God’s ethics towards displaced persons is our responsibility to be hospitable to the stranger in our land.

The_Good_Samaritan_After_Delacroix_-_Vincent_Van_Gogh

Van Gogh’s Good Samaritan

At this point someone might object that for those stories, their movements were ordained by God as part of His story and plan. That is true enough, but it was on account of those stories—and especially the original story of Israel in Egypt—that we receive the clear commandments from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to care for the stranger in our land, irrespective of that stranger’s ethico-religious identity. Whatever the origin of the story, now we have inherited an ethic which governs our treatment of the displaced.

An Uneasy Ethical Balance
This, then, is the heart of our uneasy conversation about Christianity and immigration: on the one hand, we have a clear, Scriptural ethic to care for the stranger, and on the other hand, we have no clear Scriptural ethic about how to be a Christian in a secular nation-state. In light of this, I think the following, provisional conclusions are in order:

1) A Christian perspective does indeed carry ethical obligations toward the immigrant/refugee. If we take the Bible seriously, we must care for the stranger and seek justice for him or her.

2) To the degree that America is, in fact, a Christian nation, then it bears a Christian responsibility toward immigrants/refugees. By implication, Christians should be as pro-immigrant as they are pro-life.

3) To the degree that America is a Christian nation, to that same degree it bears economic, religious, and moral responsibilities as well. This will cover homosexuality and poverty, land reform and honouring the Sabbath.

As I close, let’s acknowledge two crucial factors. First, while conclusion #1 is unambiguous, neither #2 or #3 is in any sense ethically simple. Neither of the premises for #2 or #3 are clear (that America is a Christian nation), therefore the implications are necessarily murky.

But second, I’ve left aside one, looming question: what about illegal immigration? To answer that question, we will have to further consider the role of boundaries and self-identity in secular nation-states. For that discussion, we will need to return next week.

Orientalism—A Fourth Set of Thoughts (Othering and Bulverism)

Orientalism_Cover 4I’ve benefited immensely from my read of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism, and lately I’ve been blogging through a few reflections on the implications and impact of that work. Today I want to think about Othering, Bulverism, and the danger of labelling.

‘Othering’ is a formal concept where I employ an identifying metric in my encounters with an ‘other’ in such a way that I both highlight the differences and reinforce my sense of self. In the encounter between my self and an other, the other is used as a foil for my own identity, and in the process I often fail to see him or her as a real person, with real narrative, and with real information to bring to a relational engagement. Today I want to reflect on how defining a process such as ‘othering’ is both helpful and unhelpful at the same time.

First, it is helpful because it does indeed describe many of the historic, and ongoing, interactions between the West and other cultures. One doesn’t have to search far to find evidence of Western reductionism, selfishness, and fetishization of non-Western ‘others.’ Orientalism has allowed the West to compartmentalize, and then no longer see, a group—by rendering them invisible, they can be ignored, reduced in narrative, and made simple. In short, Orientalism has been a disposition that makes discrimination possible. In this, as a label it is helpful as a diagnostic tool to mark, identify, and seek to redress these abuses.

At the same time, I think it can also be unhelpful. One of the hallmarks of modern discourse is labelling—if I can effectively and evocatively label a situation, or a wrong, then I can summarily defeat it. Think of the power of big labels such as “racism,” “abuse,” and “intolerance.” Think also of the power of lesser labels, such as “Becky,” “Wypipo,” “millennial,” or “snowflake.” If I can successfully label you, then I can summarily dismiss you. Partly, this appears to be nothing more than a turning of the tables—where once, the West in power labelled and dismissed non-Western others, now non-Western others are able to label and dismiss the West.

specialsnowflake meme

I was reminded, here, of something C.S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock (also published as Undeceptions), specifically about just and unjust arguments. His description is worth quoting in full:

Lewis_UndeceptionsIn the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it ‘Bulverism.’ Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

In other words, the application of a preconditioned label—racist, liberal, Trump-supporter, snowflake, millennial, Baby Boomer, etc.—is sufficient argument enough. No more needs to be said, and no listening needs to happen. The argument, by virtue of the label, is rendered complete.

Crucial in Said’s account of Orientalism is his appeal to a kind of listening as a tonic for the abuses of the past—toward this goal, he utilizes the label of ‘othering’ as a diagnostic tool, but he does this in order to make an appeal for better communication and understanding between the East and West. In his own words, he argues that “there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge—if that is what it is—that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation, belligerency and outright war.” (Orientalism, xiv, emphasis added) When labels are simply a power-play, then they can no longer facilitate this process.

In view of this, I am reminded of Jesus’s words from Matthew 5:22,

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell

Note that in this passage Jesus is giving instructions for how we are to behave when our brother has something against us (he says this explicitly in verse 23). We, in other words, are the offender in this passage. But our response is illuminating—first, we become angry with our brother for bringing a charge against us, then we call him a name (“good-for-nothing”), and finally we ascribe to him a label, “fool.” Labelling, in this passage, is the process of hardening our hearts to the claim of our brothers or sisters. It diminishes and reduces the complexity of the person. It is the antithesis of listening, and in Jesus’ instruction it is equated, in the end, to murder.

Sermon on the Mount_

It probably didn’t look like this.

Does that mean that no one is ever a fool? Of course not. There are scads of them. Just as there are scads of genuine snowflakes and racists in the world. But when we misuse those labels in petty power plays and in a context devoid of genuine listening, we put ourselves on what, according to Jesus, is a highly dangerous trajectory.

Orientalism—A Third Set of Thoughts (Fetishization)

orientalism_cover3I’ve finished reading Said’s Orientalism now, but I’ve still got a small backlog of thoughts to process from the book. Today I’d like to give some attention to the process of fetishization.

Briefly to review, Said’s argument opens with a description of othering, which in Orientalism is a term used to describe the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. When I ‘other’ someone it means that I am perceiving them as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us.’

In the history of Orientalism (as a discipline and mindset) this othering process has resulted in a flattening of “Oriental” culture (a very diverse and large set of data is made to fit within artificial and procrustean structures—I wrote about this last time), and also in a fetishization. Now, there is an obvious sexual component to this term that will factor in shortly, but beneath and behind that I want to highlight something more nuanced. By fetishization, I want to suggest a form of love for the other that is fundamentally self-referential. Fetishized love is a love which is based on what the other is perceived to be able to do for me. With this in mind, it is not hard to see how the Orient has been loved by the West in a way that is self-referential to the West. The Orient is loved on the basis of the West’s idea of the Orient (whether or not the Orient matches that idea), and the Orient is loved for the way that the West’s perception of its differences reinforces Western senses of self, and the Orient is loved because in its plasticity the West can project its desires upon it. Each of these is a fetishizing love. Each of these warps the Orient to Western tastes and perceptions.

Much of this, on the Western side of the scale, can be arguably laid at the feet of what Charles Taylor labelled as the West’s identity crisis. In Sources of the Self he explicitly claims that the West has lost its moorings—a new sense of autonomous self-governed authority dominates the western self and leaves it with few external reference points. Consequently, it is only natural that the West would look outside of itself in the hope of finding out who it really is. One of the richest mines for this outside look has been the Orient, and this connects directly to our fascination with so-called eastern mysticism. Not long ago I re-watched the 1984 film The Karate Kid, and couldn’t help but think about this process. A young, fatherless, displaced boy, finds himself bullied at school (he is a prototype for Taylor’s disorientated Western self). He is taken under wing by an older, Japanese man who coaches him through his bullying problem by providing him with a sense of deeper identity through Karate, bonsai trees, and Japanese culture. And while I loved (and still love!) the movie, I can’t help but reflect on the caricature of the East that it portrays (however lovingly). The east, I am tacitly told, is a place to be consumed, to be borrowed from, to be utilized for my own personal needs. It is a place (extending from this) from which I can collect souvenirs and artefacts, the foreign writing of which I can paint on my body, whose women will provide satisfaction for my carnal desires, and which will ultimately provide me with my much longed-for meaning in life. It is a place I can love selfishly.

Karate Kid_1984_Miyagi and Daniel

Within this dynamic, fetishizing love depends upon a perceived plasticity in the object of love. In other words, it is a suitable object for love precisely because upon it I can project my own desires. It is here that I think the sexualization of Asian women finds its roots. Said, writing about the history of Western pilgrimages to the east, records the following about Flaubert’s experiences with an “Oriental” woman: “…he is entranced by her self-sufficiency, by her emotional carelessness, and also by what, lying next to him, she allows him to think. Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity…” (Orientalism, 187, emphasis added). Because she is different, and exotic, and not like Western women, and because she doesn’t speak English, she becomes a vaguely feminine vessel for Flaubert’s sexual desire. That sexual desire, in turn, and under the influence of fetishizing love, can manifest itself imaginatively. The Oriental woman, under the same flattening process of othering, is thus stripped of her individuality, personality, narrative, and will, and serves as an ideal vessel for Western sexual desire. Said writes elsewhere that “women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” (207) In this, she has been fetishized. (It is worth considering—does this process of female fetishization partly explain the emasculated characterization of Asian males? Are they diminished because they stand in the way of a Western sexualized power fantasy?)

Asian Eyes_Vanity_Makeup

It is difficult here to separate the immense danger of fetishizing love from the genuine allure of love for the other. There is, of course, a natural fascination with things that are different, the refreshing appeal of a system and world in which a different set of rules operate, the genuine pleasure of standing ‘outside’ one’s own culture and seeing the world in a fresh way. But this is a natural love that must be carefully cultivated and pruned. Love, to be love, must possess a disinterested quality, and however much I may love the other, no other (whether culture or person!) ever exists purely for the sake of my needs and desires.

The dangers of fetishizing love seem strikingly present when we think of the missionary efforts of the church. When a missionary approaches a non-western culture, does he or she love the people as they are, or are they loved for what they might become? Am I loving my Western idea of the foreign convert, or am I loving the foreign other in all his strange, foreign otherness, so that Christ might be formed in him or her? All too often, is it not the case that short-term missions trips are crafted more for the benefit of the sending nationals than for the people whom they are supposed to benefit? Are we there to save the others, or to make ourselves feel better? It’s a challenging prospect, and discerning between a love that is selfish and one that is godly will require careful and constant diagnoses of our loves.

“Super Why” is an Abomination that Causes Desolation

Ask any parent, and he or she will tell you that Children’s television falls into roughly three kinds of categories. In the largest, there is a wide swath of mediocre shows, with flashing lights and simple stories, which capture the attention of your children and allow you to clean your kitchen or take a nap. You don’t love letting your kids watch them, but you estimate the value of living in a clean house to exceed the relative inanity of the show.

Barney

No comment.

Then, there is a group of shows which are actually really good television. They tell good stories, or have fun concepts, and they’re so good you find yourself watching those shows with your kids and enjoying them. These are shows (at the moment) like Odd Squad, and Peg+Cat. These shows make you feel better about being a lazy slob and letting your kids rot their brains watching the telly. If you didn’t have anything to do, you’d probably rot your brain alongside them.

Then there’s a set of shows which are so stupid, so canned, so awful, that you suddenly understand why people might go insane. They’ve got flashing lights, and colourful characters, and loud music, and your children (who don’t have a discerning bone in their bodies) love watching them in the same way they’ll eat anything made of sugar, no matter how revolting. They are the nightmare fuel of children’s television.

PBS’s Super Why is such a show. And yet, Super Why is even worse.

Super Why_full cast

Super Why, in its most basic sense, is a storybook show which follows a precise pattern for each episode. A group of super friends encounter a problem in their world. This problem will require them to learn a lesson, and in order to learn their lesson they’ll have to “Look, in a book!” (The comma is there because they pause after saying ‘look’.) The super friends then suit up and dive into a classic fairy tale or storybook—Little Red Riding Hood, or Jack and the Beanstalk, or something else. The show progresses while they read through the storybook, reading the pages, looking for secret letter clues, and eventually solving the problem of the day. One character is a pig who digs up letters. One is a fairy who helps you spell. All well and good (apart from being mind-numbingly banal).

However, the critical dénouement of each episode is when the story reaches its crisis point. At that point, the hero (whose name is Whyatt) arrives with his special power, and “saves” the day. (Saves is in scare quotes for reasons which will be explicated shortly.) In the episode my children watched the other day, the real-world problem is that the main character wants to eat the same thing all the time. To solve this problem they look in a book called King Eddie Spaghetti, about a king, named Eddie, who only (as you might well guess) eats spaghetti. In the storybook page, displayed on screen, it read that Eddie only eats “spaghetti, and spaghetti, and spaghetti!”

King Eddie Spaghetti

Enter the hero, suited and ready to save the day. He announces, as a preamble to his actions, “With the power to read I can change the story!” (He says this each episode at this point.) He then proceeds to tap two of the three words, changing one spaghetti for beets, and another spaghetti for meatballs. The new sentence reads that Eddie ate, “spaghetti, beets, and meatballs!” Problem solved. Now we can return to the real world with our new secret word, Variety, and solve our problem. Yay!

Or not. Pause, for just a moment, and reflect on what has just happened. We are looking in books to find solutions to our real world problems. When we encounter a possible solution, we don’t actually read, and interpret the book, we’re going to re-write it. What is more, we’re going to sanction this re-writing process by calling it, “The power to read.”

What?! That’s not reading. That’s not what the word means. That’s not how we deal with texts. That’s not how we deal with the world, or people, or problems. That’s not how we manage data, or interpret information. On no account and in none of the possible worlds is that a proper way to deal with a set of data. In fact, it represents the absolute antithesis of what good reading is, and we’ve got a word for it: eisegesis.

Jefferson Bible sources

Thomas Jefferson famously removed sections from his Bible that he didn’t like.

 

Maybe you don’t know this word. It’s the process of reading what we want into a text, rather than drawing out what a text actually says. It’s the process of projecting our own fancies, desires, and needs onto a body of literature, reforming it into a more convenient package. It’s a bad word. It’s repulsive. You don’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Think plague, Ebola, Chicken Pox.

And yet, eisegesis is the kind of reading being taught to children through the monotonous rhetoric of Super Why. Jack and the Beanstalk? Let’s change the words so that the giant is tired and wants a nap, so that we can teach a lesson about using music to relax. Hansel and Gretel? Let’s change the candy house to a house of vegetables so we can teach a lesson about balanced diets. Humpty Dumpty? Let’s “use the power to read” to get him down safely and change it to a story about encouragement. In each case, a perfectly good story is mangled so that it can communicate an inferior message. And this, really, is just salt to the wound, because rather than finding a story and drawing a lesson from that story, however awkwardly, whatever real value these stories have is pressed through the transforming matrix of banal moralization. In addition to not learning how to read, your child is also being fed a diet of thin and watery stupidity.

Super Why_Variety

Your daily indoctrination.

Texts challenge us. Texts expose us to other worlds. Texts give us insight into other mindsets, other human perspectives, other viewpoints. Occasionally those viewpoints are comfortable; occasionally they are not. But in either case, learning to read is the process of learning what it means to wrestle with that discomfort—of taking texts, as best we are able, at face value; of refusing at all points to edit or change them to our liking, to project on them our own desires or fantasies. And in the end, the way we treat texts is a great deal like the way we have to treat people—each with a perspective, a vantage point, a set of understandings that are different from our own. We are no more permitted to project our desires on other people than we are on texts, and yet the people who do so are considered the worst of us. Imagine speaking to someone about lunch plans. “What would you like to eat today?” “I’d like a cheeseburger.” And his response, “Okay, we’ll go for pie, then.” That’s not listening, that’s simple projection. And that’s the kind of person Super Why is training children to be. It’s abominable.

Orientalism—Othering and the Kingdom of God

Orientalism_Cover2As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading through (and benefitting from) Edward Said’s Orientalism, and I’m taking advantage of a few blog posts to think through elements of his book. Today I want to think about certain aspects of the concept of “othering.”

Othering is an idea that Said employs to disentangle the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. As far as I understand, othering is a process of perception in which the ‘other’ is conceived as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us,’ I clearly demarcate ‘outsiders’ so that I can feel more secure in my own insider status. The key, it seems to me, is that the other is viewed not for him or herself, but primarily with reference to my own knowledge, and sense of self, and the security of my own identity. History makes it clear that this kind of process has been at work in the West’s treatment of the Orient.

Within this, Said seems to be well aware that some form of othering is a necessary part of cultural engagement. Discovering a boundary between myself, and my self-perception, and another and that other’s self-perception, is always a self-reflexive activity. David Augsburger, commenting on this reality, once wrote that “He who knows one culture knows no culture.” This is true because culture only becomes visible on the boundaries, in comparison and contrast. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing more clearly in the ‘other’ where I differ. As a personal example, I learned more about myself as an American by living in Canada, working with Vietnamese and then Chinese churches, than I would have known otherwise. My experience of the other has generated a marked and beneficial increase in my self-awareness. I would say that I’m a better person because of those experiences.

Boundaries_Shoes

“He who knows one culture knows no culture.” ~ David Augsburger

However, the Western pattern of othering has, historically speaking, reflected a more insidious flavour. Specifically, it would appear that the power dynamic of the West—including, but not limited to, its sense of superiority, manifest destiny, and self-referentiality—has caused this otherwise natural othering relationship to generate distortions. On my read, I see this taking the form of flattening, and of fetishization. In this post I want to focus on the flattening.

The West flattens the Orient in a variety of ways, not least of which is in the absurdly broad categorization that a concept like the “Orient” requires. Orientalism, Said writes with some understatement, “is a field with considerable geographical ambition.” (50) This results in a collapse in specificity—what qualifies as Oriental is as broad as China, Vietnam, Japan, Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan, to name a few. This begs questions—what kind of food are we eating when we eat “Oriental” food? What kind of person are we speaking to when we speak to an “Oriental” person? What kind of subject are we studying when we read an “Oriental” book? The vagueness is problematic in itself, but it extends to individual persons as well. Many are content to collapse the dizzying variety of eastern races into a single class, “Oriental” (Asians are often flattened in this way to a single category) while at the same time privileging what would be the equivalent western disambiguations (Italian, Irish, German, etc.). In continuity with this, is it not possible that the phrase, “all Asians look alike” speaks more of Western self-perception than it does of actual Asian reality?

Oriental Restaurant

What kind of food is actually being served here?

An important counterpoint to this is to remember that there really is no way to escape stereotyping—it’s hard-wired into how our brains take in new information. We filter new data into categories of known data. It’s how we make sense of things. Consequently, our first steps into the world of the other commonly involves our recourse to what is assumed, or known by reputation. Almost all encounters between cultures (where there is at least some knowledge of the other beforehand) involves basic stereotyping. The problem arises—and this is terribly important—when I don’t allow the new data of the real person sitting in front of me to challenge that type. The problem is when I stop listening and project what I think to be true on the person, rejecting him or her in the process. And this, of course, appears to be very often precisely what the West has done in relation to the East. It has clutched its stereotypes, then demanded that those who have been othered conform to the type. This flattens a foreign culture, reducing it so that it will fit within my perceptions.

ridwan_adhami_islamophobia1

Photo by Ridwan Adhami

As I thought about these matters, I began to wonder—is there an othering relationship at play between the Kingdom of God and human culture, whether Oriental or Occidental? There is radical, disjunctive difference between the Kingdom and the world. In that relationship the Kingdom possesses immense power to shape, define, and identify. A crucial difference, however, is that the Kingdom has no need of human culture to self-reflexively know itself. It does not depend upon outsiders to be itself, or, rather, to be more itself. All the same, in its power relationship to the world, the Kingdom defines us, orders us, reshapes us, and sets our aspirations. That is to say, despite its perfect self-knowledge the kingdom is still a genuinely imperialistic force. It approaches the world—East and West alike—with the intention of invasion, interpretation, and reformation. Like the Oriental/Occidental dynamic, it is the Kingdom that gets to tell me who and what I am. It holds all the power.

There are further differences, however. The Kingdom holds this power by right—it deserves it. The West utilizes this power by accident of history. Where the Kingdom by right redefines the world, East and West alike, the West does not possess the authority to redefine the other according to its pleasure. In fact, what may make the particular cultural sins of the West more grim is the appropriation of Kingdom power for its own purposes. The West has done things to the world in the name of the Kingdom, and that corrupted, self-referential use of Godly power has not only done damage to the East, it has poisoned the power of the message the West was privileged to inherit. In presuming to speak with the authority of the Kingdom of God toward the rest of the world, the West has ascribed to itself an undue holiness, an improper destiny. Rather than bringing the Kingdom to the East as a subject of it, the West has often enough presumed itself to be the Kingdom. This has created situations where the West falsely legitimizes its oppression by appeal to the Kingdom.

Dutch East India Company Flag

This is the flag of the Dutch East India Company, which famously (or infamously) married its acceptance of Christian missions to its profit margins. Missionaries, often enough, were reduced to advance agents for empire.

Additionally, where in the hands of the West this othering power has flattened other cultures, the Kingdom of God does not flatten. Yes, it is imperialistic. Yes, it redefines and shapes according to its dictates, but fundamentally the Kingdom is about bringing life to the world in all its variety. Under the effects of the othering of the Kingdom of God, we are not less ourselves, but more ourselves than ever we were before. This is a great mystery.

Rowan Williams, writing about St John of the Cross, said the following: “To be absorbed in the sheer otherness of any created order or beauty is to open the door to God, because it involves that basic displacement of the dominating ego without which there can be no spiritual growth.” (The Wound of Knowledge, 176) To step from this language into our discussion suggests—I think rightly—that in the context of all true othering, we lose ego and gain self, while false, distorted othering causes us to clutch ego and lose our selves.

The Paragraph Sentence and Other Horrors

I read a lot of books. I enjoy a lot of books. Because there are so many books to read in the world, I try to focus my limited time on books that are worth reading. That doesn’t mean I don’t read candy—after all, one of my favourite genres is fantasy and sci-fi. But there’s a trend I’ve been noticing lately that causes my eyes to roll and my blood pressure to rise, causes me to snort in disgust at authors and publishers alike.

I’m talking about the paragraph sentence.

It hangs there, alone, pregnant, the typesetting equivalent of those three notes that play after a big reveal on old television shows—dun dun dun! It suggests significance and meaning, but doesn’t deliver; tantalizes the reader, making a big claim that begs you to read on. A cliff-hanger by formatting, click-bait for readers.

Dun-Dun-DUUUUUN-penguins-of-madagascar

It has to stop.

It has to stop because it’s bad writing. It’s the formatting equivalent of excessive exclamation points, of SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS!!!!!!1! It shouts at the reader like a decrepit Facebook user, invites nuanced meaning with all the skill and talent of a lovestruck teenager who only speaks in txt. It’s becoming habitual in books, blogs, and stories on the net (did the bite-sized demands of an internet age contribute to its rise and acceptance?). Like italics and scare-quotes, it uses formatting to stress the “appearance” of being meaningful.

They’re not especially meaningful.

Sure, the words appear meaningful. Sure, their situation on the page, or altered font, invites a veneer of meaningfulness. But the truth of the matter is that their meaning is borrowed from the formatting. The sentence paragraph is a cheat which pretends that its contents are especially significant, in the hope that terse phrasing and special formatting will make up for a lack of creativity, insight, and ability. Instead of writing well, of leading the reader wisely through a given passage, the sentence paragraph exposes the temptation to make formatting do a special work for the writer—instead of utilizing the vast scope of powerful literary tools at hand, instead of serving up a dish of vocabulary, word order, description, evocation, metaphor, simile, sound, and rhythm, the lazy author retreats to a simple emotive trope.

And tropes should be avoided.

Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

The man for whom the dark and stormy night was something fresh and original. Check out his wiki entry for other famous phrases he coined!

Tropes can be useful, of course, and I’ll be the first to admit that abuse does not negate proper use. Tropes can get a story started, can be useful, humourous, recontextualized, or subverted. When Edward Bulwer-Lytton opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night…” he had no clue what he was about to unleash on the world. The thing to remember is that when he said it, it wasn’t yet a trope. Now, the stuff of jokes, it takes on its own life and meaning and can be utilized to great effect. But when writers excessively rely on these canned features they betray a deep literary laziness, even a contempt of the reader.

It is we who should be contemptuous of them.

Orientalism–Some First Thoughts

Orientalism_CoverAs a side-track to my main research (on collective identity) I’ve found myself reading, and enjoying, Edward Said’s Orientalism. The book is both challenging and illuminating, and I thought that I might take advantage of a few blog posts to highlight things I am being driven to think about. Today I want to reflect on the power that questions have to shape a discourse.

One of Said’s central claims in Orientalism is that the concept of the “Oriental” is created by the West, then deployed in discourse with the Orient as a means, often enough, of political, moral, social, and economic change. To put this differently, in the historic dialogue between “east” and “west,” the west has traditionally held the power (for example, European domination), defined all the terms (for example, “oriental”), policed the discussion (e.g., by means of language and dialectic control), and even granted the right to speak—or proscribed it, as the case may be. In short, there has been an unequal relationship between East and West, and this inequality has been woven warp and weft into the Western conceptualization of what it means to be “oriental.” Untangling this weave is Said’s intended goal.

The very nature of discourse between Orient and Occident is, fundamentally, shaped by Occidental conceptions of discourse, and these forces are in turn shaped significantly by the West’s exposure to the Enlightenment with all the attendant clarities and ambiguities freighted by that watershed. Concepts like ‘rationality,’ the self, what constitutes a good, and the human relationship to the natural world, are not neutral givens in such a discourse. All the same, they are deeply held convictions which stand tacitly behind the Western identity—they don’t merely shape questions, they shape the shaping of our questions. Western identity not only generates a certain set of questions which it brings to something ‘outside’ the west, it shapes the how by which such questions are formed in the first place. A key difference between the west and the non-west is in this how by which questions themselves are formed.

What I am getting at is that these features in the western mind that shape the very shaping of questions in turn shape the shaping of answers. When the west, rich in power and self-possessed of its privileged position, queries an outsider culture, the query itself becomes a shaping power in that culture. First, because of the imbalance of power, the weaker culture is forced to provide an answer—and it must be an answer that satisfies the west’s terms. Second, if the weaker culture is incapable of providing such an answer, then the west (traditionally) provides its own answer. Either way, the answer is then retroactively projected on the weaker culture. Together, the answers given—or provided—come to shape the weaker culture’s sense of itself. This, broadly, is what has happened with the concept of “Orientalism”—it is a construct of the West, by the West, and for the West, which has in turn come to shape the self-perception of the East, often with unjust, flattening, distorting, and even violent effects.

Orientalism_Giulio Rosati The Dance

What I am wrestling with, then, is the concept that the type and manner of a given question can come to form and even alter the subject with which it is engaged. This, to me, raises a question about the etiquette of questions. And yet, perhaps such shaping is inevitable. At the quantum level, we are told, the fact that you have looked at and isolated a quantum element itself changes the quantum element. This means that at the most rudimentary level of relationships, our attention always has changing, shaping power over a given subject. If this is the case, and if I can justifiably extend this to bigger discourses, then there are no situations where I might ask a question which will not in some sense shape the answer. In the interplay between knowledge and power, the quest for knowledge will always, in some form, shape and be shaped by the dynamic of power—whether I am a scientist observing butterflies, a policeman querying a prisoner, or a social scientist examining a cultural phenomenon.

If no question can avoid shaping, then the only shaping that remains is the shaping of our etiquette when it comes to questions. How do we query in such a way that invites, opens, expands our mutual understanding, but doesn’t do violence, flatten, distort, or dehumanize? I’ve not reflected on this much, but I have a few intuitions. First among them is one that says listening will be a key component. Am I attending to the cues offered me by the subject I am questioning? Am I striving to really hear the answer offered—or not offered? Am I attentive to text and subtext alike? And am I shaping my own questions relative to the subject?

Another intuition says that I’ll have to think about the kinds of answers I will accept. Have I considered what qualities will constitute a satisfactory answer? Do I hold all the power in terms of granting whether or not an answer qualifies for a satisfactory rating? Am I in possession of sufficient wisdom to know the difference? Thinking about questions and answers in this way makes me think further about situations of public calamity and cries for ‘answers.’ Those who demand answers hold the power of satisfaction for a given answer, and the one who gives an answer, aware of this, is often afraid lest blame be assigned to them in the process. The questioner is not asking for information, but to assign your answer to a category. In such an ethics there are, without doubt, many more categories to examine and nuances to explicate.

Serpent_Le Peche Originel 2

Fascinatingly, the first recorded questions in the Bible exhibit this shaping power of questions. Following the narrative of creation Eve converses with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent asks a question: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The question shapes Eve’s perception—in this case, diabolically—from benevolence to distrust, from contentment to discontentment, from understanding to confusion. The data of Eve’s life to that point is now muddled by a foreign and dangerously imperious invasion, and in her newfound doubt she is susceptible to its argument.

Now note, especially, that when God appears on the scene He also asks a question. The Lord calls to Adam and says, “Where are you?” I like to remind people that God does not ask because He needs the information. He most certainly knows where Adam is, and yet in asking such a question is it possible that God is presenting a different kind of opportunity? That God does not ask for information, but asks so that Adam can reframe himself? Does God’s question shape the situation as well, offering Adam the opportunity to resituate himself relative to this new situation of disobedience? If so, then the right answer might have been, “I am standing outside of Your commandment.” We’ll never know, but the situation certainly bears thinking about.