You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
That people can no longer carry on authentic dialogue with one another is not only the most acute symptom of the pathology of our time, it is also that which most urgently makes a demand of us. I believe, despite all, that the people in this hour can enter into dialogue, into a genuine dialogue with one another. In a genuine dialogue each of the partners, even when he (she) stands in opposition to the other, heeds, affirms, and confirms his (her) opponents as an existing other. Only so can conflict certainly not be eliminated from the world, but be humanly arbitrated and led toward its overcoming.
Reach out to those you fear. Touch the heart of complexity. Imagine beyond what is seen. Risk vulnerability one step at a time.’
–John Paul Lederach
In our congregations, often, we create our enemies in our hearts, minds and imaginations. It is not about what they do; it is about our choice of responses. In the end, in many situations, our enemies are in our hearts, minds and imaginations. Then, they take on social significance as others share in our construction of that reality. (Although this article talks about the way we dehumanize each other in congregations, which heightens anxiety and conflict, this process is not exclusively limited to those in our congregations. It is a process that transcends culture, religion, ethnicity, race or gender.)
I am amazed at the way I have made enemies; how I have worked to objectify others, thus, rationalize my disdain for them. It is a subtle process that happens, often, apart from my knowing. In many instances, as I am honest, it is not that I do not know that I am objectifying others, but that I do not want to know.
This article suggests one (general) pattern I have found in congregational conflicts— a way we move from connection to disconnection, from relationship to cut-off, from an I- Thou to I-It way of seeing, being with and relating to others. The pattern is:
First, we separate from the other person(s) physically, emotionally and spiritually. In my experience, the most common theme in conflict is disconnect or cut-off. Once I disconnect from others, the separation makes space for me to imagine the other in ways that makes him or her less than human, that objectifies him/her. I begin to focus on and exaggerate her/his differences, and I frame those differences as negative. I blame them; I horriblize them; I fault find; I focus on being right. The relationship becomes I-It.
That is why, when I am invited into congregations and other contexts of conflict, I try to get the key people together, so they sit down at the same table, in the same circle, seeing each other face to face and looking into each other’s eyes. This is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching about “go to your neighbor . . .” It is easier to horriblize and blame the other(s) when we do not see the other’s eyes, when we do not hear the other’s voice, when we do not listen to the other’s stories. Even when we sit face to face, sometimes we still do not hear or see the other, but by positioning people physically together, I believe it increases the possibility of a deeper emotional and spiritual connection. Face to face encounters help us see others through gentile eyes of grace that happen when we are in an I-Thou way, not through hard eyes that make others objects or Its.
A minister was in conflict with a parishioner. He called me to ask for guidance. I suggested instead of separating or disconnecting from the other person, what would it look like for him to work toward staying in connection with the other person. The caution I offered was that staying in connection has to be done in a genuine way, not as a gimmick or trick. Relationship grows out of responsible caring, out of being deeply present with the other where the I-Thou can happen.
When I am in connection with another, when I see and listen to another and their stories and they listen to mine, it is harder to objectify them and them us. Seeing and being with the other(s) invites us to see them and them to see us as fellow humans on a journey. There is nothing like our or another’s vulnerable humanity to pierce the defenses that separate us. To influence others, I have to be open to meeting others and to being changed by them. Or in Martin Buber’s words, “All real living is meeting.”
The second stage as I separate from other(s), is that I make the other(s) less human, I vilify them and make or construct the story so that I am a victim. Subtly, I begin to imagine myself as superior to them. As I see others falsely, I see myself falsely. When I see self as “better than‟ the other(s), the distortion of other(s) and self is present. I -Thou is one word. Without either I or Thou together, the other is distorted or, we might say, without either I or Thou, the other is absent. This phenomenon of seeing oneself as better than other or “self-righteousness” only heightens anxiety, deepens conflict and broadens schisms. Jesus’ model suggests that we not see ourselves as superior, but to be servants. In Philippians, the scripture says that Jesus, though in the form of God, he humbled himself and took on the form of a servant or common person (Phil. 2:7). To objectify another, a common pattern, is that we not only get distance, but we often begin to put ourselves in a superior role, a “better-than” role (self-rlighteous), which only increases the distance and differences (disconnect) we see between and among us. To create and maintain our enemy, we must loose sight of our commonness, sameness and relatedness and believe we are not equals.
In the third stage, I continue to dehumanize them and rob them of their humanity. I no longer see them as people; I know longer see them in an I-Thou way. When I see others falsely I see myself falsely, which leads to the downward spiral of more blaming, taking less responsibility, more “I am right at all cost” thinking. As a result, there is less opportunity for growth and reconciliation. The more I dehumanize the other(s), the more I deface the image of God in that person(s). In addition, by doing this, I rationalize or justify my I-It way of being toward them, my way of seeing them in a less than human way.
When I dehumanize people, I think some of it is about them, but it is also about me. When I am aware I am dehumanizing other(s), I ask myself, How am I benefiting from keeping this person dehumanized or less than me, from not seeing and relating to this other in an I-Thou way or as an equal, made in the image of God? How am I benefiting by keeping them in an I-It place? My answer is, “By keeping them less than I, it makes me feel more important, gives me the illusion of control and rationalizes my inappropriate attitudes and behaviors. Also, to accept them as equals means I have to take responsibility and acknowledge that I have not valued them in an I-Thou way in my heart.”
Sometimes, it is easier to keep seeing them as I perceive they are than to look at myself, admit and own my own shortcomings and how I have contributed to the situation. To take responsibility for oneself is the hero’s/heroines’ journey—it takes energy, courage and strength.
When I perceive the other(s) negatively, I ask myself, “How do I perceive this person? Might I be wrong about them? What changes if I am wrong? What are other ways to interpret their behavior? By clinging to my interpretation is there something I am resisting about them?”
In contrast, some ways to counter the temptation to dehumanize the other(s) and the atrocities that such a phenomenon yields are as follows: 1) Find that which you hold in common that connects you to the other(s), 2) consider the challenges and burdens of others—both past and present. How have you—in large, medium or small ways added to those burdens for them? 3) What can you affirm about the other(s) as a person, their gifts and strengths? 4) Look for God within the other(s); they, too, are made in the image of God. Sometimes my ministry is helping the other(s) and myself re-remember our sameness, our commonalities, our connection, our gifts and the image of God within us all while valuing our difference, and 5) maintain curiosity grounded in humility and compassion—ask open, honest questions.
May Peace be with you and those around you. May our relationship with those to whom we minister and those who minister to us unfold in an I-Thou way. As the poet, T.S. Eliot, writes:
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Agree or disagree, we invite you into the conversation!