Intentionality in Conquering Othering

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By Dianna E. Anderson | Twitter: @DiannaEAnderson

O_Dianna

In high school, I had a friend who was the son of the local Southern Baptist preacher. We were in the same activities and shared a religious belief, so we got along well. Until I told him I wanted to go into ministry, that is. I excitedly logged on to AOL Instant messenger (remember those things?) and told him about what I thought God was doing in my life and how I felt called to be in ministry of some kind.

“You can’t do that. Women can’t do ministry,” he responded.

In that moment, I felt small, inconsequential. But I also felt angry. If God could lead me to this answer, that I was supposed to work in ministry and study theology and chase after God in this way, then how could it be that God doesn’t want women like me in ministry? How could I reconcile my call with what this friend was telling me about the Bible? Was one of us wrong?

I also felt like I didn’t exist beyond my gender identity in that moment–I was an object to him, a person who was disqualified from ministry because of the gender I’d been assigned at birth, though I didn’t have the terms at the time to understand it. I’d been Othered.

Othering is a fairly academic concept, but it’s also an easy one to understand–it’s the literary (and now sociological) exercise of turning a person into something outside of or less than human. One turns the antagonist or the marginalized into something that doesn’t seem human. The person no longer exists as a person–instead they are an Other. And it’s easy to hate (or love) the Other.

The famous trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an Other. So is the trope of a villain who “just wants to watch the world burn.” Others happen when a person is no longer a person to us, but instead defined by certain traits or jobs or identities.

I am a woman. I am a bisexual woman with mental health issues. I am an Other to many.

What many of us don’t realize is how quickly Othering can enter our conversations and our worship spaces. I recently started attending a new church in town, and am continually struck (and heartened) by the clear intentionality with which the reverend speaks. Everything has an air of careful thought and careful consideration around it–it is clear that even the gender-neutral language used to refer to God has been given deep, theological thought. And I’ve realized that part of the reason this church makes me feel peaceful is because of this intentionality–they are taking care not to Other people in their congregation, even if it’s with a single word.

It is this intentionality that has been missing from the justice movement within the church. We figure that if we are doing something, then that must count for good. But what is hard, what is resisted, is critical intentionality toward examining the Othering language we employ in our efforts toward justice. There is a conflict between what will help people learn to care, and what will actually be useful to the marginalized being “helped.”

When we talk about how to help the homeless, are we taking care to treat them as our neighbors, as full human beings? Or are we creating an Other of them–a version of them that does not actually correspond to reality?

When we talk about how to help after the latest natural disaster or trending hashtag campaign, are we actually concerned with treating the people involved as full, autonomous human beings?

When we give that sermon about helping “the poor” or seeking after justice, are we being intentional and purposeful and clear that justice is messy, complicated, and takes years of dedication? Or are we going after the easy, simple rhetoric that brings a lot of people in the door and makes them feel like they’ve done something?

We often talk about “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” but what I see, over and over, in progressive Christian movements is a lack of intentionality toward “afflicting the comfortable,” especially when we are the comfortable. An intentional refusal to Other people means an intentional desire to examine ourselves, to interrogate our motivations and our rhetoric.

Intentionality requires the ability to listen, carefully, and the ability to take what we hear to heart. If we’re going to move forward without Othering those we’re trying to help, we have to learn to listen.

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About Dianna:

DiannaAndersonDianna Anderson is the author of Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity (Jericho Books, 2015). She writes about everything from local politics to sexual ethics at Faith and Feminism. She’s a proud Midwesterner, living in Sioux Falls, SD.

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