Once upon a time, not so long ago, a Muslim student was on his way to Friday prayers. As he walked along Garfield Street, he was approached by a very angry man, who clenched his fist at the Muslim and shouted: “You killed my brother!” The student stood still. After a moment, he replied “I couldn’t have killed your brother. I’ve never even been in Afghanistan.”
This is the aftershock of 9/11. Even though years have passed, our prejudices have not. We cannot forget. And, we never should. But, what we make of this tragedy can keep us labeling “outsider” to everyone who looks different, or sounds different, or worships in a different way. And, if we learned any lesson from the Holocaust, it is that forcing people to be outsiders, to see them only as a category creates the differences that continue to diminish and divide. We see the outsider as exactly like those “others” who caused harm. Then, we dehumanize and see the label, not the person.
In the study of religion and science, the hardening of categories is called a “blik,” an opinion about reality that cannot be changed. Surely science knows the problems faced by Galileo and Darwin and Einstein. But, what about the rest of us? How can we see the present truth when we are blinded by the past? This “rigidity of mind” or mind- block causes self- justification. We are right because the “other” is always wrong.
This kind of “blik” or hardening of the categories happened in my ethics class. In this particular group of students, there were two Cherokees, one veteran who had worked on a nuclear submarine, and one Muslim. When the Muslim presented his final paper on the ethics of community, another student was disdainful. The other student could only see the religious label and not the ethical content. The American said—“If that’s the way you think, why don’t you just go home?” The Muslim answered: “Do you mean Detroit?”
It is possible to look beyond our categories and see others as they are—not just as a label—Christian, Muslim, Jew. We can start to see others as complex and real. They may be joyful as we are, or suffer as we do. My professor of theology used to say “Be kind to everyone you meet. Chances are they are having a bad day.”
We have seen so many examples of labeling that we almost take it for granted, and fail to catch ourselves thinking that our label for a person is the whole of who they are. The rhetoric of the past three years has increased our fears and “hardened our categories.”
Maybe it’s time to celebrate those who called us not to prejudice, but who call us to see and celebrate the depth and breadth of our humanity. When Jesus was met by a suffering woman, an “unclean” woman, he saw her as a person in human need. He didn’t say “You are an outsider, a threat.” He did say “Take heart, daughter, your faith has made you well.” Matthew 9:22
Rev. Dr. Sally Palmer is a former pastor of St. Paul’s and lecturer in religion. She is currently a teacher of Contemplative Prayer and leader in the Wyoming Interfaith Network