This is the fifth post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.
The ugly, sneering villain commits an act of violence that disgusts us as we watch the beginning of a movie. Our reaction to him is deep seated and almost instantaneous. This person deserves to die. The rest of the movie is devoted to satisfying our longing for his extermination. The hero of the film does indeed vanquish his foe at the end of the film, usually in a dramatic one-to-one face off. And something deep in our gut rejoices to see the monster get what he deserves.
Most Americans have probably seen a thousand movies with this plot line. It is an old story, but one that still stirs us with passion at a pre-rational level. Our gut-level reaction to the despicable monsters we see in movies can serve as a warning to what we are capable of on a smaller scale. The temptation is to deny that we have a dark side capable of mistreating others. But Beck’s chapter “Monsters and Scapegoats” makes the point that every human heart is predisposed to dehumanize the “Other.”
Beck begins the chapter by citing examples of socio-moral disgust which are extreme and easy to observe. Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews is one example. The Jews were dehumanized by being compared to rats and other vermin and then scapegoated as the reason Germany lost Word War I. Most people can see that scapegoating itself is morally wrong. However, once the group feels fear and disgust towards ‘the monster,’ the scapegoating process can proceed without individuals feeling any pangs of conscience. Something more primal than thought has taken over the group and they will not be satisfied until the monstrous is forcibly exterminated.
All of this may seem very far away from where you and I live. We are not currently directly engaged in any kind of ethnic cleansing or violence. And yet, Beck argues, we would do well to look inside ourselves and become aware of our own tendencies of monster-making and scapegoating. Much like cancer, catching it early may save us in the end. As Christians, we should be very wary of the scapegoating process, because that is exactly what happened to Jesus, even though he was entirely innocent. He was considered a monster by the religious community of his day, and ultimately put to death. He was considered dangerous because of his friendships with those on the fringes, who were outside, of respectable society.
We can attempt to detect our internal “monsteritis” before it becomes destructive to ourselves and others by asking ourselves some simple questions: Do we have friends outside of our group? If you are a Democrat, do you have friends that are Republican? If you are a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, do you have friends who don’t go to church? Friends that are Muslim? Atheist? Do you have friends that have a different ethnicity than you? Pushing ourselves to grow in these areas is a great way to counteract our tendency to judge the “Other” as unclean and somehow subhuman. The more we can see others as part of the human family, the better we will be able to treat them. Theological reflection on God being the Father and all humans as God’s sons and daughters can go a long ways in helping us elevate the “Other.”
Here are other very helpful questions to ask: How do we treat service professionals? Do I see the girl ringing up my groceries as a human being or as part of the machinery? Is she only a means to an end? Or does she deserve a look in the eye and a smile? Beck uses a great story to drive this point home to his students. He asks them to imagine that one of their friends got a job waiting tables. They get together one night to go the restaurant where the friend is serving and ask to be seated in her section. However, when they arrive, they noticed she is flustered and running behind on everything. “How would you feel about this?” Beck asked his students. “We would tell her to take care of the other tables first and try to encourage her.” “How much of a tip would you leave?” “We would still leave a large tip.” Now, imagine the same scenario with a waitress who no one in the group knows. Is there any mercy or compassion? Probably not. Will the tip be high? Probably not. We naturally support our “own,” those we perceive as “in” our group. Those on the outside naturally receive lesser treatment. But the conscious act of treating a service professional according to the golden rule, as a fellow human being, is a great start for confronting the seeds of “monsteritis” that are waiting to grow inside of us.
When I was attending the Seminary at Andrews University, I was looking for a way to make a few extra dollars. A friend of mine hooked me up with a job as a golf caddy at a very prestigious golf club, called Lost Dunes about 30 minutes away. The membership for this club was $50,000, so it wasn’t for everybody. Some of the members would fly in on their private helicopters from Chicago to play. The rich and powerful were my clients. However, after about six months, I quit the job, even though the money was good. I just got tired of being treated like the golf cart. I wasn’t a human being to most of these golfers. I was part of the machinery that was only noticed when it malfunctioned. Ever since that time, I have had a soft spot in my heart for service professionals who live on tips. I have made it a practice to tip a set amount regardless of the level of service. I have tried to remember to smile and look people in the eye and to humanize everyone that I interact with. This is something I regularly fail in doing because I’m in a hurry or distracted by thinking about something else. But I continue to try, because I recognize how important it is for me to practice.
In the end, although this chapter highlights the somber point that we all struggle with dehumanizing the other, I believe that Beck offers us hope and a way forward as well. When we get to know people outside of our group, it changes the way we view them. Instead of allowing religion to legitimize the scapegoating process, I envision a church filled with people who practice religion modeled after the example of Jesus who consistently looked for ways to reach out to and include those on the outside.
Will Johns is currently serving as the pastor of worship, community outreach, and discipleship at the Beltsville Adventist Church in Beltsville, MD.
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