Reflections on the Other image

Reflections on the Other

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There are four words that appear with unerring frequency on the noticeboards of university corridors, in my experience: "revolution", "vagina", "fascism" and "Other". The first three were in the top five when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, and if my recent walk from the King's College theology faculty to the Strand is anything to go by, they still are, cajoling people to join protests, attend events, campaign for student finance, watch risqué plays, and go to even more risqué poetry readings. The three things that educated young people will care most about, these posters assume, are having enough money (which is what the rather silly revolutionary rhetoric usually adds up to), achieving sexual fulfilment (vagina, obviously) and personal autonomy (which, when you look and see why the word "fascism" has been used, is almost always what's at stake). In other words, they represent the three primary gods of the modern age, namely money, sex and power, albeit (usually) with a postmodern twist of irony. No surprises there.

The more recent addition to the list, however, is the Other. No doubt it appeared on certain noticeboards in Humanities department buildings fifteen years ago, but today it is hard to walk twenty yards without seeing an event, seminar, forum or lecture which has something to do with the Other. It’s quite a phenomenon. There are unwritten rules about the use of the word, as well. It must always begin with a capital letter. (Whether this is because it was originally a German noun, or whether it merely reflects a slightly self-righteous and insufficiently self-aware undercurrent to contemporary sociology, I have been unable to discern). When it appears in the genitive alongside another noun, the nominative noun must also be capitalised: the Voice of the Other, for example. And it must always be followed by an explanatory subtitle, which tells you what the event is actually about (presumably because nobody is quite sure what the Other is). If these rules are followed, the event has some chance of gathering the right crowd.
 
For the uninitiated: the Other is shorthand for the excluded, the minority, the voiceless, the stranger, the disenfranchised or, more generically, just the different. Ethnic minorities, women, Muslims, Jews, gays, Greens (the party members, not the vegetables), asylum seekers: all could legitimately be Other in contemporary Britain, depending on the context. As such, the term is almost uselessly broad; those groups together form about 70% of the population, and as a white, male evangelical Christian, I am in a tiny minority in my own country, and subject to far more ridicule and invective than several of them. Nevertheless, the word is gaining traction as the identifier of choice for the socially sensitive (or philosophically superior), and that means we are going to have to get used to it.
 
It is also appearing more and more in biblical scholarship. I am writing this on my way back from a research seminar in which Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament was critiqued for not taking sufficient account of the Other, and in which a fascinating story was told about the Dutch Reformed Church admitting that they had got into defending apartheid because “we did not listen to the Voice of the Other” (capitals are always used, as I said, even in reported speech). But it’s not just in ethics; New Testament studies is going in for it as well. Pneumatic enthusiasts at Corinth were Other. So, obviously, were women in the Pauline churches. And gays. And possibly gnostics, and Judaizers, and so on. Careful exegesis means listening for the Voice of the Other in the text, not just in society, you see - and that includes those much-maligned fornicators in Corinth and the virulent foreskin-choppers in Galatia. How did they feel about Paul’s letters, do you think?
 
My tone probably indicates that I find this sort of jargon-laden, quasi-intellectual faddism a little bit smug, and a little bit annoying. Which I do. But although the language can be grating, and the ubiquity of the concept makes me want to react against it on principle, the best of it is very much in line with the example of Jesus, and the teaching of the whole of Scripture. Love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute you. Welcome the outcast and the nomad, because you were like that once. Leave gleanings for the poor, the orphan and the widow. Seek justice for the foreigner and the asylum seeker. Follow me, while I hang out with undesirables and untouchables, sinners and strippers, lepers, losers and loonies. In short: love your neighbour as you love yourself, for on this hang the whole of the law and the prophets.
 
So why write an article poking fun of the Other? Is it just a way of giving people who have read too much Foucault a bit of a nose-tweaking? Well, partly. I do think intellectual fads are worth nose-tweaking sometimes, and I find the temptation particularly acute when they appear on the same noticeboards as revolutions, vaginas and fascists. But I also have my suspicions that the language of Otherness does more than simply describe difference; I suspect it deliberately conflates various sorts of difference, and implies that all have equivalent moral value, such that (say) the gay person who wants to get married in Tennessee is in much the same position as the black person who wanted to go to school in Johannesburg thirty years ago, and hence implicitly that the white male evangelical who opposes gay marriage is guilty of the same lovelessness, and the same failure to listen to the Voice of the Other, as the white male evangelicals who opposed mixed race education. When it starts creeping into New Testament studies, such that the opinions of the flaky oddballs and heretics Paul confronted in Corinth represent “perspectives of Otherness that need to be heard afresh”, I feel I have to protest.
 
Listening, understanding and talking to people who are different from us is vital, powerful, loving work, and it should be part of the ministry of every leader, every theologian and every Christian. But we already have language for that: language which goes back to Jesus himself, which commands empathy and love for those who are both like and unlike us, and which neither requires this sort of assumed moral equivalence, nor those unnecessary capital letters. “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Stick that on your poster.

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Andrew is now on Twitter as @AJWTheology

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