The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “other” as “being the one or ones distinct from that or those first mentioned or implied.” In recent years we have watched as the world increasingly defines itself by separating one group of people from the other – I am a democrat and you are a republican, I am a Canadian and you are an American, I am a Christian and you are a Muslim, I am Sunni and you are a Shia, I am white and you are black.
In many ways, our modern technology has allowed us to declare our differences from one another with impunity. Anyone can define themselves how they want, may say what they want, and broadcast it to as wide an audience as they are able to attract. The result is that we live in a world of known “others”. I have children in elementary, high school and university. Each of them attend public schools with a diversity of religious, ethnic, social, economic, sexual and gender differences. Unlike any previous time in my life, figuring out how to live with the “other” has seemingly become a necessity of navigating life and culture…at least if we want to be a people of the book, who follow Jesus.
Many times the ”other” is a group of people disenfranchised from the majority culture. The other is usually those who are different in some way from the majority.
The concept of the other, of loving, accepting and pursuing the other, is embedded deep inside the gospel story. One could argue that this concern for the other is present in the very concept of the incarnation. Phil 2 says, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” Jesus gave up what was rightfully his, took on human likeness and submitted himself to the cross as an act of love for the other – in this case, all of humanity. This is the story of the incarnation. Jesus exemplified his concern with the other through his life and his teaching.
In the gospels it was the “other” people that Jesus often spoke with and spent his time with. The majority of people in ancient Israel followed Jewish law and custom; this assured peace, the protection of Rome and the goodwill of the Jewish powers that be. In this reality Jesus declared and lived an ethic that was different. An ethic that said God is in the middle of changing people and this world. A new kingdom is emerging. A kingdom which views power, and people differently. Matthew 5 – 7 deals with themes that had been talked about earlier in the scriptures (i.e.: Proverbs, etc). However, the Matthew passage is different in that it assumes a view that says God is intervening and we are different people when we follow Jesus (II Cor 5:17). The ethic of Jesus calls us to be concerned with the value, personhood, the creation and protection of the other – even those with whom we differ, are prone to hate, don’t like, disagree with or who have committed violence against us. When criticized for being present with “sinners” and “tax collectors” Jesus responded in Mark 2, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick, I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” Jesus exemplifies and calls us to live with a concern for the other.
In the early church a consistent struggle was what to do with the other. Typically the other was a Gentile. In Acts 10 Cornelius, a Gentile follower of God, welcomes Peter to his home and Peter accepts this invitation (breaking Jewish tradition). In Acts 15 the church makes the decision to not require circumcision of a Gentile who decides to follow Christ. And proactively in Acts 17 Paul utilizes the culture – its symbols and signs – of the “other” to share the good news.
What can we observe and learn from the early church about dealing with the “other”?
While fear remained, mission reigned
At various point in the book of Acts we find veiled references to the fear that was present of the other (whether it was Saul or Paul, the Gentiles, etc). We also see a constant reference to the work of the Holy Spirit and what God was doing in people’s lives. In Acts 15 the argument regarding circumcision of the Gentile follower of Jesus wasn’t won on the basis of law or safety, it was won on the basis of what the Holy Spirit was doing in a group of people (Acts 15:12 -14, 19). God was changing lives. It may be possible that our fear of the other is, in fact, a greater reflection of our lack of awareness of the Holy Spirit working in those who are different from us.
Something internally drove the early church to speak the gospel to the other. They were active. They lived in a way that was different and people of all creeds wanted to follow and experience. We have our statements, theology, and creeds and they are good. They help to identify who we are but when they begin to separate us from the other in ways that break fellowship, dehumanize and segment us from the “other” they can become dangerous. When we are present with the other and we see the Holy Spirit working within them, we are often forced to deal with issues, concerns, and fears that we may have. It is hard to argue against the other when God is clearly at work among them.
They remembered their past
As the early church worked to engage and accept the other they did not let go of their past. In fact, they looked to their past to affirm their future. James, in a not so subtle voice, refers to the Gentiles as a people (vs 14). This would have had more significant meaning in the context of the early church than it does at first glance today. For in the Old Testament the “Gentile” or “nations” stood in contrast to the “people” of God. James then proceeded to argue from their past and the scriptures, that their forefathers had spoken and hinted at the day that the Gentile (the other) would follow God, quoting the prophet Amos.
They honoured one another
As the issue and process of salvation was settled in Acts 15, they began the process of recognizing that fellowship between Jew and the Gentile would require mutual understanding. So they suggested four prohibitions (3 related to food and one to sexual immorality). These prohibitions spoke to the need to honour then current Jewish scruples. They weren’t seemingly connected to salvation, but were an apparent attempt to have each demonstrate honour for the other.
As they write their letter to the churches outlining their decisions, they do so in the softest of language. Modern theological statements tend towards definitive language “we believe” or “we hold true that”. In Acts 15 it simply says “It seemed good…” There is a humbleness to their message that sought to honour the other.
Finally, in Acts 16 Paul travels from “town to town” delivering the message of the apostles’ and elders’ decisions in Jerusalem (vs 4). Most interestingly, though, he travels with Timothy who he has circumcised before leaving. He does this because of the Jews who lived in the area. It is an incredible example of honouring one another in the midst of one’s freedom.
The reality is that we are all the “other” to someone or some other group. Recently I traveled for the installation of a Bishop in a sister General Conference. The service was beautiful, the people were warm and generous. But it was clear that, in some measure, I was the other. As I observed the service, I was not used to the cleric’s collars, the importance of particular colours being worn, the amount of oil used in the anointing process, nor the significance of a chair for the newly installed Bishop. The service was different then how we do things in Canada at the same time it was a joy to watch this church be the church God has called them to be in their context.
The questions are:
– How do we enjoy our diversity?
– How do we enjoy our differences?
– How do we appreciate the distinctions within the body of Christ and honour the other?
By Doug Sider
Article originally featured in the publication “Shalom” Spring 2017 issue: