In the Time of Chimpanzees, I Was Other: Making Our Own Monsters

chimpI bet you have that Beck song stuck in your head now. Don’t worry, I do too, thanks to recent news out of Kansas City. As I write this post, zoo employees in Kansas City are scrambling to prevent any more escapes after a chimp broke off a tree limb, used it as a ladder to escape, and successfully beckoned his friends to join. While the chimps were on the loose and probably trying to start the Planet of the Apes, zoo guests were kept inside buildings or cars, ironically locked away while the animals roamed free. Why would such a precaution be necessary, when chimps seem to be such happy little creatures in all the YouTube videos? Because of stuff like this. Apparently captive chimps can be extraordinarily violent. Wild chimps, counterintuitively, rarely attack humans. According to Frans de Waal, lead biologist from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, this is because while wild chimps are afraid of humans, captive chimps eventually realize they are stronger than their captors. When the walls fail, the captors can quickly find themselves held captive, or worse. These are important things to remember when dealing with captive animals, but they’re even more true of our fellow human beings, created in the image of God. Our society, over and over again, utilizes a philosophical concept known as “the Other.” The Other is those things or people left out when we construct the categories of “Self” or “Same.” The Other allows us to define ourselves by what we’re not. Although differentiation is an important part of understanding life and society, the use of Otherness can very easily carry with it an implicit or even explicit devaluing of the Other. Such a stark separation from his or her fellow human can be one of the most painful psychological or social circumstances any human ever experiences. Walled off and devalued, the Other must find their own existential meaning or succumb to seeing themselves through the same dark lens that the self-proclaimed Same use against them. Unfortunately, some of the worst offenders of self-proclaiming Sameness and pushing away Otherness are Christians. This certainly and sadly includes some of my fellow evangelicals, men and women who use the Cross to keep down rather than raise up. While it is useful and even necessary to consider the boundaries of Christianity, dehumanizing our fellow humans by seeing them as lesser Others contradicts the very faith we proclaim. We are told humans are made in the image of God. We bandy about the term “sinner”, and yet Paul tells us all have sinned. We proclaim we follow Christ, but this Christ tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Getting to be Same and keeping away the Other is comfortable, admittedly. We get to be normal, without any of the pressure of feeling alienated. We get our laws passed “for the good of society” because we’re normal. We get to take potshots at, disparage, and use slurs against the Other without fear of reprisal. We get to tell ourselves that the terrible things never happen here, because we’re all Same. Those awful active-shooting, pipe bomb-making, plane-hijacking Others aren’t here with us. We have been able to get away with declaring ourselves as the Same for a long time, thanks to the moralistic pressure of Christendom. Societal pressure kept those who defied our “normal” from standing up to our dehumanizing or even simply making their difference public. It was peaceful, comfortable, and seemingly safe. But the walls have begun to fail. Demographic and ideological shifts make it harder and harder for anyone else to accept our declaration of normal. Those who would wish us ill have realized their strength and our weakened position. Most of those alienated as Other have calmly and maturely moved into their new societal standing. Sadly, a few have responded out of fear and pain, and the captors and anyone associated with them find ourselves on the other side of the wall of Otherness. People from all sides of the political aisle object to cruel treatment of chimps and other animals, pointing out the lasting damage we cause. And yet we tolerate the cruel treatment of humans as long as it is done in the name of faith, even if it contradicts that faith. We then dare to be taken unaware by reprisals. When we have caused, or allowed our fellow believers to cause, so much pain in the name of Christ, why should we be surprised when people don’t like us and make fun of us? When we marginalize those not like us and attempt to strip them of their God-given dignity, why are we surprised when the Church is reviled as oppressive and our God is mocked as a monster? When young children, based on their skin or economic classification, are treated with fear and suspicion like criminals, what could we expect other than some of them taking this to heart and becoming criminals? When children, at such impressionable ages, are pushed aside by adult and children alike for not fitting our “normal”, what’s so shocking about the few who take drastic, even violent, measures against themselves or others? The same goes for cultures across the planet. Why do we act so dumbfounded when US interests are attacked by someone who has been routinely relegated as lesser and Other? The very worst of our monsters are those that we have made ourselves. Do all evangelicals throw out the Other? No, thank God (I mean that). But far too many do, and those who don’t partake do precious little to curtail or mitigate, perhaps out of fear of being tossed out into the Other. Are the actions taken against us, be they rhetorical, legal, or physical, justified by our oppression? No, but we need to seriously examine our role as provocateurs. As Bane says in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, “No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.” How many of those who hate the Church, bring weapons to schools, or kill American soldiers can say the same thing with all sincerity? Going forward, we have two paths. On the one hand, we can continue to propagate the fantasy of our “normalcy”. If we do that, we’ll likely follow the advice of those who say to protect ourselves from the malicious Other, we need laws to silence them or guns to put them down, as if they were rabid animals. Make no mistake: if that is the correct response, we should all be barred from speaking and a gun should be pointed at each and every one of us. There is not an ounce of difference between us. All are made in the image of God. All are capable of despicable evil. All are capable of breathtaking beauty. On the other hand, we can embrace that beauty and tear down the machinations of dehumanization, even if it costs us the support of those who like to push out the Other. We don’t have to agree with someone in order to love them. But if we are truly following Christ, we have to love them.

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In the Time of Chimpanzees, I Was Other: Making Our Own Monsters

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