I took this picture a few weeks ago, tickled by the feline friendship across the boundary. Yesterday this shop was looted, all its produce and fixtures moved into homes around our community.
We heard about looting happening in other townships around Pretoria, and I wondered how they could do this, pulling apart an innocent person’s business to make a political statement. I had sympathy for those shopkeepers. But then yesterday they became he and she. We know this shopkeeper; he always has smiles for the baby, and occasionally chocolate gifts for us. And it turns out we know some of the looters too; instead of those criminals they are friends who we’ve shared significant times with.
I’ve noticed that here in South Africa the word they is often used. They increases the distance, the other is not even named. Here in the township I’ve heard that ‘they give bigger dustbins to the people who live in the suburbs’ (they being the Government allegedly favouring more affluent areas). In the city people have been shocked that we live in the township amongst them – are we not afraid?
When we see people as other we reinforce the differences between us, focusing on what pulls us apart instead of our common humanity. Also on my mind today are the polling stations across the UK, our other home, where votes are being cast for or against EU membership. There has been much focus on the debate as the opposition sides sought to convince the undecided in recent weeks.
It can be easy to demonise people, to see them as other and different. I know I’m an idealist, but to move forward together I think we need to know, understand, and perhaps even like, people who think differently from us. I’ve seen my life enriched by the influence of diverse voices and friendships. And yes, at this moment I am frustrated by the choices some friends have made, but I’m trying to see the whole picture of the person, instead of applying careless labels.
We can no longer stand at a distance, point our fingers at them and shake our heads in disgust. We must lovingly and wisely engage because to fail to do so would only hurt ourselves – Christine Cleveland.
I recently read Christine Cleveland’s ‘Disunity in Christ’, where she discusses the fractions in the church, and how we could all benefit from communicating and understanding one another. She gives an important message that beyond ‘them’ and ‘us’ is ‘we’.
Research shows that the mere use of the word we leads individuals to recognise positive words and traits more quickly. When we refer to former outgroup members as we, we are more inclined to pay attention to their positive traits. As a result, we are more inclined to draw near to each other, rather than separate.
Jesus modelled this new reality by connecting with every type of person around – conservative theologians, liberal theologians, prostitutes, divorcees, children, politicians, people who party hard, military servicemen, women, lepers, ethnic minorities, celebrities and so forth – and inviting them to be part of his group and to work together to bring wholeness to their cracked and crumbling world.
The world can seem so very fractured, and there are many differences between us: black and white, victim and looter, exit and remain. Yet behind every they are people with hopes and desires, not so different to us. It’s not that we need to deny our differences, constantly compromise or ignore hurtful behaviour. But as Christine Cleveland says “focusing on shared characteristics and taking the perspective of the other are small but powerful steps that will lead us toward unity”.
Who are they in your life? What small step can you take to draw closer to them? How can we move forward together?
Waking up on the losing side of the vote this morning has given me an additional perspective. It can be easy to cast people as other, when we don’t understand or are hurt by their actions. My hope is still that I and we can see them as real people, but we also need to take time to acknowledge our own feelings. There needs to be space for honest grief and healthy anger now, and also for deep listening if we want to heal, to move towards each other and onwards together.