Today is designated by the United Methodist Church as Human Relations Sunday, a decision undoubtedly resulting from its proximity in time to the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The subject of Human Relations is extremely broad, encompassing a wide variety of issues and challenges. As I prepared to speak with this devout Christian congregation, I selected several specific perspectives that I hope will be helpful in our efforts to adhere to Christianity’s best values in relationships. These perspectives include Human Relations matters in which we have little or no direct involvement and limited influence, intergroup dynamics, human nature, and relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and the public.
For each of us as Christians, Human Relations refers to how I or we relate to “THEM.” “THEM” being “not us.” (or “not me.”) Depending on the conversation, “THEM” is people who are not of our family, our community, our workplace, our town, our ethnicity, our political party, our nationality, our organization, our religion or our something else. In a recent Christian Education class, we referred to “THEM” as “the Other”, but in our everyday conversations, we are more likely to talk about “THEM.” “THEM” is one pronoun we use to refer to those who are not me or us. The other pronoun being “THEY.”
If we are clumsy and uncoordinated, “THEM” is people who excel in athletics; if we are athletic, “THEM” is the clumsy and uncoordinated. “THEM” is people who are experts in subjects we can’t begin to understand; THEM is people who don’t understand what we find obvious.
For most of us, “THEM” is people in poverty, in prison, or trying to escape violence in their home environments. “THEM” is people who are justly or unjustly denied certain privileges or rights because “THEY” are different. They may be young people who are denied driving privileges and access to alcohol because of their age. Or they may be people who are denied justice because of their ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or old age.
In referring to “THEM,” we exclude someone from being included with us on the basis of a difference that we deem significant. There is nothing inherently wrong with recognizing differences and accommodating those differences as appropriate, as when we require minimum ages for driving, marriage, drinking, and voting. It is very wrong to treat someone unjustly because of prejudice.
As we consider how Christians are to relate to others, we begin with God’s revelation of what he demands of us in all human relationships. This is the second of the Great Commandments, originally: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” This is an old testament account of God giving Moses direction with respect to “moral holiness.” Much later, Jesus told a questioner and us that this was one of the two commandments on which hangs “all of the law and the prophets.” This is huge!
To make the meaning of this commandment completely unambiguous to any who might otherwise be incapable of understanding, or more likely reluctant to understand these words, Jesus gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan. From this we know that our relationships with others, all others, must be defined by love, incorporating empathy and compassion.
Let’s see what that looks like in various contexts.
There is a lot of hatred in our world. Hatred manifests itself in many ways that are the antithesis of our Christian ideals, often with the violence of war and international and domestic terrorism. As Christians, we may credibly deny involvement as we deplore such attitudes and behavior. But there are several other things each of us must do. We must be politically active in our efforts to thwart hatred. And we should support organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League that actively and effectively oppose hateful behavior. In our social interactions, we can challenge expressions that validate, promote, and glorify hateful behavior.
We may perceive international relations to be beyond the scope of our influence. However, being a part of a democratic society, we can’t exempt ourselves from the collective responsibility of our nation. Again political involvement and support of organizations such as Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders enables Christians to influence international issues. Some of us become more directly involved. My neighbor, a nurse, in her retirement has for many years volunteered her service in third world countries. We also have among us veterans of the Peace Corps and Green Peace.
Of course, Christians must be concerned with how we relate to others where we are directly involved. It seems to be human nature for us to find ways and reasons to divide ourselves into “US” and “THEM” or “WE” and “THEY,” emphasizing, often exaggerating, our differences and their significance. When these divisions interfere with our ability to love, to empathize with, and to have compassion toward “THEM,” the concept of THEM or THEY becomes a moral one.
Sociologists have identified some reasons for the attitudes that often divide us inappropriately. Most conspicuous and egregious are psychological faults that engender bigotry, arrogance, intolerance, prejudice, and an irrational sense of superiority. These often manifest themselves in offensive and sometimes tragic ways, as so dramatically demonstrated in history. Sometimes hostile attitudes are the result of fear and paranoia, an irrationally perceived need to protect oneself and one’s interest from “THEM,” whomever “THEM” may be. This is the phenomenon we studied at length in our Fear of the Other class. In extreme instances, these perceptions often result in irrational hatred, mentioned earlier, that has marred and continues to mar our idealism as a nation, While this kind of attitude is incomprehensible to us, and unlikely to involve us directly, our aspirations as Christians are more likely to be threatened in more subtle ways.
While some reasons for negative interpersonal or intergroup attitudes are apparent, the tendency for people with shared interests and enterprises to alienate each other is often inexplicable. As I worked for many years in a corporate environment, I witnessed with curiosity certain behavior of people who were not hate mongers or bigots. They were people who had shared interests and depended on each other, and yet they fell into patterns of distrust and alienation as a result of artificial boundaries. People in adjacent offices developed antagonistic cliques. People working for the same company on the same projects at different locations readily demonized each other, denying each other’s competence, integrity, and sense of fairness. People working in different companies on joint ventures distrusted each other and resisted full cooperation. All of these happened for no apparent reason! These were not the results of disputes or substantive conflicts.
We are sometimes all too willing to attribute negative characteristics to others and respond with distrust, fear, and hostility. Perhaps the saddest example of this is when family relationships are destroyed, often because of distrust, miscommunication and misunderstandings. We know it even saddens God. Jesus told us
When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Needless to say, if this happens to families and other people whose shared interests are damaged by such attitudes, it is even more prevalent where there is less potential for affinity.
Our Old Testament scripture this morning gives us a Biblical perspective on “THEM.” Delivered to a nation that had been destroyed, the message promised that the nation would be restored. But this was not enough – “too light a thing,” God is quoted as saying. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” To God there would be no “THEM,” excluded from his light, his love, and his salvation.
The contemporary situations I described earlier, the tendency toward divisiveness, suggests our secular selves are strongly influenced by fear that we will be taken advantage of and a predilection for distrust. And why not. As someone once said, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you. We are in a world where there are many who would do us harm. We are daily confronted with efforts of people to defraud or otherwise do damage to us and our interests. The title of the course I mentioned states the problem, but also offers a solution: Fear of the Other; No Fear in Love. Only love will enable us to have the kind of relationships that God wants us to have, be they the most casual or the most intimate.
God wants us to have quality relationships that are essential to the fullness of life. God’s standards for Human Relations are not simply the absence of malice; They require prayerful, conscientious efforts to share God’s love.
If we are committed to obeying God’s will and his commandments, here are a few things we must do: We must avoid unjustly attributing negative qualities to “THEM.” Long a victim of stereotyping, myself, I was amazed when I allowed the dishonesty and incompetence of a business associate to momentarily affect my attitude toward his distinctive religion. I had to intentionally work at avoiding this prejudice.
Without being gullible, we must initiate and develop relationships with an expectation of the best in others. Don’t hand a stranger your wallet, but approach others with love and the opportunity to earn your trust. Sometimes neighborly love involves taking risks. I’ve been taken advantage of and even lost money trying to help others, and in spite of the outcome in each instance I would do it again. I’d rather err in that direction than miss an opportunity to tangibly share God’s love with another.
Miscommunication is a powerful tool of the devil. We have to be careful to avoid offending; slow to take offence. Political correctness has a bad connotation for many because the principle is sometimes applied without common sense. However, there is nothing wrong with communicating with sensitivity to avoid unnecessary offense. When someone says something that offends us, we often respond reflexively with a retort. Instead, we should question whether the offense was intentional. I have experienced a number of instances when a reluctance to take offense when none was intended preserved a valued relationship.
Let us distinguish between our evaluation of a person’s opinions, with which we disagree, and the person. We need not respond to ideas we don’t like with animosity. I value a friendship I have with a someone who I am sure never has voted for the same person I supported.
When relationships begin to get off track, we sometime seem predisposed to escalate the conflict; yet we often have an opportunity mend the relationship. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Prov. 15:1. Which do we reflexively give?
Forgiveness will not always result in a good relationship. But it is absolutely essential that we seek forgiveness when appropriate. And we have to forgive others, as God commands. (Like all of God’s commandments, obedience benefits us.)
As we prayerfully consider how we relate to the “THEMs” of our world, we should remember that it is of enormous significance that when Jesus illustrated with a parable who our neighbor is, he used a Samaritan, who was to his audience, one of “THEM.”