An us and them kind of world


Monday March 6th 2015

Our world is divided. Man or woman. Black or white. Old or young. Catholic or Protestant or neither. Able or disabled. Difference defines us.

2024381750_78b8ba6aa8_zDifference has been the fodder for wave after wave of discrimination: sex difference becomes sexism, race difference transforms into racism, age difference turns into ageism, religious difference descends into denominationalism, differences in ability morphs, into ableism.

Kirk Patston, lecturer at Sydney Missionary and Bible College has a special interest in otherness as the overarching theological concept encompassing these varied isms. His work focuses on otherness in the book of Job, and his case studies are centred on disability.

“Difference is a component of otherness,” says Patston, “but I think otherness goes deeper. Otherness is about how one perceives or constructs difference”.

According to Patston, there are several factors that have led to the creation of categories of otherness.

Psychologically, when we see someone with a disability, we “realise that anything that’s going on in their life could have happened to [us] as well. That exposes a fear, vulnerability. But that vulnerability makes us feel anxious so we need to defend against that.”

“Fear of our own vulnerability creates existential insecurity.”

Sociologically, “the way we deal with our existential insecurity is to feel like there’s safety in groups. And so we try to create tribal way of thinking in our minds”. This often turns political, and then “power starts to gather around a particular group.

Biblically, in the book of Job, what Job says to his friends bring an illuminating light to our fear and existential insecurity. “Job says to his friends: ‘you see something awful and are afraid’. He actually articulates that to them,” says Patston. “And when God speaks to Job, he describes a world where people are getting injured and dying. God doesn’t deny the danger I don’t think, but manages to sit with it with a sense of wonder.”

“Fear is valid, the question is what we do with it next.. Can we turn it into a sense of wonder?” asks Patston. “Can I trust myself to a God who is over and governing a world where there is this person with significant cerebral palsy, when I don’t have significant cerebral palsy and the fact that someone else does scares me a little? Can I take that fear and hand it to God to hold for me, so that I become free not to be governed by that fear?”

From the book of Job, Patston says, “ I think what God says to Job is, ‘inhabit my creation, which is incredibly dangerous and diverse, but inhabit it with wonder and joy, like I do’.”

When it comes to relating to the ‘other’ before us, Patston says, “because of the grace of God and the fact that I’m safe and hidden in Christ, I have grace to be able to offer toward the other.

“Christians are always in danger of the way we move towards the other denaturing into charity that really is about us feeling validated. So it’s a very very fine line, because even the behaviours might be exactly the same.”

Patston says “it is not sinful” to fear people who are not like us. He said, “I think it’s human and makes a lot of sense”. But he is quick to say that writing off a whole group of people based on their otherness “would not reflect the character of God”.

Our natural tendency to gather in groups of people, who are like us, and effectively alienate those who are other to us, is something we will be fighting until we get to heaven. Patson agrees, saying “there’s just so many human psychological and social needs that that meets”.

In light of this, Patston has a five-pronged approach to the ‘other’ that helps us to battle against our tendencies to isolate difference. It should include wonder, playfulness, grace (for no reason, for no cause), recognition and dialogue.

Recognition, says Patston, is being with an other and articulating or being a truth, while simultaneously letting the other articulate or be a truth, and resisting the need for synthesis.

Referencing Mikhail Bakhtin, Patson says, “truth is bigger than any one human consciousness can hold. So it could be that reality is so big, and truth is so big that both your truths need to be recognised and not resolved.”

Patston says, “I often think about this when I’m with my son and having to dress him and shower him. Sometimes I think, ‘OK, I should be being very therapeutic here, I should be setting goals, following the occupational therapy program of dressing, and so on. So making this about a task and improvement for the sake of creating you as an autonomous self-reliant individual in the world’.

“Therapeutic has it’s place, but what it does is make you wonder ‘what caused this disability? How do we stop it happening in the future?’”.

Or, he says, “Sometimes I have a sense of I can do this with a horrible sense of sadness. Why on earth am I showering my 18-year-old son? Poor me. Poor him. And just create this whole tragic narrative around his life and my life.”

Or, again, “As a theologian I can also turn that into a sin narrative and start thinking, “Jerrah is more fallen. Or, I can just think, ‘this is so funny, that you want to sing Wiggles songs, and that you’re stark naked, and you’re 18 years old and you don’t even know that you’re stark naked, and we’re signing Wiggles songs while you’re having a shower’. And it’s great. You know, it’s really funny.

“So I sort of think wonder and playfulness. I’m just giving him his shower, not to achieve an outcome, not to be efficient.

“For me that’s just a much nicer space to be in.”

Kirk Patston will be exploring the concept of otherness and disability as part of SMBC’s Hot Topics series on April 22.

Image credit: Panshipanshi

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