Who am I?
I remember walking home from university on a clear day, pretty typical of Cape Town summer weather. I came up to an intersection with traffic lights and pressed the pedestrian crossing button. As I waited for the light to change, I noticed a man walking between the cars holding a sign asking for money or some food. On the rare occasion car windows opened to offer help while others simply closed. The majority, however, had come up with a strategy of ignoring the beggar despite his efforts to make eye contact with them. And while I was watching this pattern unfold, I began to realise that this behaviour is something that I do as well. I turn my eyes away because I understand on a human level what it means to look at someone. If I made eye contact I would recognise not a beggar but a human.
This interaction happens on a daily basis. In most institutions there are invisible people, invisible not to the eye but to the soul, people with stories and lives, seen but never heard. The invisibility of these people is the objectification of them. It is the reduction of these lives to nothing more than what meets the eye. Objectification is the determining of people’s values based on their appearances and how ‘useful’ they are to you. Objectification makes people invisible because the only thing one ‘sees’ is an object and not a human. Objectification, simply put, is the dehumanisation of someone else – the making of an-other into an ‘other’.
In the Gospel of John we read a story of Jesus encountering a Samaritan woman at a well.[i] The political context of the time was one in which women were considered inferior to men and Samaritans inferior to Jews. It was against the political and social customs of the time for Jews to interact with Samaritans and for women to interact with men in this particular setting. But Jesus, who is a Jewish man, does. What is of utmost significance in this setting is Jesus’ ability to look beyond the woman’s political identity and see her as more than an ‘other’. He treated her with humility and empathy, asking her questions about her life, recognising her humanity. It might seem strange to use this type of language, but what is of interest is the dismay of the disciples when they witness Christ speaking with her. It is this dismay that points to the political and social objectification of other people. What Christ did in this instance was, to quote Rick Turner, “be open to other people and to react to them and their needs, not in terms of preconceived, stereotyped ideas and attitudes, but afresh in each new situation. To be able to love other persons is to be able to communicate with them, to be open to their way of seeing the world. It is to go directly to the person, rather than to the role or stereotype.”[ii]
The slave master was never free
What are the ethics behind objectification? I wish to continue to draw on Rick Turner’s work as he speaks about transcendental ethics over and above an internal ethics. The latter refers to a code of ethics that is determined by relationships and institutions while the former refers to an ethic that transcends this. Privilege feeds pride and pride feeds privilege. Privilege is expressed in not being able to understand the experiences of those that are hurting, those that are marginalised and oppressed. In the case of a slave-master relationship, internal ethics and morality would be structured around how the master and the slave interact in relation to each other. The master could then be seen as a ‘good’ master should he or she treat the slave well, and a ‘bad’ master would do the opposite. However, when one applies an ethics that transcends the structure, it allows for one to call into question the slave-master structure entirely. A transcendental ethics would argue that there is no such thing as a good master or a bad master, because being a master of anyone is wrong. In fact, the ‘good’ master would be considered to be just as bad, if not worse than the ‘bad’ master, because the ‘good’ master makes the unjust structure bearable for the slave and therefore limits the slave’s conception of freedom to that particular system. In the same way, freedom as experienced by the master is simply a negation of enslavement and therefore is not true freedom. The master is only free insofar as the there are slaves, and therefore the master’s freedom is dependent on the slave. In fact the master is a slave to the political and social structures that he or she is surrounded by.
In South Africa the brutality and oppression of Colonialism and Apartheid were horrific. It was not only violence done against bodies, but violence against languages and cultures. It was a violence of instilling an inferiority complex into people to ensure the superiority of another. It was a system that produced, as Rick Turner argues, “white lords and black slaves, and no human beings”[iii]. The existence of white people in South Africa was founded on the negation of others, such that one can only be a master if there is a slave. One can only be rich if there are poor, beautiful if there are ugly, intelligent if there are stupid, and white if there are blacks.
Privilege makes it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”[iv] Jesus is speaking about the dehumanisation that privileged bodies experience because privilege prevents one from listening to and loving those who are oppressed. Privilege feeds pride and pride feeds privilege. Privilege is expressed in not being able to understand the experiences of those that are hurting, those that are marginalised and oppressed. Oppresssion is not always visible and privilege makes it even more difficult to see and understand it, and often listening to those who are in fact oppressed is the only way to begin to see it. The Kingdom of Heaven is for those who give up their privilege for the sake of others.
Privilege is what allows for a statue to silence the voices of many. Privilege allows one to never have to meet the person but only the roles and stereotypes of people. Privilege is being enslaved by the social and political structure of society at a particular time. Privilege deafens us to listening to how other people experience reality. Privilege makes us believe that people want to be like me – rich, educated, white, male and so on and so forth. Privilege is believing that we hold the solution to problems without having to acknowledge that privileged people are problematic. It is obvious why it is so hard for a privileged person to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, because privilege makes us believe we are loving when in fact we are limiting others’ conceptions of freedom to accepting the status quo, which is an oppressive status quo.
Take some time to read the Bible and as you do you will find that God is for the oppressed, opposed to the rich and prideful, and in Jesus Christ He has shown the best example of one who interacts and loves those that are marginalised. If you are white and/or middle to upper class, be honest with who you are in the Bible. At times I identify more with the Pharisees wanting to protect tradition and social norms, while Christ tries to change these for His Kingdom and for the oppressed. I think many people upon entering heaven will be surprised to find that Christ is not a white man.
Ignoring the beggar at the car window is possibly an indication of trying to protect privilege and maintain social norms. Could I ask you to pray that we would work with Christ in loving each other beyond what is socially acceptable?
[i] John 4:1-42
[ii] Rick Turner, Eye of the Needle
[iii] Rick Turner, Black Consciousness and White Liberalism
[iv] Matthew 19:24