One of my reading materials during my etimasthe summer break was Peter Pomerantsev’s This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, a book which charts how the very idea of truth has been weaponized by dictators in recent years.
Part 5 of this book introduced me to the term ‘Othering.’ ‘Othering’ is the concept of dehumanizing your opponent in order either to deny them their human rights or to make them a ‘legitimate’ target for terrorism or oppression.
‘Othering’ is therefore the way that extremist groups, that is, groups who want to target perceived enemies, sign recruits up to whatever ideology allows the infliction of suffering on others.
“Having been a key member of Hizb ut-Tahrir before coming to a more moderate point of view — an acceptance of universal human rights for all — Rashid Ali now works to dissuade those who are in the process of being radicalized by extremist Islamic groups.”
The term was introduced in the context of something called the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an organization which — among other activities — tries to use what it calls ‘counter-speech’ to pull people who are being swayed by extremist groups back into moderate views. For example, one employee of ISD, Rashid Ali, whose life is discussed at some length in the book, was himself once radicalized into an organization named Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization which sought to bring about a strictly Islamic super-state in the Middle East in the days before the September 2011 attacks et al. Having been a key member of Hizb before coming to a more moderate point of view — an acceptance of universal human rights for all, including those different from us — Ali now works to dissuade those who are in the process of being radicalized by extremist Islamic groups.
‘Othering’ is the process that makes you part of the ‘in-group’ and everybody else part of the ‘out-group,’ in such a way that you then have the right to exercise domination over the ‘others.’
Sadly, whether it’s by extremist groups or simply by political lobby groups — even politicians themselves; even us, in some of the ways we ‘engage’ (or perhaps ‘non-engage’) on social media — ‘othering’ is a phenomenon that’s everywhere in modern society, with its emphasis on fast, ‘soundbite’ arguments and instant responses. Yes, we, too, can be those who are guilty of ‘othering,’ simply by the act of carelessly sharing a social media post.
What does the Bible have to say about ‘othering’?
OK, let’s be frank about this. There is quite a lot of ‘othering’ goes on in the Bible. Because of their refusal to supply the needs of Israel on their way out from Egypt, and because of their hiring of the false prophet Balaam to curse Israel, the Lord commands Israel never to admit an Ammonite or a Moabite into the assembly of his people (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). On one occasion the Lord commands Moses to take note that he, the Lord, will blot out the memory of Amalek (= the Amalekite people) from under heaven; he will be at perpetual war against them (Exodus 17:14-16). This is to cite but two examples.
“Let’s be frank. There is a lot of ‘othering’ goes on in the Bible. However, this is not the last word on the matter. It’s not even the Bible’s last word on the matter.”
However, this is not the last word on the matter. It’s not even the Bible’s last word on the matter.
Both those examples were taken from the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, which was never meant to be God’s final word.
When Jesus comes along in the New Testament, he completely overturns this exclusionary perspective. There are many, many places I could go to in the New Testament to demonstrate this, but I can think of none better than Matthew 15:21-28.
In this passage, we see Jesus leaving the territory of Israel with his disciples, and going to pagan country: the district of Tyre and Sidon. And here he has an encounter with a Canaanite woman. We should remember here that the Canaanites were one of the peoples marked out for destruction in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 7:1-4). See how Jesus — after initially seeming to exclude this Canaanite woman — goes on to welcome her wholeheartedly into the kingdom of heaven:
“Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came[. …] Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:21-28
In effect, Jesus is completely overturning the Old Testament’s proscription on Canaanites. From now on, the kingdom of heaven will be comprised of a people chosen, not along racial or ethnic lines, but from all nations, everyone from which people soever who will believe in Jesus.
Indeed, the very fact that in the New Testament the gospel is opened out not just to Jews, but to Gentiles, bears witness to this overturning of the old divisions:
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Colossians 3:11
This isn’t, however, simply an innovation in the New Testament. The Old Testament, in fact, contains this idea in embryo.
Hence if we broaden out our view from looking at specific injunctions in the Law of Moses, and consider the Old Testament’s bigger picture, in the very beginning we see God creating all humanity ‘in his image’:
“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27
And, only a few chapters later, Abram (later Abraham) called to be a blessing to ‘all families of the earth’:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3
And even the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, we see the Old Testament looking forward to the opening up of God’s promises to the Gentiles:
For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts. Malachi 1:11
What does all this imply?
“The implication of all this is that, at root, the Bible doesn’t work in categories of ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
The implication of all this is that, at root, the Bible doesn’t work in categories of ‘us’ and ‘them.’
When it does divide into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ it does so for a specific reason related to the revelation of God to humankind. For example:
In the Old Testament, Israel is contrasted with the nations in order to show forth the difference between God’s chosen people and those not chosen.
In the New Testament, the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’ are used in order to show how the death and resurrection of Christ have broken down such categorizations (e.g., Colossians 3:11 above, and Ephesians 2:11-13).
Even within the Israel of the Old Testament there are sub-divisions. Most obviously, the people Israel are divided into priests, Levites and laity. The point is that only the priests, and to a lesser extent the Levites, could approach close to the Lord, and they were to mediate between the Lord and the laity. This is a less pronounced ‘us’ and ‘them’ than the Jew/Gentile division, but a division all the same. Even here the Bible’s overall point is that in the New Testament the priesthood/laity division is broken down (e.g., 1 Peter 2:9).
“The breaking down of these divisions in the New Testament demonstrates God’s original purpose for mankind in creating all of them ‘in his image’ (Genesis 1:27): to bring all people into willing and joyous submission to, and relationship with, him.”
The breaking down of these divisions in the New Testament demonstrates God’s original purpose for mankind in creating all of them ‘in his image’ (Genesis 1:27): to bring all people into willing and joyous submission to, and relationship with, him.
This means we must not view anybody as ‘other,’ in the sense of inferiority. Which has huge implications for how we live.
The Bible is not a manual for politics and should not be treated as one. It doesn’t endorse any one particular political system. Nonetheless it has a lot to say on a wide range of issues that should impact our approach to politics.
For example, however we go about constructing immigration policy, it should never be constructed on the basis that the foreigner is somehow less than us, or less deserving than us.
‘Do not ill-treat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.’ Exodus 22:21 (NIV)
It also means that we no longer view anybody as ‘outsiders.’ Sure, there are those who are saved and those who are not; put another way, those whose trust is in Jesus and those whose is not. But all of us were once un-saved (Ephesians 2:1-3). So even here it is perhaps best to view the world as those who are saved and those whom God longs to be saved.
The one genuine class of ‘other’ in the New Testament
“There is, perhaps, one genuine class of ‘other’ in the New Testament: the ‘Christian’ heretic.”
Perhaps, however, there is one genuine class of ‘other’ in the New Testament: the ‘Christian’ heretic.
Put another way, the only people who have genuinely put themselves beyond the pale in the New Testament are those who claim to be Christians but are actively preaching a false gospel. Such a false gospel may be wrong in its doctrine (e.g., 1 John 4:1-3); equally it may be wrong morally (e.g., 2 Peter 2:1-3).
In the New Testament it is these people, and these alone, who are the ‘others’:
Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. 2 John 9-11
But beyond this solitary class, the New Testament views all people either as saved, or as those whom the Lord longs to save by faith in Jesus Christ. We should view them likewise.
Peter Pomerantsev’s This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (ISBN 978–0–571–33865–8) is available now from Faber & Faber.
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 That is, the last book of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles. It should be noted that in the Jewish Tanakh it is not placed as the last book. In terms of authorship it is in any case a very late contribution to the Old Testament writings, probably 4th century B.C.
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.