Dehumanization vs Kinship

by Kevin Fox

          My ongoing, non-violent story, which has brought me to Agape, begins with hearing The Last Judgment read during Mass around my middle school years. Matthew 25:31-40 is where I find the works of mercy; but the deeper lesson I have always taken away is that when I perform any action good or bad, I am engaging with Jesus. It is Jesus whom I feed, clothe, shelter, visit.  Jesus whom I refuse to feed, clothe, shelter, visit.

Consequently, the foundation to my pacifist roots comes from the understanding that it is Jesus whom I shoot at and kill in war. It is on Jesus, that I drop a bomb. The idea of killing God has never sat well with me, and therefore I decided to identify as a pacifist. My original pacifist roots are as simple as that. This reality is solidified when I remember that humans are made in the “image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26).

At the time of this new understanding of The Last Judgment, I was not a nonviolent activist, but simply a passive pacifist. The identity ‘pacifist’ can have a negative stereotype of being passive and I was certainly fulfilling that stereotype. I knew that I must not contribute to war, but I did not know at that time that this view calls for certain actions (including the works of mercy). Only later would I come to understand this nonviolent lifestyle as an active one and no longer a passive choice. Praying, the works of mercy, civil disobedience, seeking community, and educating oneself, all require an active participation.

          The Last Judgment sat within my heart, stirred, and kept rising to the surface but I had trouble articulating my thoughts. I took my next major step on my pacifist journey during my tenth-grade English class when I read one of the most influential passages of my life from All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque:

 Comrade, I did not want to kill you…. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late.

That passage introduced me to the meaning of the word ‘dehumanization’. Through the lens of Remarque, I came to realize that soldiers, politicians, and taxpayers, do not believe that drones are dropping bombs on God, let alone that bombs are dropping on fellow human beings. We create an “abstraction” so that we forget that they also have a wife and a mother waiting at home, with just as much anxiety as ours. There is a clear “we vs them” mentality that is embedded in dehumanization.

          So, there I was, a 15-year-old with a problem of dehumanization and no solution. The answer was presented to me through a service immersion program between my first and second years of college. The book for the class was Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart. Immediately, a light bulb went off in my head for having found the social answer to dehumanization: which is kinship, a type of belonging that goes beyond the service or solidarity usually preached by the Church.

 In his latest book, The Whole Language, Boyle writes,

 This mystical kinship, this speaking the whole language, is the exact opposite of the age in which we currently live: tribal, divisive, suspicious, anchored in the illusion of separation– unhealthy, sad, fearful, other-izing, and demonizing. Mystics replace fear with love, vindictiveness with openhearted kindness, envy with supportive affection, withering judgment with extravagant tenderness.

          The “tribal” that Boyle mentions is the “we vs. them” mentality that saturates society. The “demonizing” or “other-izing” is dehumanization. Kinship eliminates the “them” and just creates a universal “we” that is as strong as a tie between mother and child.

          Boyle is writing on how kinship is the social answer to marginalization, the process of the privileged pushing the poor and the oppressed to the socially constructed boundaries of society.

          The evolution from applying kinship to dehumanization, to additionally applying it to marginalization is the step which the “passive pacifist” must take to become a nonviolent activist. Dehumanization is also a factor in the construction of margins.

Boyle writes, “We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop” (Tattoos, 190). In other words, where I choose to stand and with whom determines whom I see as an image of God, and whom I see as “other”.

If it were my own mother, who is on the street corner, someone I believe is clearly created in the image and likeness of God, I would take her in and shelter her. When it is Jesus Christ who is on the street corner, I take Him in and wash His feet. When it is someone, I believe is less than human, then I keep walking by with eyes downcast. 

The kinship required to battle the dehumanization that leads to war is an active and demanding lifestyle. Kinship is understanding that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ. This is not done in an abstract way. It is childhood memories of running through the tall grass with your sister, or your mom, holding your hand and applying those loving memories to those who I am persecuting and who are persecuting me.

‘Love your enemy’ requires the deepest radical, mystical, active, kinship. We have no issue with labeling our closest kin as our strongest enemy at times. Why do we struggle with labeling our strongest enemy as our closest kin?

Kevin Fox is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a recent intern at Agape.