II Cor 5:17: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Jn 17:15-19: My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

When social, ethical, cultural, or literary critics use the term "The Other" they are thinking about the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group. By declaring someone "Other," persons tend to stress what makes them dissimilar from or opposite of another, and this carries over into the way they represent others, especially through stereotypical images. It also extends to political decisions and cultural practices. In the recent past of the United States, Anglo-Americans made African-Americans into cultural Others through the use of minstrel shows in blackface, popular figures like Sambo and Aunt Jemima, and separatist policies like the Jim Crow laws. Similar practices can be traced in practically (if not) every culture in the globe. The recent genocidal wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, as do the continued struggles in Ireland and Israel, remind us that Othering is an instrument of terror that results in multi-generational hatred and violence.

Literature's Effect on Society

Literary works, being part of the fallen world, play a part in Othering. One only needs to look at representations of blackness in works like Aphra Behn's Oronoko or Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or at typical female characters in novels like Samuel Richardson's Pamela or Robert Herrick's poetry to realize that fictional representations of race and gender influence how others are perceived. Yet they can also be written to counter such notions, e.g., Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart or Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Tragically, texts with no intent to oppress or marginalize another group can be misappropriated to such ends--even scripture.

The practice of generalizing representation is not in and of itself evil. Indeed, it is part of the human process of thinking. This is how mathematical theorems are constructed, after all. And perhaps because of this pattern, when such normal human methods and perceptions are married to cultural and gender differences, the resulting behaviors are particularly hard to eradicate. We find ourselves passing on the stereotypes and judgments of our parents' generation to our children. This becomes particularly insidious in the presence of multi-generational racism and hatred.

The Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, coming from just such an environment, has written on the particular "Catholic" (or universal) personality that Christianity affords its followers. The Church, in Christian teaching, will be made up of every ethnoi, every identity group. In this sense, Christianity practices what Volf calls "exclusion and embrace." It has its own particular identity, yet it also is inclusive of all -- "whosoever will may come." Volf suggests that our identity in Christ then transcends those of our particular cultural commitments without necessarily forgetting them. We are, as Jesus prayed, "in the world but not of it." As such, we are given the opportunity to see beyond our practices of Othering. We are given a space in which to cross boundaries, revise stereotypes, and most important, forgive past abuses. Too often Christendom has perpetuated the very practices that God's embrace seeks to overcome. Indeed, Volf suggests that it is only in a practice of forgiveness, which nonetheless respects justice and judgment, that we can reverse the cycle of false representations. 

Christians should participate in calling attention to Othering through literary representation by a balanced critique of cultural context and authorial intentionality.

  1. We should seek to understand what the writer sought to suggest, as well as what the result may have been. 
  2. Equally, we should seek to correct misrepresentations of texts, especially Christian scripture. 
  3. We should celebrate those literary pictures that expand our understanding of the particular uniqueness of each people, while rejecting those visions that would discourage bridge-building between groups. 
  4. And we should work to create new representations that point to the forgiveness and justice that God affords all persons.

Central Insight: The universal nature of the Church allows Christians an opportunity to critique and reverse the practice of Othering in works of literature.

Suggestions for Application: Try one of the four above suggestions