Of People and Pawns: Reclaiming Our Humanity Post Evangelicalism

I’ve been thinking a lot about dehumanization lately.

I see it in Paige Patterson’s justification for encouraging an abused woman not to leave her husband. Apparently, her blackened eyes were worth the price of getting her husband to come to church. His salvation is what mattered, not her human dignity.

I see it in the comments made recently by Donald Trump regarding immigration in California—describing procreation among our southern neighbors as “breeding.” Apparently, white people have kids—but brown people “breed.” We are human beings, but they are animals.

I see it in the ongoing lack of concern for black lives among law enforcement officials. I see it in the “well, what are you gonna do?” response to the news of trans people being brutally murdered without any provocation whatsoever. I see it everywhere I look. Some people trying to strip away the humanity from other people in order to justify treating them the way they do.

As I suspect is the case for many others who have spent their entire lives in fundamentalist Christianity, this concern for humanity dignity is a relatively new idea for me. It might sound absurd to an outsider but, up until a few years ago, I had believed that humanism was among the greatest of ideological evils.

Emphasizing human dignity took the focus away from the creator and placed it on creatures. We weren’t to be concerned with our own dignity, but only with the dignity of the Divine. We gave God the glory and wouldn’t dare take any of it for ourselves. Maybe we were made in the image of God, but that image had been corrupted. And, for all intents and purpose, human beings were wretchedly worthless filthy rags who could only be redeemed through the grace of the God they had continually disappointed.

This is the view of humanity that I grew up with. So, if someone else happened to get abused or murdered, they were really just getting what they deserved as part of the human race. And when some people fared better than others? Well, that was all part of God’s plan. In fact, whether we were rich or poor, privileged or disadvantaged, powerful or powerless, we were all really only pawn’s in a cosmic game of chess God was playing with himself.

Clay in the Potter’s Hand

The Bible doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to God demonstrating a regard for the sanctity of human life.

First, there was that time when God wiped out every human on the face of the earth, except for one family. Then, God destroyed the entire Egyptian army. But those were the bad guys, right? Well, God then proceeded to wipe out tens of thousands of Israelites on multiple occasions for such offenses as complaining and sleeping with foreign women. And this just barely scratches the surface, not even touching on the travesties that have been executed by people in service and with the blessing of this “loving” God. Remind me again why I’m still a Christian...

And yet, despite the array of divinely sanctioned and orchestrated murders, there is something pervasive throughout the Bible that I find even more troubling—and that is the notion of God’s sovereignty. On the face of it, there is comfort in the idea that God has a plan for our lives. But, if you think about it long enough, you’ll realize that it’s also quite disconcerting. If God has a plan for our lives, that means our plans for our lives are an illusion. If God is in control, then we aren’t. The sovereignty of God strips away the autonomy of human beings.

All throughout the scriptures are reminders that we are nothing but tools for God to appropriate as God sees fit. We are “vessels of honor…useful to the Master,” “people for God’s own possession,” “God’s workmanship,” and “clay in the potter’s hand.” God values us because we’re useful. We may even be “prized possessions,” but we are possessions nonetheless.

The theologically confounding example of this that comes to mind is one just alluded to a few paragraphs ago—the hardening of the Egyptian pharaoh’s heart. The pharaoh finally relents and sets the Israelites free from Egypt, but it turns out God’s not finishes him. God “hardens his heart,” prompting him to pursue the Israelites so that he and his entire army can perish when the waters of the Red Sea envelope them.

But it isn’t just the villains of scripture that God uses to accomplish his purposes; it’s also the heroes. In the Christian providential narrative, Abraham is just a means to the end of bringing about the Israelites, Moses is just a means to the end of liberating the Israelites, David is just a means to the end of solidifying the royal lineage of Jesus, and even Jesus himself is just a means to the end of our salvation. Everyone, from the least to the greatest among us, has a role to play.

In this providential understanding of God, if we are fortunate enough to not be Divine cannon fodder for God’s victory, then we are nonetheless Divine cannons being used for the same end. No matter what happens to us, no matter what role we play, we are all merely plot devices in the elaborate cosmic drama that God has created for God’s own amusement.

I and Thou: Recognizing Agency in the Other

I can’t remember when I first stumbled across Martin Buber’s ideas found in his classic work I and Thou, but they have transformed the way I see the interaction between the human and the divine. I am hope to God no one who’s deeply familiar with Buber reads this, because I’m totally going to butcher it. But the gist of it is this: we as human beings interact with the world in one of two fundamental ways, “I-It” interactions or “I-You” interactions.

An “I-It” interaction occurs when we view the things we encounter as objects. We can have an “I-It”  relationship with the chair we sit on, the cup of coffee we chug down before work, or the neighbor’s dog that barks at us as we leave the house. Everything we encounter in our lives is either a means to our end, an obstacle in our way, or simply random scenery to fill up a world in which we alone are the sole being with agency.

The thing is that we can also have “I-It” relationships with other human beings, in which we treat other people as objects that just happen to be in our world of experience. On our walk to the bus stop, countless cars pass us by whose drivers are faceless objects to us. The other people waiting at the bus stop—objects. Even the bus driver with whom we exchange brief pleasantries as we pay our toll is an object. In our everyday experience, we simply see other people as scenery, stumbling blocks, or stepping stones. It rarely occurs to us that they themselves are subjects living in a world in which we too are just another object passing them by.

An “I-You” interaction occurs when we recognize the other beings we encounter in our lives as subjects. Each driver passing us by has somewhere they are going. They have hopes and dreams and fears and doubts, just like us. The other people at the bus stop is waiting for something. A solution to a problem. A chance to prove themselves. A reason to keep getting up in the morning. And that bus driver, just like us, is thinking other thoughts as they mindlessly engage in small talk. How am I going to pay the mortgage on my salary? What time does the grocery store close tonight? Whose weekend is it to have the kids?

To step into the world of “I-You” relationships is to recognize that all the people we see through our perspective also have an perspective through which they can see us. It’s recognizing other people in our lives as having agency, rather than simply being other objects in our path. If you’ve ever seen the movie Avatar, this is what happens when they look at each other and say, “I see you.” It’s a recognition that the other person is a subject rather than an object, a “you” rather than an “it.”

So, how does any of this relate to God? Well, Buber does have a lot to say about that—most of which I don’t fully understand. But, essentially, Buber recognizes the Divine as inherently relational—as the quintessential “I-You” relationship. This model makes sense from a Christian perspective as well. The Bible is a complicated book for varying conceptions of God. Despite all the scriptures that portray God as a transcendent tyrant and cosmic puppeteer, there are also passages that affirm God’s integration into human dialogue.

God engages in conversation with Moses, who persuades God not to destroy the Israelites. In Jeremiah, God invites the Israelites into a discussion with the curious phrase, “Come, let us reason together.” In the Christian tradition, we recognize God as being fully present in an actual human being. Jesus dialogued with people all the time and, on at least one occasion, appears to have changed his mind. And then, of course, there is the famous passage in which Jesus proclaims, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you are doing to me.”

But, regardless of what we think about God, the important thing to consider here is what we think about other people. We can call the “I-You” relationship an expression of the Divine, or we can simply call it being a decent human being. However we frame it, it is more important than ever that we begin to recognize one another’s agency.

The Paige Pattersons of the world need to develop an “I-You” relationship with the women in their spiritual communities.

The Donald Trumps of the world need to to develop an “I-You” relationship with foreigners seeking refuge from the turmoil of their native countries.

Cisgender people need to develop and “I-You” relationship with transgender people.

And, finally, police officers need to develop an “I-You” relationship with suspects, especially those with black skin. Because black people have agency too and, yes, black lives do matter.

“Every actual relationship to another being in the world is exclusive,” says Buber. “It's ‘You’ is freed and steps to confront us in its uniqueness. It fills the firmament—not as if there were nothing else, but as if everything else lives in its light.”