Last week Rose Castle Foundation was privileged to mark Holocaust Memorial for a BBC Radio 4 programme, following which we received hundreds of messages, including from survivors of the Holocaust. It was a powerful reminder of the consequences of turning our back on a people group – of de-humanising other human beings such that we can contemplate, and even justify, their eradication. Whilst many of us cannot imagine being in such traumatic circumstances, it is sobering to realise how many ordinary people of faith were swept up by its orbit, whether as victims or as perpetrators.
What is it that can so dramatically turn us from people of love to people of hate? Often, it is not a single dramatic event, but a slow, steady drift from ignoring or blanking another, to words or acts of violence towards them? We have watched it played out on the highest political stages, whether Europe and Britain’s row over vaccination supply, or the lead up to President Biden’s inauguration, or among senior politicians within our own houses of parliament. It is vital to air our disagreements over public policy when the common good is ultimately being pursued, but when language deteriorates to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ war of words, we set ourselves on a deteriorating and potentially dangerous spiral. We stop seeing the other as fellow human beings, and instead build our own image of them, demonising them in the process.
Well known French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, described the ethical responsibility of a face-to-face encounter.Seeing and hearing the other person for who they really are, not for whowe thinktheyare. That encounter does not assume we are the same – we might be very different. Nor does it assume we are right and they are wrong – for we might be mistaken. Levinas prioritises the other person, as one made in the image of God, just as we are. He describes their potential vulnerability, as a stranger, an orphan, a widow.
In many ways his work is similar to another philosopher, Martin Buber, who described our encounters with others as “I-Thou” rather than “I-It”.In other words, those whom we encounter are themselves agents of thought, emotion and action, shaped by their experience of life (good and bad), about which we may have little understanding. Buber speaks to a mutual responsibility in our encounter, in which we first want to see and hear the other for who they are, before making our own assumptions. And for whom we seek the best, even if, at times, that requires discipline and correction rather than unhealthy agreement.
Any human encounter is ultimately a relationship (however fleeting) between two or more people, formed by words as well as action. The poet, Elizabeth Alexander, who spoke at President Obama’s inauguration, reminds us that “we encounter each other in words…..words to consider, reconsider.”Our words shape our relationships, for better and worse. When we no longer recognise the other as a fellow human being, we undermine or even eradicate relationship. We treat them as “it” instead of “Thou”.
We do this in subtle ways, day by day, and often with those we think we know so well. Have you ever wondered if your image or understanding of that person is one you have created yourself? If perhaps they are your “it” rather than a “thou” in their own right, albeit with weaknesses and strengths? Perhaps it is time to pause, to listen, to see them in a new light. To ask what it is really like to be them? It might be surprising to discover someone we have been missing all this time.