Different Is Not The Problem

This video has been very popular on Facebook as of late and it is definitely worth the time to watch it. It is good, visually appealing, and the message of unity is one with which I agree. It is a spoken word piece by Prince EA whom I do not know beyond this but I assume to be a thoughtful and creative artist based on what we see here.

However, I disagree on a couple of points and they are, at least in my opinion, foundationally important. I agree that the use of labels, that is, the way we use labels not to identify but to rank, is devastating to us all. I also agree that the notion “black” and “white” (one could also add “red” and “yellow” if you want to sing about Jesus loving the little children) and the values placed upon them are senselessly arbitrary and are in no way ontological. However, I also think that moving away from differences as an attempt to distance ourselves from bias, strife and hatred may be unnecessary and possibly dehumanizing. The notion of the body as only a shell, metaphorically spoken of here as a car, is a well intended but detrimental move in the wrong direction.

In his piece, Prince EA speaks about the labels we are given by our society. These are the color labels. Later he makes a move from colors, which are inaccurate and trivial, to cultural labels which are, while erroneous in some cases from a certain point of view, entirely different. Color labels are based on skin tone and other physical features that we falsely think make it possible to categorize, and therefore form hierarchies of, people. Culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits…”* Culture is not a label placed upon persons who look similarly but a constellation of things that arises from a group itself.

Still, I will concede that a culture could be reduced to a characterization and, therefore, a label. Example: Native American. This has become so mythologized, so stereotyped, so distilled into a caricature over time that most people who just read that probably visualized a tee-pee and man in a feather headdress.

For me the problem exists well before we get to categorization based on skin tone or cultural practices or even regional origins. It comes from a place where we believe that bodies are somehow subject to our determination of good or bad, better or worse, valuable or worthless, more or less human, rather than quite simply being created as good.

Where do we get the arrogance to say that one human being, one precious, miraculous, unique and utterly irreplaceable human being is worth more than another? What conceit is there in our heart that lets us believe for even a moment that we can discern from any marker, skin color, physical or intellectual attribute, origin, or anything else we can see, hear, touch, or discover via genetic testing that any individual or group is superior or inferior to another? For indeed, arrogance and conceit are the only motivators conceivable that could lead any of us to such heights of Orwellian judgement.**

No, human beings were created good. And everything else for that matter. (Genesis 1:31 if you need a refresher.) If the body did not matter, if matter did not matter, if atoms and molecules and skin and leaves and feathers and rocks and water and wind and all these things and more did not matter, then we would not have needed a flesh and blood Redeemer to take up our own matter. Yet we did. For God was please to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col 1:20) Not through preternatural or otherworldly or any other non-material thing but through real, corporal matter.

The notion that our being is entirely separable from our bodies, that our corporal form is irrelevant and can be disregarded is… well I was going to say foolish, but I think it’s more tragic. Culture exists in bodies. Love exists in bodies. Stories and families and art and poetry and work and worship and thought and ideas and dreams and courage and fear exist in bodies. The act of creation exists in bodies. The essence of humanity is in bodies.

The wings may be severed from a bird and it still be a bird. But that bird is wounded and not able to be as it was created to be. The body may be severed from the consciousness but then the consciousness is like a bird with severed wings. I’ll grant that this is oversimplification but the point still is the same. A fully human being includes a body.

One Sunday, when we were studying the book of Genesis at church, we came to the story of the tower of Babble and, musing aloud, I said I thought it was possible that this was the beginning of human cultures. Mostly, I was theorizing that this could be possible because Babbel is the location where the “symbolic” division of language occurred; the place where different languages were created. Culture, as we understand it, is inextricably tied to language, therefore this might also be the birthplace of cultures as well as the babble of human tongues.*** One of the others in the class was very troubled by this. Wouldn’t this mean, he said, that God is responsible for human conflict? Differences in language and culture are responsible for all human strife and division, aren’t they?

Differences do not make conflict. We make differences into conflict. We use differences as a tool, an excuse, a reason, and to return to Prince EA, a label to justify conflict. But differences do not make conflict.

We are hardwired to make note of differences. We might even be hardwired to think of differences as fearful, though I’m not sure I fully believe that because not every difference, evolutionarily speaking, is equal to a predator. Sometimes, it is equal to a meal, safe place to make a home, etc. Curiosity is also, along with fear, a plus for human survival and inquisition is drawn to difference. But we are not hardwired to dominate differences. We are not hardwired to hate difference.

We do not need to eliminate difference in order to cultivate harmony. We do not need to eliminate the gift that is the human body or diminish it because certain characteristics have been labeled as villainous or virtuous. The body is good. The unique, wondrous thing that is humanity is an incalculable gift and it does, indeed, make each of us who we are. We are not just what we are on the inside, as if our interior is untouched by our exterior. After all, “insides” and “outsides” are simply sides of the whole human. Eliminating the physical body and all that means is not the solution. Cutting humans in half, into bodies and “insides”, divides and dehumanizes us even further.

We must learn, perhaps re-learn, that the human body in all its diversity, strengths, and struggles is a gift. A good gift. If our bodies are good gifts, then all bodies are good gifts, regardless of their details, and all that bodies allow us to be and do, that is to say being fully human, is very good indeed.****

Here is a beginning. You are a fully human being, inside and outside. And so am I. That, regardless of the details, we have on the highest authority, is a good thing. The differences are part of the goodness. So also is this true of all the other humans as well.

*This particular definition is from E B Tylor, though there may be more thorough ones elsewhere. Regardless, the point remains the same.
** This refers to George Orwell’s book,  Animal Farm. Some animals are more equal than others.
***I have no real support for this theory. It was an idea I had at the time. More to the point here were the questions that followed, the value of which is not reliant upon the validity of my theory.
****This “all” is used poetically here. Obviously, matter is involved in sin, that is why it needs redeeming. But the fact that there is matter, that there are bodies, does not require sin to be present, even if the inverse is true, simply because the former precedes the later.

 

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