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Categories and cruelty

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

I’m sort of aware that I’m not saying anything new or particularly interesting when I say that people have an almost infinite capacity to find reasons to treat each other as sub-human. If you’re suffering in some sort of way, it is really important to me to figure out why you deserved it. This will allow me to protect myself from the sort of suffering you’re currently enduring – you are blind because of your sin, whatever it may be. I'm looking for the things that brought your suffering about so I can avoid the same fate.

My goal in thinking these things is not to raise myself up and run you down, it’s to defend myself from suffering and avoid the fear that random. This often means that I have to become virtuous and wise in order to become invulnerable. I need to be able to see the bad things coming to avoid them and to behave myself well so I'm not placed in a potentially harmful position. The sense of superiority I feel from being wise or virtuous is not the goal - comfort is the goal. Superiority is just a nice side.

If you have something I don’t want – acne or an abusive partner, say – my dehumanization of you will be fairly mild. If, however, you have something I want, the objectification will tend to kick into high gear. Suppose, for example, you have a large continent full of things like rubber, or beaver or tea. I will want to think of ways in which I deserve your rubber or tea more than you do. I need to put you into a category of people who are somehow defective so I can take it. The less effort I can put into thinking about this, the better, since I need my energy to put into actually taking the things I want. Skin colour is easy and will do very nicely for the purpose, in this instance.

There may be a problem, however, for my lazy categorization of you into a sub-human class, which is that I may follow a religion that says that treating other people this way is a really terrible idea and I may also have created a legal system that is based on the idea that all people are actually created equal. This presents me with a choice – I can either do what my religion and law say, or I can give up my laziness and start to think hard about why my religion and law don’t apply in these particular situations. I might begin to hire people to think about how to justify my behaviour full time. I might create my own church to do this.

In any case, over the years, people have found all kinds of reasons why it’s okay to treat each other cruelly. Any sort of difference will do – different skin colour, different gender, different language, etc. etc. Thing is, because we tend to be lazy, we also tend to pick things that are really trivial and superficial. This is because the category is not the point – doing what I want is the point and the categories are a means to an end. The categories are an excuse to separate myself from others.

This is why Christians have to resist the tendency to think of human beings in terms of categories. To separate myself from other people is to take the first step into a cruel and exploitative system. Christians have always taught that all people are made in the image of God and that we are all equal before Him. The fact that we have mostly chosen to ignore this teaching does not make it any less true – or any less urgent.

The Christian message is one of human unity – we are all alike in value and dignity before our creator, we are all struggling to live up to the potential He placed in us, we are all a bit lost. We need each other, and we need to do the hard work of staying connected to each other. This is not to say that we are all the same, or that unity is easy. In fact, the Christian path is the harder path. It is easy to put people into categories, but it is also evil. It is also not to say that we should downplay our differences – we need to do the hard work of understanding one another and talking about the differences.

Rejecting categories, rejecting identity politics, is hard work. The alternative, as we have seen, is far, far worse.

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