Drug addict. Homeless. Prostitute. Criminal. Have you ever used these terms to label someone? We often use these sorts of words to objectify and disenfranchise those already marginalized within our society. We inadvertently define them by their circumstance, taking the focus off the complexity of their personhood.
I work at Jacob’s Well, a parachurch organization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. We engage in relational ministry and community development in a neighbourhood of so-called outcasts and misfits. We don’t offer programs or hand out sandwiches—there are plenty of other service providers in the neighbourhood doing that good work. Instead, we offer a chair at our meal table. We offer a knife and a cutting board in the kitchen while we work together to prepare dinner. We offer a community of belonging where people are welcomed and accepted as they are, warts and all.
Yet, I would rather sound awkwardly wordy than compound the alienation of those already subjected to the fear and discrimination of mainstream society.
When telling people about my work, I could say, “I work with drug addicts.” Or I could also say, “I work with people who are living with addiction.” The first statement defines personhood by circumstance, inclining the listener to see only the substance abuse and not the whole person. The second statement emphasizes the person over the circumstance, but it’s wordy. It’s tiresome to say over and over again. It’s much simpler to say “drug addict” than “people living with addiction.” Because of this, we often fall back into the type of language that further marginalizes vulnerable people. Yet, I would rather sound awkwardly wordy than compound the alienation of those already subjected to the fear and discrimination of mainstream society.
Language impacts people. For example, someone living with mental illness has to contend with the difficulties the illness brings to their daily life. They also have to put up with the alienation that comes from a society that fears and pushes aside what it doesn’t understand. Someone experiencing symptoms of psychosis might have to deal with a barrage of voices that no one else can hear. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, they will undoubtedly endure fear, avoidance and prejudicial treatment on a regular basis—reflected in the words we use to describe them. The least we can do is alter our language to remind ourselves of the humanity of others, to look first at the person and not the circumstance.
Othering and the Well-Dressed Business Executive
At Jacob’s Well, we seek to bring people from different walks of life together into a space where authentic relationships can form. Through these relationships we break down the stereotypes and prejudices that lead us into “othering” people that we don’t understand. We engage in mutually transformative relationships even as we differ from one another in socioeconomic status, ethnic or cultural background, social and relational skills, physical and mental health, or criminal history. In developing these relationships, we pay attention to how we are prone to “othering.”
It’s easy to view other people’s challenges as invalid or even deserved when we are only in relationship with people who are like us.
It’s easy to view other people’s challenges as invalid or even deserved when we are only in relationship with people who are like us. I may walk down the street and find it difficult to relate to the well-dressed business executive who is rushing past me on the way to a meeting. I may also find it difficult to relate to the person sitting in a doorway in disheveled clothing asking passersby for their spare change. I will quickly label both of these individuals—I will create boundaries within my life that do not include interacting or attempting to empathize with either of them. My worldview doesn’t naturally take into account the perspectives or experiences of either person.
I may become angry and resentful towards the business executive as I see societal power and wealth that I don’t possess. I may assume that they abuse that power and either hoard or squander their wealth. I may feel envious or inadequate, and assume that they had an unfair advantage in life. With the person sitting in the doorway, I may feel guilty, fearful or angry. I may assume that if they worked as hard as I do they wouldn’t need my spare change. I may be afraid of how they might react if I engage them, or I may feel guilty for having so much when they obviously have so little.
My mind naturally categorizes them both as “other” to spare myself from any uncomfortable feelings. If I am not in relationship with people in different life circumstances or circumstances that make me uncomfortable, I’ll find it easier to depersonalise them. I’ll see them as abstractions rather than attempt to see the world from their point of view.
The Junkie Christian
This is just one result of the depersonalising effects of categorizing people based on their life circumstances—it becomes impossible for someone to imagine that a person who is addicted to heroin and living on the streets might also have a deep faith in Christ.
Unfortunately, certain misperceptions shared by many Christians can contribute to our “othering.” I often find that other Christians who are not familiar with Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, or similar neighbourhoods, believe that if we could just evangelize and convert people to Christianity, the issues of drug addiction, homelessness, poverty, prostitution and criminal activity would simply fade away. This is just one result of the depersonalising effects of categorizing people based on their life circumstances—it becomes impossible for someone to imagine that a person who is addicted to heroin and living on the streets might also have a deep faith in Christ.
I have friends who self-medicate with illicit drugs and are unable to keep a job. Yet, they teach me so much about God and help me to grow in my faith. I pray for healing and God’s provision in their lives, and they do the same for me as I am open and honest with them about my own weaknesses. My vices may be more socially acceptable and somewhat less destructive—they may have less impact on my ability to function in mainstream society—but they do not make me morally superior. If I were to label my friends as drug addicts, as opposed to seeing them as fellow believers who struggle with addiction, I would not only disempower them, I would deny myself the opportunity to learn and grow as God teaches me through them.
Defining an individual by their circumstance leaves no room to see them as a peer, as a brother or sister in Christ. By using labels to refer to marginalized populations, we dehumanize people who are already disenfranchised. We must be intentional about the language we use. We must be aware of the implications of depersonalised references to circumstances that do not define an individual. By focusing on our shared humanity, we can begin to let go of the fear that leads us to alienate people that we do not understand. After all, we all have something in common. We were all made in God’s image.