Sunday, February 27, 2011

How ethnocentrism hinders love of neighbor (part I) - denial

It is well known that Jesus taught that the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. (And this is not just for Christians – in recent years, several interfaith initiatives between Muslims, Christians and Jews have emphasized that loving God and loving neighbor are common to the three religions.)

The interesting thing about the account in the Gospel of Luke, of course, is that in response to a lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor?,” Jesus tells the famous “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” The story is scandalous, really, because the Jews despised Samaritans and would have nothing to do with them, seeing them as “half-breeds” who had married pagans and developed a bastardized form of Judaism as their religion (with their own place of sacrifice, their own rituals, their own priests, etc.). Jews would not even travel through Samaria, if it were at all possible to avoid it.

In Jesus’ story, a Jewish traveler is attacked by bandits, beaten, robbed, and left to die. Religious Jews come across the man, but pass by without aiding him. The person who does aid him, as Jesus tells it, is a Samaritan. At the end of the story, when Jesus asks his questioner, “so who was the neighbor to the man that was attacked?,” the Jewish listener did not even say “the Samaritan” – he simply replied, “the one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus is telling us that our neighbor is any human being, regardless of whether s/he is part of our ethnic or religious group, regardless of whether our people have anything to do with his/her people, regardless of how we regard them (e.g., as “unclean” or otherwise offensive in some way, or even as having a false religion). Given that we all today – whoever we are, wherever we are – have people that are not part of our group, and that we consider unclean or wrong in some way (including having a false religion), perhaps even as being the enemy of our people; people that we will not associate with, who we tell jokes about, who we think perhaps ought to “go back where they came from,” etc. – it seems that Jesus’ parable is still relevant to us.

That said, I would like to present and discuss a model from Intercultural Studies, which I have found to be very helpful in considering how to relate, as a person of faith, to the “different other” – in other words, our “neighbor.”

The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)

One of the most useful intercultural tools that I’ve come across is Milton Bennett’s “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” (DMIS), which considers the process of growth that people experience as they encounter cultural difference.
In Bennett’s model, people grow from an experience centered in ethnocentrism – seeing and experiencing the world only from the perspective of one’s own people and cultural context – to an experience that he calls ethnorelativism, which involves developing the ability to know one’s own culture and worldview as one among many, and to enter into the world of others, adapt, and live effectively in that other cultural context.

As I consider the challenge of learning to love our neighbor, in a world which increasingly brings all of us into more and more contact with people who are more and more different than our own people, I find myself reflecting on insights from the DMIS to the process of building relationship with the “different other,” i.e., our “neighbor,” whoever that “other” might be.

How Denial hinders loving our neighbor

In Bennett’s model, we must first consider barriers to loving our neighbor. The first phase in the DMIS is denial (ignorance, lack of awareness). We begin by not being aware of (cultural) difference, and avoiding it. The world simply is as we see and experience it. We are “the people” (and any others are beyond our clear vision or understanding). If we are aware of others, they are broadly characterized, e.g., we lump all “Asians” or “Africans” or “Europeans” together, with no real knowledge of any specific characteristics. In other words, we do not know our neighbor.

Denial may be characterized by isolation, simply being out of contact with different others, or by separation, “intentional erection of physical or social barriers to create distance from cultural difference as a means of maintaining a state of denial” (e.g., racial neighborhoods or ghettos). Denial is often accompanied by extreme nationalism (which I would see as a kind of idolatry of one’s own people, as over against the – usually unknown – “other”). The “dangerous underside” of denial, Bennett points out, is the implicit relegation of others to subhuman status (e.g., the Nazi treatment of the Jews).
Good fences do NOT "make good neighbors"
It should be rather obvious that this stage of denial hinders our learning to love our neighbor, because when we live in isolation in our own world, thinking that we are the only real people, and that the world is just as we see it to be, we cannot be living in relationship or harmony with others (at least, not with different others, the “neighbor” of Jesus’ parable). Love involves knowledge. Love involves interaction. Love involves relationship. To love our neighbor, we cannot be content with denial of difference (either isolation or separation).

We cannot stay apart, and follow Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbor. We cannot live as if others do not exist, and love our neighbor. We cannot feed ourselves the myth that we are right, that God is on our side, that we are “the people” and that all others are just vaguely “out there” in the darkness beyond the borders of our world, and love our neighbor.

If we want to follow Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbor, if we as people of (any) faith want to please God in how we relate to others, we must move beyond the ethnocentric stage of denial.

(More to follow…)

* For full treatment of Bennett’s model, see
Bennett, Milton J., “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” In Paige, R.M. (Ed). (1993) Education for the Intercultural Experience (2nd ed., p. 21-71). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Bennett, Milton J., “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”  In Wurzel, Jaime S., ed., Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 62-77). Newton, MA: Intercultural Resource Corporation, 2004.

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