President Obama announced this past Friday a change in the enforcement priorities regarding undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and who have become a part of this society.
What does the reaction of many to this change have in common with the mob rejection and execution of Jesus, the medieval crusades, the European settlers’ exploitation of native Americans, the rise of racist nationalism in Germany in the 1930s, the anti-communist McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, and the resistance to civil rights legislation of the 1960s?

As different as all these historical realities are, there seems to be a common thread weaving its way into the fabric of each: a deep-seated, sometimes perhaps even unconscious, fear of the “other.”

Maybe its roots are as deep in the human story as the Genesis account of Cain and Abel, where the “otherness” of basic ways of making a living became the occasion for an ideological/theological conflict that ended in a destruction of life.

We see it in Luke’s report of the response of synagogue folk to Jesus’ inaugural sermon (Luke 4:16-30).

After being very impressed with his words, they turned on him when he suggested that the good news fulfilling the prophet’s words was being extended to the “wrong” people: “They got up, drove him out of town and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

Rescuing the Holy Land from the “infidels,” dealing with the “Jewish problem” in Germany and Poland, fueling passion against “communists” in America, and exploiting fear of the “mongrelization” of the races were all causes to which people rallied in response to demagoguery that whipped up a frenzied fear of the “other.”

The “otherization” of people who are different and perhaps see the world in a different way widens the chasm that makes the building of bridges toward community difficult if not impossible.

We seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of this problem.

Most recently, this ongoing demonization of the other was reflected in many responses to the announcement of a modification of enforcement policy relating to the deportation of young undocumented immigrants.

This change was not an executive order or an offer of amnesty, as it was quickly mischaracterized by the president’s detractors. It was dismissed as an election ploy and an unconstitutional act.

What is perplexing, both historically and at present, is the ease with which intelligent, experienced and responsible citizens are drawn into this “otherization.”

Its appeal is often in coded language that does not outright look or sound racist or contemptuous.

Rather, it is couched in such concerns as not giving work permits to “illegals” when so many of our “good” young people are out of work.

Or, affordable health care for the uninsured is opposed because “we don’t want government getting between a patient and his or her doctor.”

Even the silliness of the “birthers” is couched in a concern for legal legitimacy.

The gospel message seems pretty clear on what to do with the “other” – see the face of Christ in their faces: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me …”

If people stopped responding with passive complicity to carefully crafted messages designed to “otherize” those whose needs deserve fair treatment and justice and those whose voices speak for them, certain media outlets and popular personalities might soon be out of business.

In the face of powerful forces that depend on otherization for the success of their agenda, would it be reasonable to hope that communities of faith might model and speak for a perspective that sees diversity and otherness as an opportunity for enrichment of our community rather than as a threat of contamination?

That seems to be a rather simple, yet profound and powerful, difference in the way we can choose to see the world around us and the people in it.

What can history teach us about societies that give in to the ideology of otherization? What can the Gospel teach us about its alternative?

ColinHarris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.

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