Every person is different. We all come from different backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities. Because of this, what is other to one person may not be what it is to someone else. As Christians, if we are called to have a heart after God and to think his thoughts after him, then we are also called to be other-loving people just like him. Here are five steps to help you start on your journey of embracing people who are different from you:
1. Identify otherness.
In the Bible, the greatest form of otherness was between the Jews and Gentiles. Since we don’t live in a Jew-Gentile divided world, we may need to do a little more work to find out what the other is to us. Think about it this way: is there a group of people that you are either unfamiliar with, never interact with daily, or may even be wary of? This group of people may be the other to you. The other could be a demographic of people based on their socioeconomic status, racial or ethnic identity, or cultural background. You can’t make the first step of becoming other-loving if you don’t identify what otherness is to you.
2. Separate otherness from sinfulness.
Your next step is to separate otherness from sinfulness. It is all too easy for us to assume that our way of life is normal and good and that of others is abnormal at best or inherently sinful at worst. We need to remember that in the gospel God maintained our otherness while cleansing us of our sinfulness. God carefully distinguished between otherness and sinfulness at the cross.
We need to have the humility to recognize that our way of life may not always be as good as gospel, and another person’s way of life may not necessarily be irredeemably sinful. By separating these two categories, we can address sin as sin and maintain the dignity of otherness.
3. Immerse yourself in otherness.
Once you identify what is other to you and distinguish otherness from sinfulness, your job is to do your best to learn about this other. Paul himself said that his job was to be all things for all people, and a part of that involved immersing himself in the culture of the Gentiles enough to know their preferences, vices, virtues, and values (1 Cor. 9:19–23). Even more so, Christ fully became one of us, and he immersed himself in becoming the other.
Immersing ourselves in otherness can include trying to pick up the language, reading up on its history, or even engaging in its art, entertainment, and culture. Since college, I have been especially interested in learning about Japanese culture and people. I have immersed myself by listening to Japanese music, watching Japanese shows, and even trying to pick up on some conversational Japanese. From these various outlets, I quickly learned about the assumptions within Japanese culture, and at the same time, I became aware of many of my own cultural assumptions.
4. Feast in otherness.
Food binds people together and creates relationships. There is more to having a meal than just ingesting caloric and nutritional substance. The food you eat in turn tells a lot about you, your preferences, and your values. Eating food is not simply a nutritional exercise but an enculturating event.
Might I suggest that you sample the food of people unlike yourself. If you can’t find an authentic restaurant, try to make the food yourself. As you eat, ask yourself the question: What circumstances, values, and cultural preferences would have made people create this kind of food? More than anything, you’ll broaden your horizons as to what is considered food on a global scale, and you’ll quickly be pulled out of your own limited sphere of assumptions.
Feasting doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to like everything instantly (or maybe ever!). It does mean that you are allowing yourself to step into a world that was previously unfamiliar to you.
5. Befriend otherness.
It is one thing to know about a person and another thing to really know them. God didn’t stand back afar and speculate about humanity; rather, he came down and put on flesh to be as we are. In the person of Christ, we see God befriending the other to the uttermost.
Befriending means more than small talk or one-off conversations in a highly controlled atmosphere. Rather, it means sharing the ups and downs of life with a person, with their best interests in mind. It is to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15). It means considering perspectives and experiences other than your own.
By doing this, you’ll quickly realize that every single person is different. As much as we can try to label and organize people, we often find ourselves trying to put square pegs into round holes. Even within a certain group, there is a spectrum of people who fit your assumptions and those who completely buck the trend. By befriending the other, your eyes will be opened to a vast landscape of diversity.
As you can probably tell, embracing people who are different from us isn’t easy work; and it isn’t always comfortable, but it is rewarding and enriching. It’s rewarding because it gives us a glimpse into the heart of our God who reached out to us who were so other to him, and it’s enriching because it is what God has designed us to do—to love our neighbor as ourselves. So, what are you waiting for? Are you ready to embrace otherness?