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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Orlando and Othering
distributed 6/17/16 - ©2016

Early on Sunday morning, death smashed through a bar in Orlando, Florida. An angry and disturbed man, armed with weapons designed for the battlefield, methodically worked through the club. By the time it was over, 49 innocent people had been murdered, and another 50 seriously wounded.

This act of violence -- the most deadly mass shooting in US history -- tears at our hearts, not only in the US, but around the world.

For millions of people, this deadly rampage has an intensely personal edge. The bar that was targeted wasn't just any nightspot, picked at random, or because of a bright sign out front, or because of big crowds. Pulse is a gay bar, a gathering spot for LGBTQ folk, and it appears that the shooter chose it for that reason.

People who do not fit comfortably into a straight gender identity are far too often marginalized, subject to abuse and violence. That's why gay bars have a long-standing role as a "safe place", a refuge from hate and exclusion. That's why Sunday morning executions of gay bar patrons hits so close to home for so many people who know the fear of being labeled as "other."

Saturday night was "Latino night" at Pulse, and many of those killed were Puerto Rican. Ethnicity adds another layer of connection among those who are often excluded and marginalized. Grief and loss is deeply felt across Latino and Latina communities, as well.

During the massacre, the Orlando gunman pledged his allegiance to ISIS. That is a claim that has about as much depth as somebody clicking "like" on a Facebook page. There's no evidence of any real connection or coordination between the shooter and Daesh. Claiming ties to a terrorist group did get ISIS to click "like" back, and raised the visibility of the rampage. And the shooter's terrorist claim added religion to the mix of factors in our debate of what happened, and what is to be done.

The mixing of guns, gays, God and race is complicated and powerfully emotional. There are no easy answers.

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In the wake of the Orlando killings, I've heard frequent mention of "othering" -- not only as a component of the shooting, but as a dynamic in reactions to the event.

James Norriss describes "othering" as:

any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody's mind as 'not one of us'. Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it's sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.

If you're not "one of us", he writes, you can be dismissed and hated as an "other", the enemy.

The Orlando shooter wrote off the people at Pulse as others who could -- who should -- be killed. Tragically, that othering is not isolated to this one incidence of violence.

An utterly offensive example has come to light, with a Baptist pastor in California who praised the Orlando massacre of gays. On Sunday morning, shortly after hearing the news, he preached, "The tragedy is that more of them didn't die. I'm kind of upset he didn't finish the job." On Tuesday, a group of more than 700 pastors in the region issued a statement in opposition to Jimenez's sermon.

And anti-Islamic othering flared up immediately as news of the shooting broke. In the most visible and widely-reported instance, Donald Trump made that connection first thing on Sunday morning. In a speech on Tuesday, Trump said, "Can you imagine what they'll do in large groups, which we're allowing now to come here?" The New York Times writes that Mr. Trump "has intensified the power of fear in presidential politics by demonizing an entire religious group." By othering.

And so, in Colorado -- and I'm sure in countless other settings -- Muslim leaders gathered to condemn acts of violence in the name of Islam. Representatives of every Islamic community in Colorado held a press conference on Sunday afternoon, less than 12 hours after the shooting, to express -- again -- their condemnation of hate and violence. It was an event necessitated by the pervasive othering which lumps all Muslims into a terrorist identity.

Othering allows violence. Writing off some group as "not one of us", as different or deviant, is an essential step in the development of hate, exclusion, and abuse.

Othering is not inevitable. And othering can be countered -- must be countered -- when it appears. That rejection of stereotypes and dismissal is evident in the Christian pastors who denounced the Baptist preacher, and the Muslim leaders who clarified the peaceful foundations of their faith. And President Obama took to the airwaves to repudiate Mr. Trump's statements against Muslims. "That's not the America we want. It doesn't reflect our democratic ideals. It will make us less safe."

A noteworthy rejection of othering came from Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox on Monday. In a powerful statement at a vigil mourning the shooting, he said,

I am speaking now to the straight community. How did you feel when you heard that 49 people had been gunned down by a self-proclaimed terrorist? That's the easy question. Here is the hard one: Did that feeling change when you found out the shooting was at a gay bar at 2 a.m. in the morning? If that feeling changed, then we are doing something wrong.

And othering was countered at the memorial vigil that I attended on Tuesday, a moving gathering of 2,000 people organized by PFLAG. One of the speakers -- a gay Latino who voiced his personal sense of loss -- offered a short list of ways to respond to the shooting. Third on the list was "be kind to your Muslim neighbors and co-workers." The statement drew a long round of applause.

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A friend spoke to me yesterday about othering, and made the environmental connection. We won't be able to make real environmental progress, she said, until we stop othering Earth, its creatures, and its resources. Our violence against creation depends on seeing all of that as "other" -- as things, as less-than-human, as expendable.

Jan's comments led me back to the now year-old encyclical from Pope Francis. As I paged through that wise and thoughtful document, I was struck by how pervasively Francis' theology of integral ecology is a rejection of othering, and a celebration of right relationship. He wrote, for example (in paragraph 86)

The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God. ... Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships. ... As the Catechism teaches: 'God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other'.

Othering -- the dismissal of some as different, less-than, worthless, or dangerous -- is contrary to the best in Christian faith and ethics. Othering -- whether of human groups or of the natural world -- is contrary to an environmentally-grounded Christianity.

May the tragic and offensive events of this week lead us to a fresh awareness of othering, and to a more heartfelt rejection of that exclusionary and hate-filled practice. May our grief following Orlando lead us toward an active countering of othering, wherever we encounter it.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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