I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. -John 17:22-23 (NLV)
Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?” -Mark 2:15-16 (NLV)
Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher who lived during the turn of the 19th century. His primary contribution in the early 1900’s to the field of philosophy (other than that amazing beard) was his exploration of the ways in which people exist with others. He proposed that people will adopt a philosophy of dialogue defined in one of two ways. They will either see the world through the lens of “I and It” or “I and Thou.” His book Ich und Du (I and Thou) was published from German to English in 1937.
As relational beings, he argues that “I” is never independent- every person is always relating to the world. But the ways that they do that can look very different.
The I and It attitude sees an object or person as separate- something to be experienced and used.
The I and Thou attitude defies categorization. It acknowledges a living relationship, a connectedness deeper than labels, facts, or information. There are no barriers that inhibit knowing, and no mere information can get in the way of true connection. In other words, this attitude sees every person as a fully human, multifaceted image bearer of God.
Buber notes that God is the ultimate Thou. There are no barriers that hinder us from relating directly to God, who is fully available to us in a living relationship. When we enter into this, we find ourselves speaking to and with God, rather than primarily speaking about God.
The I-Thou relationship with God (and others) is defined by presence, not by performance.
Of course, Buber stumbled onto this idea nearly 2000 years after Jesus displayed it so perfectly in his own life. His own union with God and ability to see others beyond the “it” to the “thou” teaches us what a disciple can live like today.
-In Christ, we are connected to Jesus in a mystical way through the Spirit, where Jesus sees us not as independent objects, but as extensions of himself, and connected to each other.
-And as we engage with other people (who are all a part of God’s creation and bear God’s image), we have an obligation to constantly resist the “othering” and objectification of people. This is not simply relevant in the sexualization of our world, but in any classification of an “other” that keeps people in a clearly defined box that is separate from ours. Race, gender, ethnicity, theology, economic status, family history, and politics are all categories of people that Jesus intends us to humanize, rather than dehumanize. This is countercultural.
Othering happened in Jesus’ time just as it happens now. Tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, children, women, widows…. these were not simply descriptors, but means of separating society into groups of value and importance. A person became an it, rather than a thou. But not to Jesus. Jesus showed the I-Thou relationship as he chose to see people. He refused to let people become the objects to be labeled and disregarded.
Somehow, it’s easy to imagine that other people aren’t as fully human as we are. We find it difficult to imagine people who we don’t get along/agree with sitting down to eat three times a day, feeling delighted when the sun shines on their face, or crying when they are sad. It’s easy to forget how similar we are to the rest of humanity, choosing only to focus on the differences and weaknesses of others. But transformative relationships begin with a willingness to see others on the same journey we are on.
Jesus had an ability to see the whole person and treat him/her as a complete being, created in God’s image.
Now it’s our turn.
Jesus, thank you for creating a way to know God without barriers. Help us to find connections with others so that our relationships may mirror your care for us. Amen.