“The Other” Theology

Last fall, I began teaching an adult Sunday School class at my church (http://www.springmountain.org/), and just finished it last week.
It was approximately fourteen weeks long, with a couple of breaks for the Holidays and such.  Below, I have copied in the original bulletin blurb for the class and then the final summary of our ‘take-home’ points, by unit and each weekly discussion.

We live in a culture which daily teaches us to see ourselves as the center of the universe. But our God, who is “for us,” has told us that we are to be for others. He wants us to resist the temptation to seek our own and instead to become those who befriend the stranger.
Come explore biblical ways of understanding how we are called relate to “the other.”


1. Introduction: Encountering the Other
At some point, each of us is awakened to the reality of “the other.”  We realize that there are other selves inhabiting the world with us. Sometimes this awakening seems a bit rude, creating something of an existential crisis for us (e.g. see the work of Sartre).

2. Objectifying the Other (Genesis 4:3-16; James 4:2)
Upon close reflection, we realize that we have a tendency to objectify the other in some way; that is, to treat him or her as a thing—or at least as less than fully human. This bent toward objectification may be caused partly by an innate sense of self-defense or partly by an innate desire to conquer the other in some way; or there may be other factors involved.

3. Identifying with the Other (Deuteronomy 10:19; Romans 12:15; Hebrews13:3)
Once we sense our fallen propensity to objectify the other, we ask: How might we do better? Is it possible to subjectify the other, to see him or her positively as another self like me? The best way to do this is to identify with the other.


4. “Lording It” (Matthew 20:20-28; Luke 22:24-27)
A large part of life—maybe all of it, in some way—has to do with the discovery and exercise of power. As we take account of the other, we find that we tend to determine the role of power in our relating to the other. If possible, most of us seek to establish some sort of power or control over the other. (N.B. — This may be manifested in a number of ways, some of which do not seem like power-mongering and may in fact be disguised as passivity.)

5. Philoxenia: Welcoming the Stranger (Leviticus 19:33-34; Matthew 25:31-46; Philemon 22; Hebrews 13:2)
To help us grow in our relating to the other, our Lord has given us the gift of the stranger. Yet we have a natural mixed reaction to the stranger: we are both attracted and repulsed. Often the latter wins out, as we keep our ‘safe’ distances.

6. Befriending the Weak (Isaiah 58; Luke 14:12-14)
When the other is particularly vulnerable, we are afforded the opportunity to lay aside power and control and greatness so that we may identify with him or her. This is not truly done through the condescension of charity, but through authentic friendship in which we are both giver and receiver of blessing.

7. Befriending the Difficult (Romans 15:1; I Thessalonians 5:14)
Often the call to embrace the other is complicated by the fact that something about him or her is in some way off-putting. Here we are given the chance to go well beyond our comforts to love the other, our neighbor.

UNIT III: US AND THEM (Categorizing the Other)

8. Psycho-Babel: the Origin of Racism (Genesis 11)
From very early on in the story of our race, we have tended to categorize the other—and especially groups of others—in ways which have built barriers rather than bridges.

9. Xenophobia in Israel (Ezra-Nehemiah)
We see, displayed in the story of Israel, the sad human capacity for linking racial and social elitism (i.e. harmful categorization of the other) to religious zeal.

10. A Proper Blessing for the “Zar”?! (Proverbs & Ruth)
The LORD has a way of shocking us out of our neat categories. Sometimes He does this by putting some of the best wisdom and righteousness in some of the most surprising places. Sometimes, the other is the last person we would expect to see serving as the blessed instrument of God, but then… she is.   (Zar is the Hebrew word for “stranger,” “foreigner,” “alien”… i.e. “other.”  But in Proverbs, it appears in the feminine form and is often translated “adulteress.” In the common arrangement of the Hebrew Scriptures, Proverbs is followed by Ruth, a story which features a foreign woman who turns out to be surprisingly virtuous.)


11. Jonah and His Son (Jonah & Acts 10)
To be a servant of God’s kingdom is to be someone who practices border crossing, breaking through barriers to reach the other and form loving relationship.


12. Emptying the Self (II Corinthians 8:9; Philippians 2:1-11)
Our Lord has modeled for us what it means to follow Him in relating to the other: It means learning to empty the self of our perceived greatness and to seek the other’s best. When we do, we find that this self-humbling is what puts us in the path of God’s blessing and, therefore, our own ultimate best interest.

13. Pursuing the Other (Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 15; John 3:16)
Our Lord has also modeled for us what it means to pursue the other. We should live toward the other in a posture or motion of greater relating, regardless of the risk or cost.

14. Glorying in the Other (II Corinthians 1:14; I Thessalonians 2:19-20)
As we are in relationship with the other, we learn to take delight in him or her. We find that it is in the other’s well-being and well-doing that we have the truest sense of greatness and glory.


2 thoughts on ““The Other” Theology

  1. Wow; that looks like a fantastic class. I’d love the opportunity to take a class like that! I think I remember talking about “Zar” in our Bible classes at HCS. Great stuff!! 🙂

  2. Thanks, Beth!
    I do not claim to be an authority in this area at all. But because I want to become more of a practitioner of a lived theology of other-centeredness, I put together a sketched out curriculum for an adult SS class, hoping that dialogue with others might help me think it through — and also help them consider the ideas too.
    If nothing ever comes of it but conversation, though, it will only be so much foolishness.
    My prayer is that the Lord will begin to live this stuff through me more and more.

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