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Thursday, 20 April 2017

Nurturing “I and Thou” Relationships

Have you read Martin Buber’s little Book I and Thou?  It is one of those classics from nearly 100 years ago.  Buber, was an Austrian Jewish philosopher; he was born in 1978 and died in 1965.  Martin Buber became an honourary professor at the University of Frankfurt in Germany, but resigned in 1933 because of the rise of Adolph Hitler and eventually fled Germany in 1938.  He wrote I and Thou in 1923, a timeless classic!

Buber’s thesis (very simply) is that we often reduce relationships to I and It; in other words, we objectify the other and treat people as “its.”  The I-Thou relationships is a relationship in which boundaries merge, and the relationship is subject to subject.  Relationships are alive and evolving through an I-Thou philosophy; in this philosophy, we are in relationship with a “subject” who has dignity and worth.

I first read Buber at Vancouver School of Theology in the 1980s and was very influenced by this philosophy.  It helped me to articulate my unease with our Western societal penchant to objectify the other and deal with people as if they were things rather than human beings.  This philosophy has informed my commitment to justice as a commitment to people and creation as a sacred relationship of I and thou.

I was reminded once again of the Western (maybe human?) penchant to dehumanize the “other” when the “other” doesn’t do what we want them to do.  I heard a short piece a while ago on CBC’s The Current; two pundits, one from the UK and one from the USA, were reflecting on the US strike using a big bomb a couple of weeks ago.  (A GBU-43/B device was detonated to target an Isis tunnel complex on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.  The US military called it “the mother of all bombs.”  Only one other bomb—never used in military action—is a larger conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) weapon.)  These two pundits were reflecting dispassionately on the efficacy of the bomb; they talked about casualties and fatalities, both intended and unintended, as if they were objects.  I found it a deeply offensive discussion.

If you listen to the rhetoric these days—and there is a lot of political posturing and intimidation—you hear the dehumanizing of others as objects.  It makes it much easier to vilify and demonize another when we reduce them to mere objects, “its” in Buber’s philosophy.  But in engaging in this kind of dehumanization and objectification, we are all diminished.

I find that even many of us on the left of the political spectrum engage in objectification.  The “other side” is the enemy: "They are radicalized in their fear and hate and only know brutality and intimidation." I've heard words to this effect at rallies and peace events.  But the power of non-violent interaction is that we not dehumanize—we not objectify—the other, but rather engage in person to person peacemaking.  We engage in dialogue and find common ground to talk.

Martin Luther King, Jr., related from an I-Thou perspective.  Gandhi did this.  Jesus did this.  The Buddha did this.  And there are countless people still engaged in this work of I and Thou; the late great poet, Maya Angelou, was one.  The poet Juia Esquivel is another.  Just as we are diminished by objectification, we are elevated when people are able to articulate their concerns while at the same relating to the “other” as Thou.

Maybe Julia’s poem is a good note to end:
            I am no longer afraid of death
I know well
Its dark and cold corridors
Leading to life.

I am afraid rather of that life
Which does not come out of death,
Which cramps our hands
And slows our march.

I am afraid of my fear
And even more of the fear of others,
Who do not know where they are going,
Who continue clinging
To what they think is life
Which we know to be death!

I live each day to kill death;
I die each day to give birth to life,
And in this death of death,
I die a thousand times
And am reborn another thousand
Through that love
From my People
Which nourishes hope!