One of the hot button topics in America today is same-sex marriage. This issue has been in the news often due to same-sex marriage bans being struck down in state after state and on the minds of many after the controversial “religious freedom” law passed in Indiana (and similar ones already enacted in other states). And it has been in the hearts of many gay and lesbian couples faced with the possibility of being denied access to services because of who they are and who they love.
Imagine planning and preparing for your wedding for months, making decisions about guest lists, music, menus, seating charts, and attire. You go to the lone bakeshop in town to talk about your cake choices, only to be told that the baker is not willing to work with you because you are gay or a biracial couple or a couple from another faith tradition. Imagine the feelings of rejection, isolation, and denial that you would potentially feel, because the state allows this denial of services. This scenario is not hard to imagine, because it is legally allowed in many places throughout our country.
“Othering” happens all the time for many different reasons – not just sexuality, race, and gender.
About 10 years ago, my son and I were at a local park playing on the swings when a group of young boys started taunting a small child with a disfigured arm about 50 yards away from us. They were calling her ugly names and throwing small rocks and sticks in her direction. We had seen this little girl playing happily, running around, and laughing with delight. But now she looked terrified.
I heard the taunts and began moving that direction to intercede, but my son outran me. Only six years old at the time, he yelled at the boys, “Leave her alone. She’s just like us.” The boys saw and heard my son and likely saw an adult close on his heels. They abandoned their harassment and ran away.
The young girl, Mandy, was crying and scared. I wanted to thrash the boys for scaring and taunting her but my son knew better. He knew that what Mandy needed was compassion and acceptance. He touched her disfigured arm and said, “Wanna come play with me?” And off they ran – holding hands, giggling wildly, and laughing.
The young girl’s mother showed up very quickly after the episode occurred and I relayed the story to her. She lowered her head and said, “This happens too dang often. How do I protect my child from people who fear her differences?” I did not have an answer then. And I don’t have a perfect one now. It seems that some people just cannot help but “other” people different than themselves.
The past few months, not unlike a vast majority of human history, have been full of episodes of “othering” – LGBTQ folks, African Americans, people of other faiths, and too many groups and individuals to name. Throwing sticks and stones – figuratively or literally – at people because they are different seems to be commonplace. Taunting the “other” – with words, actions, or abuse – happens on an all too familiar basis.
The question continues to be, “How do we protect those we love from this “othering?”
In our text from Acts, we read the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, a man quite different from Philip racially as a black African and from what must have been a powerful position, given his status description and traveling situation. And depending on how the text is interpreted, he also may have been a sexual minority who was excluded from some parts of society.
Philip is there to spread the gospel story of Jesus. He is directed to do this work and comes upon someone who is “other” than himself, a eunuch, reading the scriptures as he traveled. This chance encounter provides a glimpse of what it means to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and be the church for all persons – despite their differences. The very text that the eunuch was reading provided an opportunity for Philip to tell him about Jesus.
For me, the most interesting part of the text is when the eunuch seeks guidance about being baptized (we are not told by Luke the status of the eunuch’s faith) and he appears to expect rejection. In verse 37, the eunuch asks Philip what prevents him from being baptized? Had he been denied baptism before? Was he aware that his “othering” might exclude him from admittance and acceptance into the community of faith? Did his status as a “mutilated” person mean he was thought of as less than others? We’re not sure.
Some commentators note the question might be alluding to a ritual questioning and answering nature of proselyte baptism, but the text is still open to interpretation. Baptism meant being included into the community and for someone who was “other,” that cannot always be assumed.
Philip’s response to the question about baptism, regardless of its intent or meaning, is not words, but action. He baptizes the eunuch. PERIOD. He welcomes him into the faith. And the eunuch rejoices at this act of grace. My son’s response was to act – not think or question – to just go to Mandy and be her friend.
With states passing religious freedom laws, the Supreme Court set to hear more cases this month regarding same-sex marriage, and the polarization of our political and religious realms bringing people into conflict on a regular basis, reading a text about someone being brought into the faith who would likely be considered different is both helpful and insightful.
We live in a culture where people are often forced into “us” and “them” categories. We hear news pundits yell at each other about social issues on a daily basis. And we witness the “othering” of marginalized persons from churches to playgrounds to wedding cake shops and beyond.
Isn’t it time we stop putting people into categories and denying their identity? Isn’t it time for us, like Philip, to just act out of care for the common good? Isn’t it time for us to stop “othering” and start accepting people for who they are?
Wouldn’t our faith lives and our public lives look different if we did?
That’s the kind of world I want to live in.
Dr. Karyn L. Wiseman is the Associate Professor of Homiletics at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Via ON Scripture .