The Question 2017 Made Us Ask | Sojourners

The Question 2017 Made Us Ask

As we look back on this crazy, exhausting, absurdist play of a year, there is a question that undergirds it all. Behind the policy decisions and executive proclamations, the resistance and abuse revelations, the question has persisted: What are people for?

Or, to put it another way: How do we measure the value of a person?

Is a person less valuable to this country because of their religious background — even or especially assuming they pose no actual security risk?

Should we bar soldiers from their service because their healthcare is said to be too costly — even, or especially, if that cost pales in comparison to what the military spends on Viagra?

Should a policy of brutal deportations include refusing the “courtesy” of allowing people to hug their loved ones goodbye because “emotional scenes” are unpleasant for immigration officers?

Shall we, once again, privilege tax cuts for the rich over the lives of millions of people?

Whose service matters? Whose heart? Whose health? Whose wallet? Whose safety?

The 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber makes the distinction between what he terms an "I-It" relationship and one that is "I-Thou." In an "I-It" relationship, he explains, the other person is little more than an object at your disposal — the waitress is the object that brings you your food, the cab driver is the object who brings you from one location to another. Even if you have a delightful, engaging conversation with the cab driver on the way to the airport, ultimately that relationship is transactional — you want him to get you to your flight on time, and he wants you to pay the full fare and get out at the end.

An "I-Thou" relationship, on the other hand, is one in which the other person is regarded as a whole being, full of hopes and dreams and selfhood, as created in the divine image. The relationship is not bounded by a more utilitarian, you-do-for-me-I-do-for-you attitude, but rather honors the other person’s humanity in its fullness. "I-Thou" relationships have no pre-set boundaries. According to Buber, "I-Thou" is the model of the relationship that we have with the divine.

If a person’s principal value is in the degree to which they are useful to the elite ruling class of a society, many of the Trump administration's moves are almost intelligible. Those who most bolster the men making these policy decisions are lifted up, and those who are least beneficial are, well, discarded. Each of these policies are predicated on the assumption that human beings do not have inherent worth, that their rights and protections must be earned through their usefulness. Neither the wealthy donors being enriched nor the vulnerable populations under attack are "Thou, here." All are regarded with a cold assessment of what they may be able to offer.

This is indeed a philosophical stance — one with which I disagree, but a coherent one nonetheless.

And we find it in not only the ruthless corners of the GOP, but in softer, centrist language as well. For example, Apple CEO Tim Cook attacked Trump’s Muslim Ban on the basis of immigrant usefulness — Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian immigrant, after all, and immigrants “are the key to the innovation of [the] company.” Their inherent human dignity and right to freedom and safety isn’t the issue, but rather their usefulness.

One of the most common arguments for preserving DACA is not that it would be cruel or harmful to recipients’ inherently valuable lives, but that they’re hard working, that they need to earn their place in society. We still often hear men decry sexual assault by situating women in their role as daughters, rather than as independent, autonomous humans.

What if we rebuilt our society based on the presumption that every person is a Thou, worthy of care and safety and health and hope based on their own inherent humanity? What if we honored the divine light in each of us and structured our resources accordingly? What if we assumed that things like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were unalienable, God-given rights, and that governments were created in order to protect them?

Much of the resistance to Trump has been predicated on this assumption, the #MeToo campaign has largely been about naming the impact of abuse and establishing that women in are not objects for male consumption. The battles over statues of Confederate soliders were about, at their heart, whether or not our society should valorize men who treated other human beings as chattel. 

2017 was a year in which people were all too often treated as means to an end.

Perhaps in 2018 we can inscribe a different kind of a lesson.