Who Mourns for the "Others"?

Sunday, 2 February 2003

A little after 8:00 a.m. Saturday, my cousin in Palestine, Texas, was working on his computer when he heard a deafening roar that lasted almost a minute. His house shook, and a ladder leaning against the roof clambered to the ground. Thinking a gas well had exploded nearby, he went outside to look, but didn't see anything. About an hour later, as he and his wife got in the car to go to town, they heard on the radio about the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and he realized that he had heard it with his own ears. His dad, some seventy miles away in Madison County, had heard it, too. A friend outside Corsicana had seen smoldering rubble that had fallen from the sky.

I was out of town on an overnight retreat, but our group got word within a couple of hours of the tragedy. We were all stunned, and memories of the Challenger explosion, the Kennedy assassination, and other national tragedies--including, of course, 9/11--sprang to mind. For some reason, though, one of my first thoughts was, in a few weeks, the U.S. may well be dropping bombs on Iraq, and will the nation mourn then? Will I be as upset then as I am now?

When I returned home that afternoon, I was talking to my teenage daughter about the events of the day. "Why was Mom crying?" she asked. "I know it's bad, but don't people die in accidents every day?" I tried to explain to her that Americans, and many others around the world, identify in a special way with astronauts. They represent our dreams, our hope for the future, I said. "I can see that," she replied, "and it's sad for the families of the astronauts, but does anyone cry for the families of the others?"

She's right, of course. Why is it that some deaths affect us more than others? In some cases, we mourn for the death of well-known individuals that most of us have only come to know and admire from afar. Martin Luther King, Jr., personified racial equality, and John Kennedy, Jr., reminded us of earlier days of hope and tragedy. In other cases, we weep for people as members of groups that represent in our minds something noble or brave. The astronauts of Columbia, Challenger, and Apollo 1 represented a spirit of adventure. Soldiers memorialized by monuments in our nation's capital incarnate the courage to which we all aspire. But who mourns for the "others"?

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, divided human relationships into two groups: I-It and I-You. In I-It relationships, we treat other people as objects; we have no real relationship with them. The person we pass on the street, the teller at the bank, the co-worker in the next office, these may all be I-It relationships. In I-You relationships, we see others as persons, equal to us in every way that matters. I-It relationships are not bad, because we couldn't function without a degree of distance between ourselves and most of the thousands of people we encounter during the course of our lives. It is our I-You relationships, however, that define who we are. As Buber says, "Without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human."

The Columbia astronauts were more than just It to us. Though most of us didn't know them, we felt that they were You. And maybe that's the secret present in my daughter's question. If we can treat these strangers as You, why not others? If we saw the children of Baghdad as persons, rather than objects, would we stand by and watch them be slaughtered by the thousands when the bombs begin to fall? If a citizen of that other Palestine were really a You to us, could we condone the senseless violence of the past months--done both to and by the Palestinians--and the injustice of the past thirty-six years? What would be our reaction as individuals who claim to be committed to religious principles, to peace, and to justice if we could begin to see people on all sides of the world's complex struggles as You rather than It?

Though my own worldview was inescapably formed by my Western middle class upbringing, and it is informed by the beliefs and teachings of many religious and ethical teachers, it is transformed by my understanding of the teachings of Jesus. "Love your enemies" doesn't mean that we will never have enemies, either personal or national, but it suggests that we can be the ones who take the first step toward transforming a destructive I-It relationship into a redemptive I-You relationship. Those of us who follow the teachings of Jesus, together with a multitude of others who share a common vision of the way to peace, must do all we can to influence our government to reject war, unilateralism, and aggression. If we fail, and the bombs do fall, we can work to minimize the bloodshed, organize to elect more enlightened leaders, and pray for peace and justice. And we can mourn for the "others."

© Copyright 2003, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology