diversity

Listening to Black Lives Matter: Redeeming Emmanuel Levinas (The Philosophical Blacklist)

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This post is part of a multi-part series, Redeeming the Philosophical Blacklist.

One afternoon I was talking with a particularly racially homogenous group, and the conversation suddenly turned to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I understand there are two different perspectives,” one person said, “and I see from both perspectives. I just think the Black Lives Matter perspective is wrong.”

Since I had recently been reading the works of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), I wondered how he would address that comment. He likely would have been skeptical of a claim to such omniscience. Most of all, he would have wondered how this belief would impact how we relate to one another.

Bracha L. Ettinger [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Emmanuel Levinas

Levinas has much to say on both of these topics — knowledge and relationships. To be clear: some Christians have placed Levinas (along with Heidegger, Derrida, Blanchot and other contemporaries) on the philosophical blacklist. As is the case with these other thinkers, we don’t have to agree with everything he writes in order to still benefit from his insights.

And in light of the racial injustices in our society, Levinas’ voice is one the Church needs to hear.

The Necessity of Ethics

In order to understand Levinas, we have to understand his approach to philosophy. Levinas believes that ethics is the primary plane of human existence and should be the starting point of philosophical thought. As he explains,

For the philosophical tradition of the West every relation between the same and the other, when it is no longer an affirmation of the supremacy of the same, reduces itself to an impersonal relation within a universal order. Philosophy itself is identified with the substitution of ideas for persons…Existents are reduced to the neuter state of the idea, Being, the concept.[1]

In other words, Levinas fears that we have used philosophy to reduce humans to impersonal categories and ideas.

In light of the racial injustices in our society, Levinas’ voice is one the Church needs to hear.

Yet we are primarily relational creatures. We are not brains on sticks that live extracted, contemplative lives, but are dynamic and dependent beings. Therefore, ethics (how we relate to others) should not be a tacked-on application to theoretical thought, but a primary focus. Levinas warns that failing to prioritize ethics in philosophy is dangerous and dehumanizing, a reality he experienced first hand as a Jew during World War II.

Our Love of Sameness

Even though we are by nature relational beings, Levinas thinks there is something inside of us that resists and even resents this fact. He says we often have an allergic reaction to alterity, or difference. This means we feel comfortable when there is “sameness” around us. We prefer groups of friends who are “like minded” because we avoid having to think beyond our own paradigm or be challenged from within it.

Evangelicals are not immune to “sameness.” We may choose churches based on the way they cater to our seasons of life or stylistic preferences. Or, we may think sheltering our kids from conflicting worldviews or lifestyles will strengthen their beliefs.

When there is a “rupture” (or disturbance) in our groups, institutions or families, we automatically consider it a threat to be removed. Sometimes we react through flight: We change our friends, switch churches, disown family members or even move to the other side of the railroad tracks. Other times we react through domination: We make the Other, that foreign invader, look and think just like us before we accept him. According to Levinas, when we do this, we impose “sameness” and, consequently, kill the other. Both of these reactions to the Other are violent and oppressive and should be rejected.

Encountering the Other

In his book Totality and Infinity, Levinas offers another description of what an ethical encounter with the Other looks like. His description is based on the necessity of breaking the egoism of the “I”: to no longer be centered on ourselves and our own preferences but to create space for another who is different. In order to do this, we need to begin to see the Other not as a threat to our comfortable, encapsulated worlds but as a gift and means for our own growth.

1. The Appeal of the Other
As we go through life we are constantly confronted by the Other, the one who is different from me. Levinas uses the imagery of the face of the Other to describe how this confrontation happens. He says we are given numerous opportunities to look into the human face of someone else. When we see the face of the Other, we see their humanity. We look into their eyes and see something deeply sacred and precious — something we have no right to dominate or possess. It is only when we have this personal encounter that we begin to actually see them as an individual that breaks our previously held stereotypes and generalizations about them.

Levinas says that through the face of the Other he or she makes a specific plea: “do not kill me.” He says this both literally and metaphorically. Those involved in combat know that they can only kill another human being if they do not allow themselves to see them as human but as part of the category of “enemy” or “threat.” They cannot look at their face; their eyes cannot meet.

When we do find ourselves face-to-face with the Other, according to Levinas, we experience their appeal to us. At this moment, we must decide if we are going to look away and continue to see them as an impersonal category to expel or if we will see the Other as a person, as an individual.

2. Listening to the Other
If we decide we will not disregard the face of the other, Levinas says the next thing that we must do is allow ourselves to be addressed. In order to listen to the Other, we have to release our belief that we have them figured out or that we have somehow acquired a height of understanding that overcomes all experience and perspective. A problem with stereotypes and generalizations is they lead us to mistakenly believe that we fully understand other people. If we want to listen to the Other, we must release our belief that we know what they are like, what their experiences have been, and how they are. We must suspend the categories we impose on them and allow them to address us first.

The second thing we must do in order to allow ourselves to be addressed by the Other is to learn to be quiet. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this the ministry of listening. He writes,

There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despise the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person.[2]

A face-to-face encounter with the Other compels me to let go of my previously held generalizations about the individual in front of me. It also confronts my delusion that I have somehow acquired a height of understanding that overcomes all experience and perspective. It invites me to consider that my words and thoughts are not the greatest gift to the world but that I can be changed, matured and transformed by the Other’s address to me. Hearing their perspective, their experiences, their dreams (and the obstacles to those dreams) confronts my former impressions and causes me to question whether or not my actions toward them have been life-giving or violent.

Taking on the posture of a listener opens up the incurvature of myself, my closed, self-centered existence. It allows me to see beyond my own world and question my own impact on others. It makes me the receiver, not the dominator, and I become better for it.

Will we lay our rights down out of love for our neighbor?

3. Welcoming the other
After we have allowed ourselves to be addressed by the other and let their words check our own hearts, we then must decide if we will strive to maintain our own rights, preferences and comforts in the name of “freedom” — or if we will serve the Other. Will we lay our rights down out of love for our neighbor? Do we expect the Other to serve us, or will we chose to serve the Other even if it means giving up our own “freedom”? As Bonhoeffer asks, are we free to be for ourselves or are we free for the purpose of being-for-others? These are bold-faced questions we must all ask ourselves, particularly in a world marked by the demand for power, control and superiority.

The Responsibility of the Christian

Dietrich Bonhoeffer shares many of the same ideas and methodologies as Emmanuel Levinas, but he has an answer Levinas cannot offer. The world Levinas describes in which the “I” encounters the Other with hospitality and not violence isn’t possible on our own. We are utterly incapable of relating to each other in a non-violent way apart from the work of Christ. Levinas shows us what encounter with the Other should be like, but Bonhoeffer shows us how this encounter is possible.

We know that human beings are image bearers of the triune God, which means that each life is sacred and a gift. When we reduce each other to impersonal categories we deny that very image and seek to remove its dignity and sacredness. The face of the Other uniquely reminds us that the person in front of us is made in the imago Dei. As a result, we have the responsibility of protecting and affirming the dignity of the Other.

The face of the Other reminds us that their life matters.

Conclusion

Levinas’ description of the violent oppression of the Other is a strikingly accurate portrait of the fallen world, our present society being no exception. When we hear “Black Lives Matter” do we hear a plea from the Other saying, “do not kill me”? Do we recognize this plea both literally and metaphorically?  Are we willing to release both our willful ignorance and our delusion of understanding all perspectives, our love affair with sameness and our allergic reaction to difference? Will we look into the faces of this movement and see representatives of the imago Dei who must be heard?

Will we listen, or will we simply continue to talk?

[1] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1991), 87-88.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 98.  

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  • diversity
  • philosophy
  • race
Amber Bowen

Amber Bowen holds a PhD in Philosophy (University of Aberdeen) and is Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Core Studies at Redeemer University.

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