I have a (another) confession to make. In a previous life I was a dentist. Well it was so long ago and far away it feels like another life. But yes, for three years I was a healer of human oral tissues.
Dentistry is a controversial profession. For some reason people are fearful of going to see the dentist. Just imagine what this does to the self-image of those in the dental profession! People would come up to me and ask:” You mean you spend all your time treating teeth?” I would reply thus:” No, I don’t treat teeth. I treat people.”
Looking back the reply sounds more clever than it really is. But it did reflect a conviction I genuinely tried to follow. When someone came to see for a dental problem I tried to keep in mind that this person had feelings, a history, a life. He or she wasn’t just a cavity that needed filling. Or a tooth that needed root canal therapy. In the limited time I had, I tried to relate to the patient as a person. But even then I felt that such an approach to dentistry was not particularly appreciated unless it brought in the dollars.
As David W. Gill warns us in his book, ‘The Opening of the Christian Mind’:
“Abstraction, specialization and impersonalization can all become dehumanizing. People become faceless statistics. The speed, complexity and competitiveness of modern life make personal concern difficult. Our neighbours, clients, students, patients and colleagues remain substantially anonymous. Left to itself, the mind inclines towards care for the self above all others.”
Indeed, labels and titles conceal as much as they reveal. Just think of the many terms we use: customers, vendors, janitors, patients, clients, charismatics, Catholics, fundamentalists, pastors, divorcees, partners, evangelistic prospects, competitors, etc., etc. They tell us something about the people they refer to. And leave out so much more.
Impersonalization reaches its logical conclusion when we wage wars. Before we can wage war against a nation/people we must demonize them. Otherwise we violate our own humanity when we bomb and maim. How can we kill fellow human beings? We can’t. Unless we first believe our enemies are demons worthy of death and suffering. Just think about how Asians were portrayed in American popular culture since World War II, till quite recently – buck teethed, slant-eyed, evil fu manchus. Now they are all academic geeks or kung fu experts. That’s an improvement I guess.
Later in his book, Gill reminds us as to how followers of Jesus Christ should relate to others. They should “be concerned with whole persons, including their minds, souls and spirits as well as bodies, their dignity and history, and their interpersonal and environmental relationships.”
Gill wrote his book in 1989. It is safe to say that the pace of life has picked up somewhat since then. Therefore it is a real challenge to take the effort to relate to people as people, in our daily interactions.
I was having lunch with a friend who had done well in the public relations industry. He frankly admitted that it was easier to act humanly to potential clients when he was trying to sign them up. After he had signed them up he found himself relating to them quite mechanically, automatically doing what needed to be done to get the work done. He said it was tough to discipline himself to treat each person he interacted with, with full humanity, in the crazy demands of today’s business world.
I told him I had no easy answers for him. I told him that some days would be better than others. I told him, as I tell myself, “don’t give up the fight.” I take it that living by kingdom values this side of heaven will always be a tension. The Scriptures tell us: “Don’t let evil get the best of you, but conquer evil by doing good.” Romans 12:21 NLT
I guess one key way we do this in today’s world is by remembering that every human being carries the image of the divine. Yes, that image has been marred by sin but it is there nevertheless. Therefore the way we treat another human being is as good an indicator as any, as to what we truly think about God.
Your brother, SooInn