For the last week or so, every news outlet, media source, and social media platform has been focused on a vulgarity: s#@thole. My apologies upfront for even approximating the term. But I write today not to spread the term but address how it reveals our broken humanity.
Whether the President used the term when referring to other nations and people of the world is up for debate – though it doesn’t seem a very forceful debate. Those who have mounted a defense have done so weakly. Two witnesses from both sides of the aisle seem to affirm the incident. When you add to this the question, “Does this seem like something the President would say?” the answer for me is, “Yes, it seems in charachter.” I’m not surprised or shocked, sadly. It does trouble me that he (or anyone) would think such ill of other cultures and nations and people as to dismiss them so easily. But then we do this all the time, don’t we?
You see, one of the things that supporters of the President like about him is that he says what they are thinking. That’s what makes this an issue of broken humanity for me. This language expresses an attitude of negation; it negates the humanity and dignity of people based on their suffering, their differences, their lack of what we consider normal. Now, before you say “Yeah, that’s the problem” with too much self-righteousness, ask yourself a couple of questions. Have I ever thought about people in Haiti or Africa or some other remote place thinking, “Oh, those poor creatures who live such a wretched life, I’m glad I’m not like them?” Or, have you ever driven into a neighborhood where the people are a different shade of human and live in houses less than your own and checked to make sure the doors were locked, wondering whether all of them were about to attack? That’s negation. Negation is the opposite of what God is about.
I once listened to two affluent women studying the congregation’s Christmas “Adopt-a-Family” lists on a bulletin board. They were nice, normal folks like you and me. They didn’t know I was behind them. They both agreed (loudly) that granting the request for a Barbie doll to a little girl was not going to happen. “How will she know she’s poor if she has everything?” one said. Negation.
Every year I drove into Chicago to teach preachers, someone who knew the city would ask where I was teaching. I would explain that it was on the south side of the city, in Hyde Park. A conversation about roadways would reveal that I would likely traverse Garfield east, off the Dan Ryan. The response was always something like, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that neighborhood.” Negation. Do the neighborhoods look like mine? No. Are folks in that place struggling economically? Some are, some aren’t. Are there drug addicts there? Sure, just like suburbia – heard of the opioid crisis? The truth is that the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago is an affluent, educated area where I would reside in a minute.
Whenever we give quarter to the notion that “those people” in “those places” are less than we are, we negate the divine in them. Whenever we evaluate another place or culture as less than our own because they don’t have all the material wealth we have, we negate ourselves because “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
The “s#@thole” mentality is a manifestation of the black hole of brokenness that threatens to swallow us up in hate and division. It is the black hole of judgment that negates whole countries, neighborhoods, and people while falsely inflating our own worth. It is expressed not just crude and vulgar terms as we’ve seen in the news but in the faux pity and patronizing compassion of people who have much who look down on people who don’t. This spiritual black hole not only negates those we classify, but it swallows up the divine in us too.
copyright © 2018, Timothy V. Olson