Persons, Not Categories

In the face of yet another story of police brutality, in the face of a chilling story in Dallas of brutality against the police; in the face of an attack on a night club in Orlando that styles itself as a haven for gays (to use their label, not mine); and in the face of what seems to be a rising tide of civil unrest these days, there is understandably a great deal of concern about the state of society.

As usual in our current culture, whose ruling elites and media have intentionally abandoned key elements of the Christian lexicon and worldview, when these sorts of things happen we are quick to resort to modern or secular explanations for bad behaviors.

The classic Christian answer to why ostensibly innocent people are brutally mistreated by people in authority has to do with sin and evil, which is made manifest by individual persons, who willingly choose to commit acts that violate human dignity and are contrary to the goodness of ourselves and our Creator.

More plainly:  people choose to commit sins. They do so for a variety of reasons, but the objective reality of evil is the same.

The Christian answer to sin has always been grace. Grace is given in a variety of forms, not the least of which is the moral law that is written on all of our hearts.  More profoundly and radically, grace comes from friendship with Christ in a manner that is personal, unique, unrepeatable, and transformative.

If one abandons those understandings of sin and grace, then new causes and cures for social ills and destructive acts have to be invented, or if nothing else over emphasized to compensate for the loss of what should be an authentic understanding of the world and of humanity.

What Racial Politics Obscures

The present set of events in our nation surrounding police killings, violence against the police, the prevalence of the rush to capture it all on film in order to humiliate and embarrass others, suicide attacks, etc, etc, are all very sad.  Soul searching is indeed in order.

But, while we are busy soul searching, it would be important to recognize that a lot of our own secular cultural rhetoric is fanning the flames of these problems.

Right now we are speaking almost exclusively in labels and categories.  “Blacks,” “whites,” “the police,” etc.  This is how the entire cultural and media reaction is being shaped and framed.  This is a race relations issue we are told, again and again.

The more we are told its all about race, the more our thinking and rhetoric becomes more and more about race.  And the more that happens, the less and less we think in terms of individual persons.  And the less we think in terms of individual persons, the more quickly and easily we demonize, and do violence against other people because we have put them in a category.

Conversely, the more we begin to assign ourselves into categories that have been given, or are seeking, a kind of protective legal or social status, the more easily we act out in ways that are immoral precisely because we feel that we are entitled to act that way in virtue of our category.

To be honest, it seems likely that some blacks have intentionally pushed the boundaries with police precisely because they have been made to believe that their category (being black) entitles them to do so in the face of what is perceived to be an oppressive category (the police).

Similarly, it also seems likely that some police have used their necessary power and authority inappropriately against weaker and poorer members of society because they have felt entitled by their status, or category, to do so.   It is not uncommon for people in professions of authority to do so.

But, rather than addressing this reality in the language of “person,” “individual,” “action,” “sin,” “conversion,” and “grace,” we instead retreat into the language of “group,” “category,” “profession” and the like.   We do so because it is easier to demonize groups than it is to take a difficult look at persons and at responsibility.

If this is all about race, then on some level, the individuals in the categories (police, whites, blacks) do not have to bear responsibility any more.  Group-think takes over in a very convenient avoidance of the need for personal change.   The race rhetoric is an escape on the most fundamental of levels, even if on the surface it does factor into the problem at hand.

Category and Identity Politics Has Taken Over

Something of the same can be said about our ongoing cultural debate about same sex attraction, bathrooms, marriage, and gender identity.  The root cause of the explosion over this issue is in many ways the result of our modern lust for categorization.   Everyone needs to be in a group so that they can gain some type of protective status.   And if you are not in a group, then extreme pressure is exerted to identity as a member of one.

“Gay” is a group term.  So is “transexual” or “transgendered.”  And if one does not like that category, we are forced to keep inventing newer and better subsets of it.

Once in a group, a certain freedom from any personal responsibility for actions takes over because the group identity becomes more important than the person’s.  A person is lost in the group identity and ceases to truly be themselves.  They also cannot be rescued or changed because the group status means more than a personal identity and a will.

What is worse, the more we think in terms of categories and groups, the more quickly we fracture what should be an established, stabilizing, and over-arching group or category namely: “American.”  The modern world has found it helpful to think in terms of nationalism and states to foster common bonds and identity, but all of that is in jeopardy now because we have chosen to elevate every other possible sub group (hispanic, black, gay, transgendered, etc) by suppressing what was once the larger, deeper category of common American identity.

It is no accident that the social unrest surrounding identity and group politics has grown to acute levels under the Obama Administration.  The reason is not so much because he is black (which is a category) but more because as a person, he has made the free choice to make identity politics, of a variety of groups, one of the center pieces of his agenda, including being elected on that basis.  The more he, and the elites around him, choose to respond to these issues by speaking more and more about categories, the worse the problem is going to become.

Speaking in categories forms camps.  Camps form riots.  Camps form group-think mentalities that lead members of groups to push the boundaries of decency and act out in ways that are irresponsible and dangerous.  The smoke screen of all of this obscures the person by person reality of the fact that some police officers, as individuals, are corrupt.  This as opposed to “the police” are corrupt. And, some blacks, as individuals, are violent and rude.  This as opposed to “blacks” are… insert trait.   And, some whites, as individuals, have dangerous superiority complexes.   On and on we can go, but, only if we consider persons before we consider categories, and not the reverse.

The Authentic Christian Response

Personhood as a concept is suffering in every cultural sector these days.  The debate about abortion turns around this point.  It is sad to realize that the real enemies of “Black Lives” are not the police, but the abortion industry in the inner cities.  The debates about gender, marriage, and sexual ethics are also all about personhood.  As is the current debate about race.

The authentic Christian response to all of this is not to think in categories but in terms of persons.   For example, we do not prefer the term “gay” because that is a category.  Instead we speak in terms of persons who have same sex attraction.

True,  even the Christians have sometimes undergone a painful journey of purification over our occasional retreats into categorization, but ultimately what has always rescued us is the central Christian claim that God treats each of us as unique and unrepeatable people.

When we think in terms of persons we also think in terms of sin and grace.  Good decisions and bad decisions.  Law and consequences.  Conversion of hearts from sinful patterns of thinking or living.  All of these realities are effective means of change.

A secular culture will continue to speak in categories because it has no choice but to do so.  That is why Christianity, along with personhood rightly understood, is in direct opposition to state sanctioned secularism as it is currently being practiced and legislated in this country.

A regime of the type that we are now living under in America has no solution to these problems because it is not capable of addressing them at their most fundamental level.  Which means it is only going to get worse before it gets better.

In the meantime, it would be very wise of the Christian community in this country to intentionally step around the secular vocabulary that is currently so popular (“race,” “tolerance,” etc), and quickly return to our classic understandings of personhood and actions so that we can offer the culture the truth of perspective that it desperately needs right now.  Only in that way can we save the culture from itself, and the save the rest of us along with it.


About Father Nathan Reesman

On Twitter: @FatherReesman Father Nathan Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, ordained in 2006. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin. Father Reesman is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, obtaining his Bachelors of Arts in Political Science in the year 2000. He completed his seminary studies at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2006, obtaining a Masters of Divinity. Father Reesman completed post-graduate studies at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, obtaining a Doctor of Ministry in 2019.
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