Mission and the problem of ‘othering’

Mission and the problem of ‘othering’

We live in a world that organises itself largely around ‘us’ and ‘them’. Under pressure from impacts of globalisation, communities and nations have retreated to social organisation that highlights difference. This default position of defining belonging over against the ‘other’ has often resulted in some form of hostilities as ‘we’ try to defend ‘us’ from ‘them’. 

It is not uncommon for societies to organise and create languages of identity and belonging around difference and sameness. In this blog I want to ask myself, and us together, some questions about how practices around making the good news of the Kingdom of God known rely on creation of the ‘other’, and what are the implications of that for the message of God’s love and inclusion into his community, into his family.

For many years now I have been disturbed by Lila Abu Lughod’s essay and subsequent book, ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?’. Abu Lughod challenges the perception that Muslim women need rescuing. She describes how often social and human rights’ issues are used to justify political, social and religious interventions. For me, Abu Lughod’s thesis is an indictment on ‘othering’ that is used to justify rescue-interventions.

I’ve been listening to myself, and communities that I belong to who are committed to seeing the Kingdom of God come among our Muslim friends, and I am concerned. I am concerned that in the language of mission today, we justify our existence by creating the ‘other’, defining them as needy and setting out on a rescue mission.

If mission does not exist because of the needs of the world why does it exist you might ask. I would reframe it like this: mission exists for the the glory of God, for the blessing of the nations as we participate with God in what he is doing, and that the name of the Lord God might be known among the nations. I have no doubt that does not capture everything, but we exist in mission because of God, for God and at the call of God into what he is doing. For myself, I want to be able to change language that justifies my existence because someone is different, needy. When I know that what I do is because of God, because of what he is doing in his world, I am no longer in a position of power, control, authority, or superiority.

And so I have been trying to explore the way Jesus interacted with women that did not ‘other’ them, what stories he told that challenge the way we identify those who are ‘us’ and those who are ‘them’.

Perhaps I need to be clear: I do believe that the good news that God wants to be known, live in relationship with us and has made that possible after we shamed and dishonoured him with our disobedience is a story to be shared. I passionately want to engage with God and his world so that everyone has that opportunity to know God. The good news is good news for everyone. God is about making his name known.

My question is this: how do I bless the nations, live and speak and serve and act so that the name of Almighty God is proclaimed? How do I make disciples without ‘othering’ people who have not yet encountered or known God as he wants to reveal himself? How do I do this with my Muslim sisters?

Too often I hear myself talk of my Muslim sisters in terms of their need, their brokenness, their impoverishment, their weakness, their victimisation. Issues like FGM (female genital mutilation), honour crimes, lack of access (often) to health and education resources, patriarchy, lack of rights, legal abuses are all real challenges in many parts of our world. Women who live under Islam are among those who must negotiate issues like these every day. Whether living cross-culturally, or in my country of origin, I want to understand how the gospel can be lived so that there are neither Jew nor Greek, ethnic differences not defining who we are; male nor female, gender differences not defining who we are; slave nor free, social status not defining who we are.

There is a parable Jesus tells and an encounter he has with an outsider that are helping reshape my relationship with my Muslim friends: the Good Samaritan and the Syrophoenician woman.

This parable and this encounter both demonstrate that difference still exists, but assert that difference is not a wall of exclusion that separates. Jesus shows that difference does not diminish the one who would normally be excluded.  The Samaritan traveller and the Syrophoenician woman become the proclaimers of good news that neither ethnicity, gender nor social status, that not even these most fundamental differences diminish identity and belonging in Christ. Whereas ‘othering’ creates a power and prestige imbalance, embedding control (and often domination) in the hands of ‘us’, Jesus proclaims in these two stories that it is those we so often define as the ‘other’ who show us the truth of humble obedience and service as the lived good news.

The disciples reaction to the Syrophoenician woman demonstrates how living in an ‘us’ and ‘them’ world distorts power and authority through a lens of presumptuous arrogance. Jesus’ disturbing language confronts his disciples (and us) with the practical implications of their theology. It shouts to us that theology and missiology that exclude the other is empty of Jesus who loves the outsider, enters their world and says that right there, in that place, they belong and are recipients of his love and care and mercy and compassion. The journey that Jesus takes both his disciples and this woman on leads away from embedded difference. He shows his disciples, and the woman (and us), how the abuse of difference blinds us to the inclusivity of his compassion, blessing and benefits. He moves us from ‘othering’ to inclusion, from ‘us’ and ‘them’ to ‘we’, from outsider to belonging.

When a Samaritan man risks everything in the territory of his enemies, those who diminished him and his people as rejected outsiders, as ‘them’, Jesus invites us to explore who really is the ‘other’. He shows us how to negotiate difference through radical love that does not allow difference to builds walls that divide our world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. Most of us would love to see ourselves as the Samaritan man, risking all to serve others, indeed we strive to practice such sacrificial service. However, I wonder if we understand that the Samaritan acted from the place of the excluded outsider, without power, from the margins. He embraced the wounded traveller and carried his burden, identifying with him. He brought what he had and made it available to another.

In both of these stories Jesus reminds us that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the face of the challenging brokenness of our world, only ‘we’. It is a ‘we’ that he has shown us is incarnational. It is a ‘we’ that does not obliterate difference, but does not allow difference to build walls of division, walls that are sometimes as much in attitudes as actions. It is a ‘we’ that shares the brokenness of our fallenness and blessing of God’s invitation to know him. It is a ‘we’ that embraces the other with love for my neighbour and my enemy. 

So, how does this change the way I relate to my Muslim sisters? Does it? I want to move away from ‘othering’ Muslim women, from identifying them as needy in a way that sees myself as bringing what is needed to rescue them, from creating power differentials. I also want to value and spend more time getting to know them. They will not be the ‘other’ when I know them as people who I am in relationship with. I want to explore together shared issues that challenge us as women, injustices and evils that alienate us from God and each other and how faith and God speak to our brokenness. I want to learn from my Muslim sisters who are exemplars and teachers. I want to acknowledge our differences without letting them build barriers. I want to learn to love both my neighbour and my enemy because that seems to be God’s response to those we would brand the ‘other’.



  1. https://www.goodsams.org.au/who-we-are/shaped-by-a-parable/
  2. https://cacina.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/carry-the-gospel-with-you-964/

(c) When Women Speak … July 2018

CH spent nearly three decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and was part of Interserve’s International Leadership for nine years. Her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).

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