Its become the trend in the last few years for Dictonary.com to announce their ‘Word of the Year’, the word that they feel is most relevant or trending to the year. Past years words have included ‘Privacy’ (2013), ‘Exposure’ (2014) and ‘Identity’ (2015). 2016’s Word of the Year?
2016’s Word of the Year?
Just let that sink in for a moment. It is “not a word to be celebrated” . Xenophobia means: fear of the other, panic of the stranger. Web users interest in the word spiked in June after the UK voted to leave the European Union and Dictonary.com cite the rise in hate crime afterwards, the divisive nature of the US election campaign, the Syrian refugee crisis and the French government’s anti-burkini legislation, as a few of many reasons why the word has resonated so much throughout 2016.
Fear of the other. Like many others, I grew up learning about the Holocaust and the atrocities of Nazi Germany, learning about them with disbelief that any nation could have let something like that happen. Yet when genocide happens, it always begins by stealth, with attitudes, not actions. The first of the ten stages of genocide is termed as “Classification”- the solidification of an “us and them” attitude. And that starts with fear of the other. If that sounds alarmist, you only need to look at history to see how rapidly events escalate to unthinkably appalling situations.
It is against this background that I came across these two viral Christmas ads. The first, by Amazon, shows a Catholic priest and an Iman sharing a very British cup of tea together and chatting away like old friends. Afterward, they both realize that they have the perfect present for each other to solve their mutual prayer problem- with a heartwarming and funny ending. This ad is so interesting in many ways, not least that it actually presents images of prayer to our secular society, but also because it shows religion in a normal and positive light. And of course, it shows a Muslim and a Christian meeting in positive circumstances, which should not be such a remarkable thing, but sadly, some of the Youtube comments below the ad suggest otherwise.
The second ad is by H&M, in partnership with the iconic movie director, Wes Anderson. Thanks to heavy snowfall, Christmas is delayed for the passengers on board the ‘H&M Winter Express’ and it requires everyone to pull together at the last minute to create festive cheer. The eclectic mix of passengers don’t appear to know one another, but even the barriers of staff and passenger are broken down by the general willingness to make the best of a difficult situation. It is glamorous, stylish and more than a little winsome, but set against the backdrop of 2016 it has a steelier message: one that it is vital that we come together.
If we think that xenophobia doesn’t relate to us, we need to look around us, because I am certain that right under our noses there will be situations that we would rather not think about, scenarios that feel too complex to attempt to attempt to do anything about, and real and genuine fears that might be pulling our hearts away from the Biblical message to “welcome the stranger”.(Hebrews 13:1). Fear is a terrible thing. Even if it is grounded in what we might see as a justifiable reason, fear is still not of God. Fear means that we lose our perspective, and when we lose our perspective where people are concerned, we risk losing our humanity. When we reach a stage where we can group people as “us and them” or comfortably clump certain people together under labels because it is easier than attempting to engage in the real issues, we run the dangerous risk of forgetting the beautiful unique worth of human life. Christ said: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matt 25:35). Let us hope- and make sure- that in 2017 we live out those words.
Small Ways You Can Fight Xenophobia
Be aware of those around you. Don’t just jump on public transport and isolate yourself in your phone or earbuds. Maybe there is someone you can see people are deliberately avoiding because of their ‘otherness’, a Muslim woman in a headscarf for example, or maybe there is someone starting a racist conversation and you can step in and defuse the situation. Maybe there is someone who you can offer to walk with so that they don’t walk alone. Perhaps there is a refugee family who you can help- not just in their first few weeks of arrival, but on into the days where the media attention dies down and they need ongoing support.
Be aware of the media you watch and read. Be discerning of the sources that you seek your news from. Be wise in what you comment on, share or dismiss. Don’t share without thinking, don’t share without reading the article! Be aware of inflammatory clickbait titles that could do more harm than good.
Pray that the Lord would uncover any hidden prejudices that you may not even be aware of in your heart. This is so uncomfortable to do, and it takes a lot of courage, but maybe the Lord is calling you to acknowledge them and then serve Him and others in trying to change them. What is God saying to you today in this? What are the priorities in the desires of your heart?
Finally, it’s worth taking a read of the commentary by Robert Reich on “Xenophobia”:
Quoted by CNN.com, Robert Reich, currently a professor at the University of California, analyzes Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year:
“Xenophobia can be seen as a reaction to a rise in globalization. Such scapegoating is not new in the history of the world, but it is dangerous,” he added, pointing out a recent blaming of diverse multi-ethnic groups for some of today’s economic and social challenges. (Xenophobia) divides us. It invites harassment and bullying. Or worse, it turns us from tolerance and empathy to disrespect and hate. It is not a word to be celebrated. It’s a sentiment to be fought.”