Alienation and Estrangement

Two words have come to mind recently: alienation and estrangement.  To be alienated from something or someone carries with it a sense of danger, enmity, and not simply of not belonging.  It doesn’t have to.  We travel internationally a bit, which means that we are aliens in each country we visit.  Being an alien doesn’t by itself imply any moral or ethical challenge.  It’s just who we are when we are visitors in a place other than our own.  Perhaps as scripture suggests, we are all aliens living as temporary residents in a place that is not our home (Psalm 39 for instance).  If that could be more fully comprehended, maybe we wouldn’t feel so alienated.  But alienation means more.  It means that between those who are alienated from one another stands distrust, dislike, fear, and threat.  The same might be said for estrangement.  Many who have come for counseling have talked about their estrangement from members of their family.  It’s a heartbreaking confession.  Persons who should have been able to show intimate affection for each other have become strangers.  Indeed, they have become enemy aliens to each other.  It has made them suspicious of intimate affection with others, expecting to see in the other an enemy alien.

These darker strains of alienation and estrangement have come to dominate our social and political relationships as well.  Immigrants and resident aliens are now among the alienated in one way or another.  Friends and neighbors have become politically estranged from one another.  Not that we have fallen from a nobler, more righteous time when we expressed a more generous welcome to those not like ourselves.  We were never that good.  What has changed is our ability to express our feelings of alienation and estrangement to a vast audience with accelerating velocity.  Here is an interesting example that helps explain what I mean.  It’s a citation from a 1934 mystery novel by Basil Thomson that has little to do with the story, but is the author’s aside about the social attitudes of his time.

“It’s these foreign dagos that make all the trouble,” he said at last. “Why, when they began recruiting for the army in the war (WWI), a bunch of men volunteered who couldn’t speak a word of English among the lot. Why did they come to America? Why, because their own countries had got too hot to hold them. Among our gangsters you’ll find Poles and Italians and Czechs and Russians and Irish, but you can count the born Americans on the fingers of one hand. And now we’ve let them in we can’t get them out. I tell you we’ve turned God’s own country into a cesspool for all the trash in Europe…”

This attitude of alienation and estrangement held by one person could be shared by him with only a few others at a time.  He did not have the ability to go online broadcasting it to millions of others across the globe, linking through them with others of like mind whom he would otherwise have never met.  What this unimportant character in a seldom read book declared from the 1930s is not all that different from what was said in the centuries before, nor in the decades since.  What is different is our ability to declare it with the click of a button to an enormous audience.

The progressive advent of books, pamphlets, newspapers, telephone, radio, and television, together with progress in speedier, more efficient forms of transportation, made the sharing of ideas between larger audiences easier and easier as the centuries passed.  Nevertheless, until the internet made modern social media possible, private citizens were limited in their ability to share their beliefs with others.  For the most part it was limited to conversation between people who lived in local communities among others much like themselves.  That’s no longer true.  Now we can share, ignoring social filters if we like, whatever we think or believe with an enormous world wide audience of unknown others.

It means attitudes and beliefs that may have been widely held but limited in their distribution  can now be freely distributed without constraint.  It means social standards about what should be left unsaid for the sake of good manners can be ignored.  For good, for ill, for some mix of the two, for the utterly banal, there is no impediment to instantaneously sharing with the whole world.  Its a new thing realized only in the last twenty years, and it has a lot to do with the intensity of alienation and estrangement felt by so many of us.  My neighbor, a nice guy, a person to trust, with whom backyard conversations were always genial, could be tolerated because he kept is idiotic beliefs inside his house, and knew better than to inflict them on me while leaning across the fence.  That guy is now speaking his asinine mind to the whole world.  He’s become an embarrassment to the neighborhood, and an offense to people like me who think and do right.  And I’ve said so on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and two or three others.  What a surprise to discover there are other jerks out there who agree with him, and can you believe the abuse they have heaped on me?  For what?  For telling the truth?  OK, two can play that game.  And so it goes.  Alienation and estrangement; it doesn’t take much to incite it between otherwise decent people.  Objectifying the alienness and strangeness of issues and beliefs about them generates increasingly hostile language made public to everyone.

When Hannah Arendt wrote about The Human Condition in the mid 1950s, she noted that public awareness of scientific discoveries forced humanity to recognize they were no longer the center of the universe, nor was their sun, their earth, their nation, nor, perhaps, even their species.  She said it made them aware of how alienated they were from the wholeness of the universe and all that is in it.  As one commentator put it, “our earth-centered view is illusory.”  I doubt that the public at large cared about what she thought.  Whatever it was that they identified as alien and estranged did not live in their neighborhood, were not their friends, and were unimportant in their lives.  They had lived through the estranged alienation of the war.  Things were back to normal.  Arendt was just another academic no one ever heard of.  Whoever Arendt’s public was, they were not in it.  Everyone knew how to keep in their place and get along.

It all changed with the Vietnam War and civil rights movement, at least in the U.S.   Social conventions that had held things together were disintegrating.  Proposed replacements were unacceptable.  Expressions of dissatisfaction became the fodder of cable T.V. and talk radio, and with  arrival of the internet and social media the public could express the fullness of their discontent themselves.  Arendt’s alienation exploded across the globe in the voices of tea parties, anarchists, bigots of every variety, traditional conservatives and liberals, and every group of persons who had long suffered at the margins of society.  We have not learned how to deal with it.  It’s been fifty years and we still don’t have a mutually acceptable set of social standards by which to reweave the fabric of society, but we do have an efficient, effective way to keep alienation and estrangement going strong.  Is there a way out?

We have been given some guidance that may be of help.  Maybe it’s time to pay attention to it.  Consider an excerpt from the prophet Isaiah who offered these words from God as the people who had been in exile for a long time began to prepare for their return to Jerusalem.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isa. 56.6-7)

It wasn’t long after that other prophets rejected such foolishness, and advised barring aliens from having any intercourse at all with God’s good people.  It seemed to make sense at the time.  If you want to live in safety secure the borders, don’t let the aliens in, be strict about the rules of society, then everything will be OK.  Centuries later Jesus came along to put it right; God created the universe in love.  Everything and everybody in it is loved.  Let there be no barrier, no stumbling block, to prevent any person from being welcomed into the presence of God’s love. Tear down that which separates one from another.  If that is true, then those of us who claim to be Christian must, as we are able, lay aside alienation and estrangement, welcoming all who would accept the welcome, not rejecting those who would reject us, and breaking down walls of estrangement that make strangers of friends.

St. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Galatians: “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”  These things are easier said than done.  It requires surrender of  fear, willing vulnerability, and trust in God’s grace.  The cost can be high.  It’s tempting to roll out other passages that condemn certain behaviors in order to complain about people we deem guilty of them.  Stop it!  Is there another way?  Our faith says there isn’t, so let’s get on with it.

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