Conflict, Forgiveness, and Seeing The Truth of The Other: Why and How Faith in Times of War Must Look Beyond Symbols

In his book Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11th September and Its Aftermath, Rowan Williams says that when we only see humans as “symbols”, we do not see their living reality and true humanity. We see them as “other” from us. War makes this worse and leads to death.

To overcome this, a vision is needed which sees humanity’s truth and sees what all humanity shares. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology points towards such a vision. By understanding the human in relation to Christ, the truth of the other and what all humans share can be seen. This Christological vision leads us to understand that the humanity Christ assumes in the incarnation is the same humanity which we and other people all share. This humanity is loved eternally by God. Christians must reject systems which “abstract” true humanity. We must instead see the truth of the human reality of the other, especially in war.

Rowan Williams warns us of the danger of true human reality being concealed by symbols. For example, when other humans are described by a group as diabolical, dangerous, or parasitic, then we see these negative symbols rather than authentic human reality.

Humans also become symbols when their suffering is used by others as a tool for thinking and making arguments. This also is worse in war. When this happens, Williams says that the real human is ‘imprisoned’ by the symbols. It becomes hard ‘to look into the complex humanity of the real other.’ Only the diminishing symbol is seen, rather than the real humans who suffer and die. The imprisonment of human realities in symbols which obscure the truth of human lives can have fatal consequences.

Williams says that Christians must resist reducing people into mere symbols, and that we must not objectify other people by using their suffering for our own purposes. Williams points to the story of Jesus and the blind man in John 9. People try to force Jesus to ascribe a meaning to the blind man’s suffering. But Jesus refuses to see him as the symbol of “blindness”. He goes beyond the mere symbols, and he loves the human before him.

Christians are to follow Jesus’ example here. In love for the neighbour, Christians must try to end the deadly way of symbolism in order to see the truth of the other. Williams says that the opposite of symbolism is seeing what is shared by humans. Thus, understanding what all humanity shares can provide a way to see beyond symbolism. When I can see what I share with the other, the symbols imposed on them grow weaker as I see the other’s truth, which is also my own truth. Williams says that acknowledging shared experience can help. I think he is correct, but instead of looking to shared experience, what all humans undergo and do, I want to look to shared reality, what all humans truly are. If we wish to overcome the problem of symbols, we must see the truth of the other and what all humans share.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understands that the truth of the other and what humanity shares can be seen by looking to Christ. Bonhoeffer thinks that all humans have a fundamental relationship to Christ.  All humans, like all creation, are created through Christ, created for Christ, and have existence only in Christ. Also, Christ is the reconciliation between God and humanity. This means that all humans have a fundamental relationship to Christ, and so a fundamental relationship to God in and through Christ as well. Developing this idea of Bonhoeffer’s, we can look at the relationships between Christ and the Father and Christ and humanity to learn about our fundamental humanity. And these relationships, with Christ and through Christ with the Father, are something we all share. If we see other people through the lens of these relationships, we can see them not just as symbols but as they truly are in Christ.

Two examples from Bonhoeffer. First, the incarnational point: every human everywhere at every time has the same humanity which Christ took on. Second, every human being is the object of God’s eternal love. Every person whom we are tempted to see as just a symbol is in fact one for whom Christ became human, suffered the passion, and rose. Bonhoeffer expresses the effect of this Christological vision in his Life Together: ‘the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of the one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner’. So, looking at the other with a Christological vision, we are reminded that the other truly has the humanity which Christ assumes; and that the other is truly loved by God. All of us share in these truths.

Bonhoeffer’s understanding is a possible solution to the problem Williams describes. We can see people through their relationship to Christ, rather than seeing them only through oppressive symbols. This unites us to people we are tempted to see as “other” to us. The reality of the incarnation and the reality of God’s love is always true for all people.

However, in times of war the obscuring of this human reality is made worse. If Christians are to see the truth of humanity in times of war, we must try and stop using the language of symbols and death. If we can see the truth of our shared humanity, there is the possibility of a common meaning and language. And this, we can hope, may lead to peace. It is beyond my capacity to suggest concrete policy or action for war based on this understanding. My point here is that Christian faith in times of war should look to the truth of the other and what humans share, as seen in Christ, beyond the symbols in which human reality is imprisoned.

Williams outlines how symbols obscure human reality. Following Jesus’ example, Christians should reject such symbols and instead see the true human reality. Bonhoeffer’s theology offers a Christological way to do this: our shared truth is found in our relationship to Christ. Christians should take up this Christological vision (of humanity assumed and humanity loved) in order to cut across the deadly symbols of war, in the hope of bringing about a shared meaning and, eventually, peace.

Dylan Brooks is currently a student at the University of Cambridge completing an MPhil in Theology, Religion and Philosophy of Religion. 

One response to “Conflict, Forgiveness, and Seeing The Truth of The Other: Why and How Faith in Times of War Must Look Beyond Symbols”

  1. […] by divisions on moral discernment. It is against this backdrop that Dylan Brooks offers us the importance of seeing the truth of the other. In his essay, he warns us against the tyranny of Christian theocracy and invites us to see the […]


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