“There, but for the grace of God, go I” is a saying that I have long appreciated. The awareness to look at someone in a difficult situation and know that it is only because of the mystery of God’s will, a twist of fate, a different role of the dice, that you are not in that situation yourself. It could just as easily be me.
This philosophy came further into relief for me over the past couple of weeks due to a couple of news stories in the world, that I happened to have a tangential connection with from my travels almost exactly a year ago.
The first was the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10. The flight was en route from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, Kenya and I happened to have flown that same route on Ethiopian Airlines almost exactly a year earlier. As it turns out, I don’t believe the airline was flying the new Max-8 planes at the time, so it is not like I had been at any elevated risk or anything. However, when one realizes a connection like that, even if rather tenuous, it gets you thinking about what could have been if things had been slightly different.
As fate would also have it, that same day I was flying on Ethiopian airlines, I sat next to a fellow world traveler on my flight into Addis Ababa. We were both travelling to Africa from India, and spent much of the flight swapping travel stories. We then exchanged information and have maintained the typical Facebook friendship of random people whose paths happened to have briefly crossed.
Last weekend, he posted on Facebook about his cousins, a family of Syrian refugees. On Wednesday, two of his cousins, a father and son, were the first of the Christchurch victims to be buried. Victims of unadulterated hate. Whenever such tragedies occur, especially on the other side of the world, it is only natural to put up mental defenses and distance yourself from them. However, when you find yourself slightly connected, even by a couple of degrees of separation, it elevates the reality of the situation.
“There, but for the grace of God, go I”
But I am not referring this philosophy to possible connections to tragedies and close-calls. I am writing this about the toxic worldview that the shooter has and that far too many people in the world share, albeit in often more subtle ways. This evil concept of superiority and contempt for the other.
That evil is the exact opposite of the philosophy espoused by the phrase “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
I happened to have been born a straight, white, Christian, male in middle-class America. I had nothing to do with that. Even most of my morality has more to do with how I was raised by my family, as opposed to anything I did on my own. This was all the accident of my birth, fate, the grace of God.
I could just as easily have been born gay, or black, or Muslim, or female, or in poverty, or in a war-torn country. I could just as easily have been born into a broken family and raised in a ruthless hell-hole ruled by the law of the jungle. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
As such, I have no claim of superiority over anyone. I have no right to judge them. I could just as easily be them.
There are legitimate debates to be had about topics such as immigration and refugees. It is absolutely valid and even imperative to raise security, economic, and logistical concerns.
However, if and when you begin to think of yourself as somehow better than those that are different; if you look at and speak about immigrants (legal or illegal) and refugees as somehow beneath you, as invading pests; you are crossing the line between legitimate concern and illegitimate hate.
So please remember, whenever talking to or about people of a different religion, or ethnicity, or gender, or economic status, or sexual orientation, or political affiliation, you could just as easily be them, if not for the workings of fate. Therefore, we all need to maintain humility in light of that fact.
To take it to a higher level, we even need to remember it when discussing and dealing with people who are seduced by hateful philosophies. We must remember that if we were in their position, we may also feel similarly. Therefore, we must not match hate with hate, but, rather, find ways to bring them around and reconnect them with the common humanity they share with others.
In the end, we must refrain from judgement and feeling of superiority towards anyone. Because whatever my situation may be and whatever your situation may be, our situations could just as easily be switched. And it is especially critical to remember this as we consider people who find themselves struggling and desperate for a better life. Because they, but for the grace of God, are us.