Othering is the term Charles Bellinger uses to analyze instances of prejudice, bias, and violence directed against individuals and groups, where antipathy can escalate to attacks and even genocide. Bellinger situates his analysis within what he concedes is a trendy use of the term in academic writing, but he hopes to dive deeper into the reasons for why the human race continues to engage in othering and what can be done.
Othering: The Original Sin of Humanity uses four lenses to give a wide perspective on the phenomenon of othering: anthropology, history, the discourse of rights, and theology. The last is not the least, since Bellinger’s objective is to connect othering with sin. Addressed throughout the book is the act of sinful othering he considers to be particularly heinous: abortion.
The anthropological analysis (chapter 1) is cursory, a mere six pages. Nevertheless, one of Bellinger’s points is directly applicable to the culture wars today. His discussion of how racism is an attempt by whites to situate people of color lower on the “Great Chain of Being” (13) is implicitly a plea for more attentiveness to those who analyze issues of race and difference.
Bellinger’s longest chapter (chapter 2) is about the history of othering. He uses the noble ideas of the Declaration of Independence to expose how he believes America has fallen short—in particular, by abandoning the founders’ belief in God and giving in to moral relativism. The result has been many forms othering, such as slavery, lynchings, war, and xenophobia. Bellinger bemoans the moral relativism of elites in power, as exemplified by the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, which he sees as nullification of the will of the populace regarding same-sex marriage. Bellinger traces the roots of moral relativism all the way back to the nominalism of the medieval philosopher William of Ockham, though I think scholars of medieval thought might take issue with the claim that nominalism led to attenuating “the spiritual connection with God” (53).
Bellinger, a notable pro-life writer, devotes nearly a third of chapter 2 to various aspects of the abortion debate. He addresses what he thinks went wrong with Roe v. Wade and makes his pro-life case relying especially on the analogies he finds between America’s othering of slaves and the Nazi regime’s othering of Jews, on the one hand, and the othering of aborted embryos and fetuses, on the other. These types of analogies have been challenged by scholars like Bryan Massingale and are offensive to many Jews, but some pro-life readers will no doubt find these parallels evocative and compelling.
Bellinger revisits debates on the roots of anti-abortion activism in the 19th century and quotes historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, whose views on slavery and abortion, he implies, support his own moral viewpoint on othering. Chapter 2 includes a discussion of how to promote moral progress. He argues for widening our sense of moral community and lessening violence. Few would argue with these objectives. Many would take issue, however, with his pro-life claim that moral progress is contingent on “a firm belief in the moral wrongness of killing the inhabitant of the womb” (73).
Bellinger brings his deep pro-life commitments to his critiques of pro-choice writers, secular and religious. He criticizes Rebecca Todd Peters of inadequate theologizing on fetal personhood and, in an unnecessarily snarky tone, suggests she has an “antagonistic relationship” with Christ (90). It is appropriate to question the adequacy of one’s interlocutor’s theological views; however, that criticism cuts both ways since Bellinger himself offers no biblical and only sparse theological arguments to support his fetal personhood view. I agree that theologians should do more “substantive wrestling” (88) about questions of fetal status and the language of personhood. But this can be done without unnecessary personal attacks.
The issue of rights and abortion is the subject matter of chapter 3, which includes a dense discussion of legal theory, with an excursus on René Girard. Bellinger makes the case that the pro-life position is not about fetal rights (which are, to some extent, legal constructs) but about people getting in tune with what he calls the “moral realism” of the universe (144). Bellinger circles around (again) to the Holocaust analogy, implying that the moral blindness of women who have abortions is analogous to that of the Nazis (160-61). His use of these analogies and of provocative rhetoric about those who “declare war on their children in the womb” (62) makes us pause, and ask, who is being othered here?
I found the strongest part of Bellinger’s book to be his discussion of how people might overcome their sinful, othering tendencies. His tone is classically Augustinian, calling for a return to “our soul’s true destiny” (170), which alone can overcome original sin. Bellinger calls for supplementing the Ten Commandments with two others: accept that you are a sinner; accept God’s healing grace. These are positive suggestions for growth in personal piety, though they might be seen by some theologians as falling short of what is needed to challenge structural sin. Perhaps a more expansive cultural analysis in his anthropology chapter might have corrected this undeveloped aspect.
Many readers of this book may find themselves agreeing with Bellinger’s theological claim that the “the health of the human self is found in responding to God’s call of creation” (57), but they may differ regarding how to interpret that call. Bellinger equates God’s call with the biological event of conception; many Christians, me included, do not.
Bellinger’s Othering has an important message pertinent for every Christian wishing to be self-aware of personal biases and acts of sinful othering. For those who want a scholarly version of pro-life arguments, Bellinger’s book has much to offer.
Full disclosure, Bellinger previously reviewed my bookAbortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic (Westminster John Knox Press, 2019) for Reading Religion. Though we differ on points of history, ethics, and theology, his review was comprehensive and collegial. I hope I have achieved the same here.
Margaret Kamitsuka is the Francis W. and Lydia L. Davis Professor Emeritus of Religion at Oberlin College.
Margaret D. Kamitsuka
Date Of Review:
April 29, 2022
Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School and also teaches courses at Texas Christian University. He is the author of The Genealogy of Violence (2001), The Trinitarian Self (2008), Jesus v. Abortion (2016), and The Kierkegaard-Girard Option (2019).
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