• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

“District 9” and Our Attitude Toward the Other

District 9

I just saw the remarkable 2009 film called "District 9". It’s an exciting, science-fiction adventure movie, but it is much more than that. In fact, it explores, with great perceptiveness, a problem that has preoccupied modern philosophers from Hegel to Levinas, the puzzle of how to relate to “the other.” “District 9” sets up the question in the most dramatic way possible, for its plot centers around the relationship between human beings and aliens from outer space who have stumbled their way onto planet earth.

As the film gets underway, we learn that, in the 1980’s a great interstellar space craft appeared and hovered over Johannesburg South Africa. When the craft was boarded, hundreds of thousands of weak and malnourished aliens were discovered. These creatures, resembling a cross between insects and apes, were herded into a great concentration camp near the city where they were allowed to live in squalor and neglect for twenty some years. In time, the citizens of Johannesburg came to find the aliens annoying and dangerous, and the central narrative of the movie commences with the attempt to shut down the camp and relocate the “prawns” to a site far removed from the city.

Placed in charge of the relocation operation is Wikus van de Merwe, an agreeable, harmless cog in the state machine. While searching for weapons in the hovel of one of the aliens, Wikus comes across a mysterious cylinder. When he examines it, a black fluid sprays out onto his face, and in a matter of hours, he is desperately ill. He is taken to the hospital, and the doctors who examine him are flabbergasted to discover that his forearm has morphed into the appendage of an alien. Almost immediately, the state officials reduce the suffering man to an object, resolving to dissect him and experiment on him. Wikus manages a miraculous escape, but he is, throughout the film, ruthlessly hunted down. I promise not to give away much more of the plot. I’ll add only this: as his transformation progresses, Wikus becomes an ally of the “prawns” and they come to respect him and to protect him from his persecutors.

With this sketch of the story in mind, I should like to return now to the two worthies I mentioned at the outset. The nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel taught that much of human history can be understood as the working out of what he called the “master/slave” relationship. Typically, people in power—politically, culturally, militarily—find a weaker, more vulnerable “other” whom they then proceed to manipulate, dominate, exclude, and scapegoat. Masters need slaves and slaves, Hegel saw, in their own way need masters, each group conditioning the other in a dysfunctional manner. Masters don’t try to understand slaves (think of the dominant Greeks who characterized any foreigners as barbarians, since all they said was “bar-bar”); instead, they use them. Furthermore, almost all of history is told from the standpoint of the masters, and mastery is the state to which all sane people aspire.

Emmanuel Levinas, a twentieth-century Jewish philosopher whose family was killed in the Holocaust, reminded us how the Bible consistently undermines this master/slave dynamic, since it recounts history from the standpoint of the other, the outsider, the oppressed. Levinas argued that Biblical ethics commences, not with philosophical abstractions about the good life, but with the challenging face of the suffering “other.” The prophets of Israel consistently remind the people that since they too were once slaves in Egypt, they must be compassionate toward the alien, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. In the faces of those “others,” they find the ground for their own moral commitments. They compelled the people, in short, not to adopt the attitude of the master but to move sensitively into the attitude of the slave.

This unique Israelite perspective came to embodied expression in Jesus, who “though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God a thing to be grasped” and who rather “emptied himself and took the form of a slave.” In Christ, the God of Israel became himself a slave, the despised other, even to the point of enduring the rejection of the masters and dying the terrible death of the cross. In Jesus, the God of Israel looks out from the face of the other and draws forth compassion from those who gaze upon him.

In “District 9”, we see the master/slave dynamic on clear display: the characterization of the aliens by a derogatory nickname, their sequestration in a squalid ghetto, the violence—direct and indirect—visited on them consistently, etc. These are practices evident from ancient times to the present day. But we see something else as well: an identification of the oppressor with the oppressed, the openness to interpreting the world from the underside, from the perspective of the victim. This, I would submit, is the Biblical difference, though I doubt that most people today would recognize it as such. It is the view that comes from that strange spiritual tradition which culminates in a God who doesn’t make slaves but rather becomes one.
Originally posted at Word on Fire. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: The Punch Line)

Bishop Robert Barron

Written by

Bishop Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He’s America’s first podcasting priest and one of the world’s most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global, non-profit media ministry called Word On Fire reaches millions of people by utilizing new media to draw people into or back to the Faith. Bishop Barron is also the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, 10-part documentary series and study program about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of several books including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 2008); The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002); and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image, 2011). Find more of his writing and videos at WordOnFire.org.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • The Bible undermines Hegel's master/slave dynamic. Marx's dialectical materialism undermines the master/slave dynamic. Maybe this is why the two are often combined, as with liberation theology.

    Interesting. This never occurred to me before.

    • Randy Gritter

      Then can be combined well to a point. Marx sees it all as politics and economic injustice. The bible sees it all as sin. Marx felt that if you get rid of the gap between the rich and poor man would become good. The bible says you must go deeper. The problem is not one of money and power in society but a lack of love in man's heart. Changing the system is not enough. Each individual heart must be transformed. That is why Marxism fails.

      • Christianity fails too. It's been around for 2000 years and there's still master/slave divisions.

        Christianity at least seems to make things better. Marxism put into action has not been so benign.

        • Randy Gritter

          Be patient! What is a few millennia in the grand scheme of things? Changing hearts is harder than changing political systems. God also insists on freedom. Marxism has been known to force itself on a society and just imprison those who disagree. Jesus wants every human to make a free choice to have their heart transformed. If you think Christianity makes things better now just wait until the real utopia arrives. Actually, don't just wait. First say Yes to Jesus through baptism and/or confession.

          • Be patient! What is a few millennia in the grand scheme of things?

            This is what all people who propose Ultimate Truth or Big Solutions say. Just wait! The idea has never been tried! It failed because of imperfect people. And so forth.

            The Marxists say this same thing.

            Christianity fails for now. Maybe because of the sinful human race. Maybe it will succeed in the end. But what we know is that Christianity fails for now. I'll be happy to believe it when it succeeds and the real Utopia arrives.

          • Eliz33

            But what is that Utopia you speak of? A society of material beings buzzing along in peace and productivity? Or, is it a knowing of belonging and being truly, deeply loved and loving deeply in return? (I'm not talking about romantic love, per se.) Christianity does seem to fail if you are looking for a utopia like (or something like) the former. If you are expecting something like the latter, then Christianity alone offers it and succeeds, even now, in the midst of sinful humanity.

          • This:

            Or, is it a knowing of belonging and being truly, deeply loved and loving deeply in return?

            Sounds like a subjective internal experience. I tried it and it didn't work for me. I'm glad it works for you.

          • Eliz33

            Don't give up hope, my friend - God sees the longing in your heart. He loves you still.

          • GreatSilence

            To what extent should we disregard subjective internal experiences? Are they less true simply because we cannot "prove" them? Are we justified in distrusting our own personal experiences? Is a subjective, internal experience not the best way to experience those big truths? How would a hidden God communicate with us? Why are we able to have those feelings and experiences?

            I am not arguing or even disagreeing with you at all, just speculating out loud.

          • I think personal religious experiences provide evidence but only for the one who experiences them. The problem I have with personal experiences in a forum like this when they are not shared. Not everyone has these experiences.

            If both Eliz33 and I knew belonging and experienced being truly loved by God, then we could discuss that experience meaningfully with each other. Maybe she thinks it means something different from what I think it means.

            But since I don't share Eliz33's personal experience, then using it in an argument is a conversation killer. Eliz33 can only defend her personal experience by saying that she experienced it. It's properly basic and needs no further argumentation from her. The only challenge I can make to her is that she is mistaken in her own experience (how much I must know about the minds of others!), deluded, or lying.

            The same thing will happen, of course, if she talks with a Muslim who says that he read the Quran in Arabic and experienced Allah speaking to him through those words. The only civil thing Eliz33 can do at that point is to change the subject.

  • . . . . reminded us how the Bible consistently undermines this master/slave
    dynamic, since it recounts history from the standpoint of the other, the
    outsider, the oppressed.

    An interesting thought, no doubt, but the Bible certainly didn't undermine slavery itself, either in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Jews enslaved both fellow Jews and non-Jews. There were two sets of rules for treatment of slaves, and the Jewish slaves were treated more kindly than the non-Jewish slaves. It may well be that the Jews in biblical times were more humane in dealing with slaves than other peoples, but we now see slavery as profoundly wrong, even when masters are benevolent.

    • Randy Gritter

      I do think that in the book of Philemon Paul does undermine slavery itself. Onesimus is a slave of Philemon who runs away to Paul. The book is actually a letter Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus.

      Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother

      So if Onesimus should not longer be a slave then who should be? The only logical answer is nobody.

      • josh

        Well, a logical answer given Paul's letter would be non-Christians.

        However, according to Wikipedia the letter was used historically by Christians to bolster the legitimacy of slavery as well.

        Also see: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1509909?seq=1

    • Jay

      Where did u get ur information on how Jews enslaved Jews and non Jews and there were two sets of rules for treating the slaves? I would be interested in looking at this resource. Ive tried looking for references to how modern definitions of slavery compare to what would have ben considered slavery within other times and cultures as well as within the Bible. one of the speakers I listened to yesterday was the president of the carmelite ngo for the UN and she talked about their efforts to combat modern day slavery. im even more interested in this subject now that I have that on my mind.