People, Machines, and Landscape


“In a study of farmers in the northwest United States, is was found that they classified the world into three categories: people, machines, and land. What they considered to be ‘people’ were their own kind: kith and kin, and other farmers who owned land and were white, Protestant and middle-class. The rest, such as Mexican migrant labourers, were seen as ‘machines,’ tools for production or farm inputs. The American Indians were seen as ‘landscape,’ part of the scenery in that vast expanse of land. This kind of categorizing is not limited to farmers in the north-west United States. It is also found among the affluent sectors of Manila.

Everyday we go blindly in our tinted air-conditioned cars in and out of our subdivisions, taking no notice of Lazarus sitting at the gate. We become so used to the sight of poverty that we no longer see it. It has faded into the scenery, part of the permanent fixtures of our national landscape. invisible

If there is anything that this story tells us, is the fact that we live in the presence of another. Human solidarity is such that we all suffer together: we all suffer traffic problems, power cuts, coups, earthquakes, inflation, and instability together. Whether we like it or not, one person’s deprivation is an indication of the guilt and humiliation of all. It may not be what we have done, but what we have failed to do in the face of someone else’s need or degradation.”

                -Melba Padilla Maggay, in “Transforming Society“, Introduction

This quote, as well as the book, is primarily about issues of social and economic justice. However, I can’t help but additionally look at it from the perspective of a church or religious organization.

Years ago I recall reading a book that stated that in the Medieval Roman Catholic Church, the laity were not really considered members of the church, only those who had taken Holy Orders. Is that true? I haven’t been able to verify it or find the source where I read it. Regardless, leaders of many churches– Catholic, Protestant, and otherwise– can fall into that trap on a practical level. Lay members in the church are thought of as tools to produce resources, and consumers of resources. As such, they are essentially machines in the minds of the leadership.

Communities then can also be seen as landscape. The people surrounding the church are the features in that landscape– “ever-present but never relevant.” Such people only become relevant if they enter the church and become part of the mechanism of the machine.

People, in this scenario are fellow clergy, or fellow church council members. Additionally, leadership in other like-minded churches, commonly within the same denomination, would be valued.

Religious organizations can equally fall into this trap. In one scenario, the leader of such an organization sees the staff/workers as machines to fulfill the task. In the other scenario, the organization sees its entire staff as “people” while donors and care recipients are the machines that provide and consume.

None of this is surprising… we are cultural beings, and as such we tend to divide the world into “Us” and “Them.” But the quote notes that the “Them” is often divided further into the Them we interact with (just like we might interact with a car or a laptop) and those who are present, seen but noticed, and deemed irrelevant. This is the problem. we have compassion for people we identify with… but ignore the needs or concerns of “landscape,” and express concern for the needs of “machines” to the extent that we want them to function appropriately.

This three-level view of mankind is clearly sub-Biblical. We are all made in the image of God. We are all sought out by God with love (I simply cannot see dual election as an inductive Biblical doctrine). We are a faith community of human beings called to love, as human beings, our neighbors, strangers, and “enemies.”

 

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