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When Did I Learn People Don’t Matter?

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Jesus and Mr. Levinas show a different way


I’m scanning back through my childhood to remember when it was I picked up this notion that people don’t matter. I cannot blame my parents or my early religious communities or the packs of feral boys I ran with. It wasn’t at Riley Elementary School, and certainly not from my first grade teacher Mrs. Buck.

But somewhere along the line I got in my mind that I could turn and walk away from people and relationships. Somewhere I learned a kind of arrogance that made me think I alone knew what was right, had all the answers, knew the best way. This thinking meant I didn’t need to listen, though sometimes I could condescend to pretend interest. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine why I ever thought this way.

Maybe it’s our get-the-checklist-done culture. Maybe it was the arrogance of my 18-year-old self who knew everything without the slightest inkling how wide the world was. And yet that arrogance persists in the odd niche and behind unopened doors in my life.

I’ve taken to dwelling with a dead philosopher whose writing remains quite lively to me. Emmanuel Levinas is not the model of clarity, but even in his glorious obscurity he says things that make me pause. I recently asked [the long dead] Mr. Levinas to comment on that inaugural address Jesus delivered up on the mountaintop. Mr. Levinas, not exactly a Jesus-follower though he respected the Torah, has a lot to say about the intrinsic worth of people and even hints that others have authority over us in the sense that we owe them attention. From the get-go.

I started to find a lot of agreement between Mr. Levinas and Jesus. Mr. Levinas insisted on the priority that the Other holds in our lives. Jesus reframed the Old Testament law by putting treatment of people up near the top of what it means to be right with God. For instance: Jesus talked about forgiving, even loving, as the alternative to getting even. This has huge implications. Not because we have so many enemies, but because we naturally harbor and nourish each slight done to us.

My philosopher friends from the Analytic tradition (most of the philosophers in this country, judging by the academic programs available), get all twitchy when I mention the Continental tradition of philosophy, which is where Mr. Levinas hangs out. Analytics have a lot of suspicion about how Continentals assemble their arguments. And lots of smart people think Mr. Levinas goes too far. But I think not. In fact there is something in Mr. Levinas that brings Jesus’ inaugural speech back in focus for me.

Mr. Levinas is helping me reconsider the notion that Jesus was not speaking hyperbole. That he really wanted his listeners to give priority to others—even those who had hurt them. This is revolutionary stuff and not at all easy. And it must be understood in the larger context of Jesus’ inaugural address and the way he walked it out later.


Giving people priority in our lives is neither a recipe for madness nor sycophancy. In fact it may be at the heart of our humaneness and our mental health.


Image credit: John Kenn via 2headedsnake

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  1. […] those words, we talked about seeing people as objects. And suddenly I was making connections with Levinas and Buber and realizing I am also in need of reforming bad thought […]

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