How to Dehumanize your Neighbor Completely

“The refugees seeking haven in America were poor and disease-ridden. They threatened to take jobs away from Americans and strain welfare budgets. They practiced an alien religion and pledged allegiance to a foreign leader. They were bringing with them crime. They were accused of being rapists.

These undesirables were Irish.”[1] These prejudices come from the 1840s and beyond during the big wave of Irish Immigration to these United States.

We have heard this about immigrants from Central and South America. And blacks in American dating back to when the first slave ship landed on our soil.[2] It’s the same playbook. I found a 5-step template on how to dehumanize our neighbors from Psychology Today.[3]

  1. Hint at the subpar intelligence or morality of your targeted group. Like the Irish, they are all rapists who practice an alien religion and drink too much.
  2. Use infestation analogies: “poor and disease-ridden.” Some New York Times opinion columns talked about how the Irish were infesting the city and were deadly moral contagions.[4]
  3. Compare to Animals: The Irish were called dynamite skunks. They were explosive because they fought all the time and were usually drunk as skunks. They were more numerous than dock rats coming off the ships in New York harbor, stated one prejudiced observer of the Irish Immigrants.
  4. Suggest Violent Solutions: some proposed burning down the whole lower East Side to rid the city of all the Irish neighborhoods and tenements.
  5. Seek to remove the group from society: “No Irish Need Apply” was a phrase often used in help wanted ads and on store fronts. Laws were passed limiting what jobs they could or couldn’t do. This was picked up in the Jim Crow Laws of the South and the Ohio Black Laws. Jim Crow was used as a template by Nazi Germany with their exclusion of the Jews in the 1930s.[5]

Clearly this is some heavy stuff, why bring it all up?

Today we read of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. First, they want to kill Joseph, but Reuben talks the brothers out of it. They throw him in a pit and then have lunch. How close were they to the pit? Were they eating so close that they could hear his cries? How could people, let alone brothers do this?!

Easy. They were envious. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite. He got the best stuff. He got more attention. He got a coat with sleeves. Doesn’t sound like a big deal to us here in the Northern environs where all our coats have sleeves… but in the Middle East, vests were commonplace. We don’t need to waste the extra fabric or leather it would take to make the sleeves. It would be special in that context. But for our context, translators had to make the coat special and a sign of favoritism which is how we get the “coat of many colors” or the “amazing technicolor dream coat.”

The brothers don’t run the whole dehumanization playbook we just discussed, but we can see it in operation. They don’t use Joseph’s name. “Here comes this dreamer…” They refer to Joseph as “him.” Never by name and never as brother. They keep him at arms’ length. Not until they realized they could make money off of him did they call him brother.

Joseph was Jacob’s favorite. Jacob encouraged Joseph’s insulting dreams of all the brothers’ sheaves of wheat and stars bowing to him. Joseph had dreams of greatness. The brothers wanted to put him in his place. They wanted the attention of Jacob, their father. Jacob the mess who had two wives, Leah who loved him and he ignored; and Rachel whom he loved, but she ignored him. Joseph is Rachel’s kid. The other 11 came from Leah. Maybe the brothers rationalized that they were honoring their mom in this act. Maybe they rationalized that this would teach this annoying little sibling with a chip on his shoulder.

This whole dehumanization process starts subtly, and no one is immune. I remember how my hometown growing up was against the “Mexicans” who were taking our jobs, never mind these Mexicans were actually from Honduras and Guatemala. And those jobs were at a local chicken farm that no one wanted to work at anyway. I had a lot of unlearning to do. I still do.

When we moved to Medina, there was talk about a recovery center coming in. Dehumanizing language was used for those people with addiction disorders. “This will only bring THEM HERE.” One calm voice reminded us that “THEY” were already here and were our neighbors. They delivered our mail, picked up our trash, and might even be our dentists and doctors.

We hear this all the time on the outrage machines of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Liberalism is a disease. Being conservative is a mental health disorder. There’s a lot of money in dehumanizing the other side. There is no concept of the loyal opposition anymore. Instead, we call each other un-American or unpatriotic. The concept of the loyal opposition is seeing the other side as loyal to our country, but with a different vision. That is gone from our public discourse, if it ever truly was there. Hamilton and Burr shot each other over politics, maybe we never had it.

Friends, we are a mess like Jacob. We are easily put out and jealous like the brothers, and constantly throwing people in pits. Dehumanizing neighbors and strangers who are different from us. I’d like to think that once we know the steps, we’d halt the actions. Once God’s people know the signs, they’d speak out. Sadly, we are just as guilty. We religious who disagree with one another label one another “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” We damn one another to eternal torment. We talk about how their religion is polluted or infected or immoral or ignorant or unenlightened.

I think the way out is through listening and telling stories. In the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, there are stories of children who changed the course of history. We visited this past summer and read the stories of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, Malala Yousafzai and Ryan White.

The story of Anne Frank and her diary which humanized Jewish people. Here are her joys and concerns. The pain of being ostracized and hunted and having to hide in an attic. The tragedy of the holocaust and the senseless death. I’m proud we stand against anti-Semitism by taking our confirmands to the Temple each winter. Here is Joseph. Will you put him in the pit?

There’s the story of Ruby Bridges and how she integrated a school. The resistance and hate that she faced as a first grader. Imagine, a first grader walking in with Federal Marshalls. This isn’t ancient history. Today Ruby is 68 years old. Not too much older than my mom. I’m proud we’re an anti-racist congregation in our history of hosting Second Baptist back in the 1960s when their sanctuary was being built. Y’all have been good neighbors and allies. Let’s keep it up. Here is Joseph. You wouldn’t sell him, would you?[6]

Malala Yousafzai was a young girl in Afghanistan who wanted an education. Yet the religious fundamentalists in her country came to power and started banning books and limiting who could and couldn’t go to school. Because of Malala’s outspoken support of education, she was shot. She survived and later won a Nobel Peace Prize. She shows that our problem isn’t with Muslims or even Islam but radical fundamentalism of any religious sort that always demands its own way and shoots anyone who disagrees with them. Here is Joseph. You’ll educate him, right?

There’s the story of Ryan White. He became the face of HIV/AIDS in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. I remember reading his book in 4th grade, one of the first chapter books I’ve ever read. I read it because he had an amazing G.I. Joe collection, and I just would stare at the photos in the middle of his book.

Ryan’s family moved because of the hate he received at his old school. His locker was vandalized. All because Ryan had HIV/AIDS. He contracted HIV/AIDS because he took Factor 8 for his hemophilia. 80% of those who took Factor 8 at that time contracted HIV/AIDS, and most died. At the time, there was a lot of fear around HIV/AIDS. It was considered a “gay” disease. You had to have done something really wrong to get this disease. But Ryan got it through his life saving medication. It is a story that shows how this disease affected us all. That it was a blood born disease, and normal everyday contact wouldn’t spread the disease.

At our visit this past July, I noticed two women with scrapbooks. Turns out, it was Ryan White’s mom, Jeanne, and sister, Andrea. The Elton John Foundation flies them four times a year to speak at the museum to visitors. We sat in his recreated bedroom surrounded by all his original stuff from the book… all the G.I. Joes that original got me to read the book… And we listened to their story. Here is Joseph. You won’t throw him in a pit, will you?

Instead of avoiding, engage. Just listen.

I wonder what would have happened if the brothers had sat Joseph down and told their story. I am sure he would have looked up to his older brothers and talked it out with them. But that would have meant treating him like a human. Too often, we’re bent on dehumanizing and taking out our rage/despair/sorrow on someone else. It doesn’t solve anything; it just passes the pain around. We Christians aren’t called to pass pain around. We take it on. We face it. We heal what we can and forgive the rest. It is not how the world often operates.

I’m sorry to sound trite. I’m sorry I don’t have anything other than listening to others, reading the bible, and faith in the ways of Jesus; but these seem to be the only load-bearing structures I’ve found these days. May we risk rehumanizing others. For we follow one who re-humanized women, the sick, and those from different races and religions.

When we sing “Blessed be the tie the binds” after the sermon, think about how we’re connected to everything. Everything is connected to everything.

As Jane Kenyon writes in her poem, From Room to Room,
“Blessed be the tie that binds….”
we sing in the church down the road.
And how does it go from there? The tie…
The tether, the hose carrying
oxygen to the astronaut,
Turning, turning outside the hatch,
taking a look around.”[7]

May you look. May you be surprised by all whom you’re connected to. And may you see God in someone else’s story. Amen.

Works Cited


[2] Please read, Stamped From the Beginning: A graphic history of racist ideas in America by Joel Christian Gill (Adaptor/Illustrator) and Ibram X. Kendi, published by Ten Speed Press on June 6, 2023.



[5] See Stamped and

[6] The Selling of Joseph by Samuel Sewell was the first anti-slavery tract in America. Caldwell, Quinn. “In Praise of Guilt and Shame.” 2014 Calmly Plotting UCC Lent Devotionals. Page 31.

[7] Jane Kenyon, Collected Poems. Graywolf Press, 2005. Page 7.

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