A Former Person: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
A Former Person
Recently I read for the second time the novel ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles. Having first read it last year, I was struck by what I can only describe as the elegance of the writing. It describes the experience of a Russian nobleman who is placed under house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow by the new communist government of Russia in the 1920s. Once a published poet and a well known member of the aristocracy the protagonist of the story has been designated “a former person” by the authorities. This means, that he has not only been reduced from his former status, but additionally his rights have been stripped away from him and he has been designated as having no usefulness or place in society. He is, quite literally, a former person.
This designation was widely used in the two decades following the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution. It was applied to artists, former members of the aristocracy, uncooperative clergy, and dozens of other categories. The number of “former persons” reached into the millions. Most of them were killed in the purges of the 1920s and 1930s for, as former persons, they could be denounced with impunity by anyone who disagreed with them, or harbored a grudge, or who suspected them of having thoughts contrary to the regime. When arrested, a former person had no recourse or defense. As they were no longer a “person” in terms of society, their elimination was simply an administrative task.
“A Former Person”… it’s a striking phrase. If, in the course of a disagreement, we can strip away the humanity of our opponent, it means that we no longer have to listen to anything that they may say or write, for they are not a person. Once we strip away their personhood, such an individual is, in our thinking, a mere cardboard cutout. They are no longer someone made in the image of God, or someone worthy of respect as a fellow human being. As such they can be denounced or showered with invective without the least hesitation for, after all, they are, at least in our mind, a former person and what we say or do in condemning them is of no consequence.
Of course, we would never conduct ourselves in such a manner with our wife, or husband, or children, or even our friends, for we recognize them as “persons”. With others, however, especially online, they are merely names. Moreover, if they disagree with our theology or our politics we feel free to designate them as a former person because we define what a person is, and what value a person might have, by the measure of our own beliefs and convictions. In stripping away the personhood of the individual behind the name, we give no thought to their life experience, or to their history, or to their education, or their struggles, or their reading, or their service to others, or the many other aspects of their life and thought. Instead, we simply relegate those qualities and weaknesses to the dustbin and place them in the category of a former person upon whom we can pour out our scorn and anger.
It is, of course, troubling to see this in the public square as it now occurs day by day and week by week. As far as I am concerned, however, it is far worse to see this taking place among those who claim to be Christians. Recently, I posted on the timeline of the young man who wrote and recorded ‘Hymn for the 81%’. We had some connections with producers and recording engineers. I wrote, “Great song. Love from The Project in Indy”. Within a few minutes, someone I did not know replied that I was a “Godless Baby killing Democrat…” along with other observations as to my character and faith. Now, as I said, this person did not know me, yet on the basis that I liked the song, and she obviously did not (although she never mentioned it) that was enough. I was, in her eyes, no longer a person and, therefore, could be treated as such.
Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “…since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things…” In the Incarnation, Christ came among us as a person with all the common attributes of our humanity as those who are made in the image of God. To strip away the personhood of another who is made in the image of God is to devalue the Incarnation itself. When Christ spoke of what we do to “the least of these my brethren” we tend to stop in our reading. Often we leave out the next phase, “you have done it to me”. The doctrine of the Incarnation says that there is no difference between what we do to the “least of these” and what we do to Christ himself. When we reduce another individual to the status of a “former person”, we have done it to Christ. Moreover, when we engage in such behavior, we set aside the Incarnation making ourselves the measure of true humanity rather than the person of Christ.
Disagreements over theology, politics, music and much more is simply a given in the human condition. How we choose to disagree, however, is not measured by the issues upon which we disagree. Rather it is measured by how we view the Incarnation, and that is indicated by how we treat another person created in the image of God.