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Evangelism and Holy War: Levinas’s ‘Face’

In his God and Philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas writes of one`s responsibility for his neighbor and viewing the face of that person. In reference to Levinas`s ideas on these matters, I will define the face as the summation of who a person is, and claim that evangelists and militant religious crusaders dissolve the face of the other by forcing a worldview instead of engaging in a sharing of ideas through interreligious dialogue.

Levinas writes about the relationship between the subject and the other with, A difference gapes open between me and the other that no unity of transcendental apperception can undo. My responsibility for the other is precisely the non-indifference of this difference – the proximity of a neighbor remains a dia-chronic break, a resistance of time to the synthesis of simultaneity. [1] To unpack, Levinas mentions a difference between the subject and the other. This is fairly obvious: one may only need to walk down the street to see that most people in this world are incredibly different; different tastes in style and food, different scents, different skin tones, different tastes in music, different opinions on art, different politics and ideas on the world – all of these things can cause chasms and rifts between people because the truth is that people like to associate with others who are like themselves. One may easily build a mental wall to block out people and ideas that differ from one`s own, whether it is because he or she believes that others are dangerous or it may just be a matter of personal comfort. Regardless of the reasons for perceiving a difference in the other, the fact of the matter is that it exists. Levinas mentions that one`s responsibility for the other comes about in the non-indifference of the difference – in other words, not just blowing someone off because he or she is different in some way, although it is very easy to brush people off. To embrace non-indifference in another is to perceive the other as being a person – someone who is not just different but someone that has a face.

Elaborating on this idea of face, “Levinas continues with, Unreplaceable in responsibility, I cannot, without defaulting, incurring fault, or being caught up in some complex, escape the face of a neighbor;[2] here I am pledged to the other without being able to take back my pledge.” [3] The face of the other is not just the collaboration of two eyes, a nose, and a mouth on someone`s head, it is the embodiment of a person`s character, the answer to the question: Who is that person?” Levinas describes the other`s face as something that is inescapable. To deny the face of someone is to deny his or her personhood whereby one might as well give the other the finger and walk away when asked a favor of. By embracing the face of a neighbor, one can understand that he or she is a living, breathing person and not just some beast that one must avoid in order to dodge being devoured. In fact, when the face of a neighbor is discovered, the opportunity for a dialogue to open and a sharing of ideas can commence. It is only once one accepts the other as having a face that a sense of respect can be established, therefore creating potential for a relationship between the two.

When someone has a specific agenda within his or her dialogue, however, the face of the other then becomes cheapened and the dialogue becomes insincere. The subject is no longer engaged in a dialogue for the good of the other or for the purpose of sharing ideas; he or she is engaged for the purpose of fulfilling the agenda. When someone is passing out tracts on a busy street for the purpose of converting passersby, the same idea applies. No more is there a sharing of ideas occurring. Instead, the evangelist is acting in order to spread his agenda onto each person that passes by. He is not concerned with whom that person he is handing a tract to is; he is primarily concerned with 1) how many tracts he can hand out and 2) how effective his method for conversion is. The evangelist ignores the other`s disposition as a person thereby dissolving the face of that person.

Levinas writes, The proximity of a neighbor is my responsibility for him; to approach is to be one`s brother`s keeper; to be one`s brother`s keeper is to be his hostage. [4] To be one`s hostage, the control has to be with the other. A hostage is powerless: he submits himself to the overseer, doing what is asked of him. The evangelist is no hostage. In fact, the evangelist is on the offensive, constantly pushing the other to view ideas and, especially, God in the same way he does. The hostage-evangelist would act much more like St. Francis of Assisi when engaging in peaceful interreligious dialogue with the sultan Malik-al-Kamil. To sum, in the midst of the interreligious violence of the Crusades in which Jew, Muslim, and Christian were killing each other in the name of their distinct interpretations of remarkably similar gods, St. Francis travelled across the border and opened a dialogue with one of the Muslim leaders. A Franciscan biographer, Lawrence Cunningham, puts it as, at the very time when two armies were trying to annihilate each other two great and noble spirits came to understand and love one another. [5]


It is in this manner that two people from differing worldviews should come in contact with one another, not speaking with them just for the purpose of spreading one`s beliefs. Unfortunately, the problem is direr than simply people not treating others as someone with a face. Today, one can turn on a television and see televangelists evangelizing to the entire country or a news reel which tells of another car-bombing in the name of God. In the case of the televangelist, he can literally not even see the faces of the people his is preaching to ” whether it is because they are on the other side of a TV or because the church in which the broadcast is coming from contains a sea of 50,000 faces. There is no sharing of ideas occurring in the televangelist`s tactics, he is objectifying his audience for his specific agenda.

It is likewise for the people engaging in holy wars. Terrorism, especially fuelled by religion, is an intensely prevalent topic in current events. The religious terrorist, or Crusader, does the same as the televangelist but takes the measure to another extreme: instead of merely objectifying their targets, the holy Crusader initiates violence against those of other religions, beliefs, and worldviews. If the evangelist is figuratively dissolving the face of the other, the militant religious fanatic is doing it literally.


To view another as a neighbor is to see that person as a face. This face allows the subject to see that this is a person ” a being with a history, consciousness, emotions, ideas, beliefs, and unique views on God ” even if it is the lack thereof. The evangelist appears to not care about the face of the other, he merely is concerned with spreading his religion. It is more extreme for the one convicted by holy war: the other is not just being objectified for one`s agenda; he is being murdered for it.


[1] Levinas, Emmanuel, God and Philosophy in The Postmodern God, ed. Graham Ward (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997), 65.

[2] Emphasis added.

[3] Levinas, God, 66.

[4] Levinas, God, 66.

[5] Lawrence S. Cunningham, Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 63.

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