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Being human

To think about the similarities between us all rather than the differences.

by Helen Bryant

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To think about the similarities between us all rather than the differences.

Preparation and materials

  • For the quotation you will need a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology, ed. Susan Frank Parsons (Cambridge University Press, 2002); the Denise Ackermann quote begins on page 36, line 26.


  1. I am going to start this assembly with a quotation. I would like you to listen to it, and see if you can understand is being said.

    Read the quote, starting at ‘The practice of mutual relationship’ and closing with ‘Only when we see ourselves in each other are we fully human.’
  2. A heavy start to this morning’s assembly, I agree, but a passage that has a lot to say: something quite profound, and also something that we can all learn from. This quotation is from a woman named Denise Ackermann, a theologian from South Africa who has constantly spoken out against apartheid. There is in this passage a real fluidity between the self and the other. Now I would like you to turn to the person next or nearest to you.
  3. The first part of the quote asks you to ‘look’ into the face of another. Don’t just glance, pull a face and then look away, or just look past them or at the floor. Look at the person’s features, their eyes, their nose, the way their hair falls, the shape of their face, whether or not their ears are level. Are they wearing glasses?

    How often do we take time to actually look at one another? Could you say what colour your boyfriend or girlfriend’s eyes are, for example?

    Now, just quickly, look at what similarities that person’s face has to yours. I would imagine there are more things that are the same than are massively different.
  4. Christians, Jews and Muslims all believe that human beings are created in the image of God, hence the part of the quote that says ‘we both reflect something of the image of God’. The idea is that God created us, and placed a little of ‘himself’ within us. If we imagine God to be like us, it makes him a little more easy to understand and more accessible for us. That we are special is without doubt, that life is sacred because it is God-given is also important for followers of these religions. What is also important is the fact that we are all reflections of the same thing.
  5. The poet John Donne said that ‘no man is an island’, that we cannot possibly live alone and solitary for ever. As Denise Ackermann says, ‘I am not complete unto myself’. We need others to make us whole. And in the film Jerry Maguire, Renee Zellweger’s character says, ‘You complete me’.

    Individuals need other people; we need relationships in order to be fully human. Even hermits who sought out places where they could be solitary, such as the Desert Fathers or Celtic monks, still had their relationship with God to focus on. It was their way of trying to see their place and see their reflection within God.
  6. What these words are trying to tell us is that what we have in common and what is similar about our natures is greater than what is different. In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, Shylock puts this point across too:

    ‘I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons … If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?’

    What is being said here is that fundamentally we are the same. Think about the person you looked at before, or think of someone of a different race, sex, culture, country or background. There are no real differences. We are all humans.

Time for reflection

You can use this as a reflection or prayer.

‘You are the mirror of myself. I am the mirror of yourself. Only when we see ourselves in each other are we truly human.'


‘In Christ there is no east or west’ (Come and Praise, 66)

Publication date: November 2009   (Vol.11 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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