Scenery, Machinery, or People?

I want to challenge you to an intellectual exercise.

Way back in 1957, an anthropologist named Alicja Iwanska gave a lecture entitled “Some American Values.” This lecture detailed her experience as a Polish outsider observing American farmers. She noted that these farmers would break their environment down into three basic categories for interaction. Everything fit into one of these three groups: scenery, machinery, and people. Of course the farmland and fields were scenery, sitting in the background as something to fill in the environment and perhaps enjoy if it was pretty. Machinery, on the other hand, carried another level of value. Machines were the things that accomplished the tasks necessary for life. Farmers were concerned about their machines, they needed them to accomplish tasks necessary to their way of life. They took care of their machines, made sure they worked properly, and gave them the necessary maintenance. However, at the end of the day, their relationship to the farmer was once of utility. Finally, there were people. Of course, people were family members and neighbors. They were the stuff that made up the close interpersonal relationships of life. These people, of course, carried more value than scenery or machinery.

But there is a twist.

Iwanska said that everything fell into these three categories… even humans. Her conclusion was that these farmers would view the humans around them as either scenery, machinery, or people. In her example, she noted that the Native Americans at the reservation were scenery, simply there to view with intrigue. On the other hand, Mexican migrant workers were viewed as machinery on the farms. They were taken care of, they had value, but in the same way as the tractor. Their value, she asserted, was tied to their productivity. This is what separated them from the people category. People, she claimed, had value regardless of productivity. Their value was inherent in their relationship.

When I first heard this, it struck a chord. In fact, I was convicted by the reality that Iwanska is right. I believe we all view the humanity around us this way, at least when we are thoughtless about it. I have traveled the world and visited remarkably diverse places. Regardless of the place, be it the streets of Paris or the stifling crowds of an African market, people quickly become scenery. They blend into the environment, dehumanized into moving wallpaper. We do it at home as well. In fact, I imagine consumerism has only heightened this in the 60 years since Iwanska pointed it out. As consumers, we consume. We think in goods purchased and services rendered without even realizing it. Think about the last time you walked into a restaurant, all the full tables of people were nothing more than scenery, perhaps.

Maybe viewing people as scenery is inevitable. After all, we cannot speak to every person we see. But what about this machinery category? You may not speak to every table in that crowded restaurant, but you have a server, and you will most likely pay at a register with an attendant. If we are not careful, the attendant at the register is no different that the Coke machine we use to fill our glass. Have you ever watched someone get angry at their server? I am willing to bet it was because they felt the machinery was not doing what it was supposed to do.

Iwanska’s categories have profound implications for the mission of the church. The Bible has a uniquely different understanding of humanity. We are image bearers of God himself, imbued with a dignity no other piece of creation matches. Value is certainly not based on productivity. Perhaps our tendency to view people as scenery or machinery is why the biblical authors spilled so much ink about caring for the marginalized, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, and the refugee.

When it comes to mission, in our own communities or across the world, we must fight against the urge to relegate people to some lesser status. The people around us, especially the ones that are different from us or disagree with us on things, are not scenery. We must not let them blend into the tapestry of diverse American cities or our suburban cul-de-sacs. They are not machinery to be used for our own benefit. They are not merely opposition to our cause to be fought against. They are more. I am not claiming every different view, religion, political position we encounter is equally correct, but I am claiming that all people are equally valuable.

That hijab in the grocery store has a person in it. That gas station attendant is more than a cash register. And when we see them as people, then their need for the gospel becomes self-evident. I needed that grace extended to me precisely because I am a person, a fallen, sinful human with no hope outside of Christ’s intervention. I was lost in my opinions, my views, and my false religion until someone saw me as a person and preached the gospel to me and the Spirit changed my heart.

So back to that intellectual exercise. Look around. How many people do you see?

2 Comments

  1. sherri lantinga said:

    I love Iwanska’s insights! Came across your blog while preparing to teach from Jerry Jones’ (2017) very similar blog on this topic. 🙂

    October 11, 2017
    Reply
    • Keelan Cook said:

      Thanks for the kind words. I thought it was very helpful as well. I’ve tried to dig up more of her writing on it, but it is hard to find. A good word image like this, though, has the power to cut through our thinking.

      October 11, 2017
      Reply

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