I recently traveled to Asia to teach a class on pastoral care. It has been a number of years since I had travelled overseas, so it is possible that the contrasts of culture I experienced was more striking to me than in previous years. Having experienced the kindness and hospitality of more than one Asian culture during this trip, I was struck by the harsh contrast when I returned to USA soil. As I waited in an American airport for my final flight towards home, I noted how Americans isolated (or maybe a better word is insulated) themselves from other Americans via cell phones by texting, listening to music, watching movies, or searching the Internet. I did not experience the polite, friendly interactions while waiting in line despite my attempts, and I experienced those in service oriented airline jobs as being efficient but distant and preoccupied. I wondered, “What has happened to the friendly American? Is our country so polarized that we seek to protect ourselves through insulation?”
The above experience was in contrast to another experience I had a week ago when I was part of a funeral procession in another state. As the string of cars weaved through a city of 150,000, I watched in amazement as cars and pedestrians stopped out of kindness to honor the deceased and the mourners. This was the America I knew: a sense of community with complete strangers, a recognition of our common humanity which involved a common enemy—death.
Perhaps it was my recent trip to Asia that has caused me to wonder and reflect on the polarization of our nation but even more so on the division in the church. As I read through posts on Facebook, I am reminded how a combative nature has infiltrated the church. I confess that as a Christ-follower, I am not immune to using violent language in speaking of those I see as the enemy. On more than one occasion I have thought or verbally jeered at the opposing side. “That’s the way to tell them!” or “How ridiculous!” I recognize that this blog is a risk in that I may find myself alienated from people on both sides of the conflict, and this thought, I confess, saddens me.
Let’s face it: we are embroiled in conflict. Respect the flag vs. a call for justice. Black lives matter vs. all lives matter. Fake media vs. Real news. Trump vs. Clinton. Conservative vs. Liberal. Rather than diminishing, the division seems to accelerate as I hear of FB friends being unfriended on the basis that they do not agree or are perceived as too liberal or too conservative. Personally, I am now wondering if social media is intensifying our conflict as each side becomes more entrenched and as name-calling and labeling become more acceptable, but that is another topic.
For me, the theme of this blog is not the conflict per se, but it is a reminder to see the humanity of the other. It is commonplace for humans in conflict to perceive the opposing side as the enemy. The other becomes the enemy as we formulate black and white thinking about the opposing side, becoming competitive and insulating ourselves from views that are different from our own. Rather than generating curiosity as to what need a person is meeting by embracing an opposing view or the reason for their strong opinion, a difference in opinions seems to cause us to automatically label the other as stupid or an idiot. Unfortunately, this current conflict in our nation seems be of no exception. The tragedy of a conflict of this intensity and magnitude is what we, as the church, are communicating to the world around us. Rather than communicating kindness, gentleness, peace, and self-control amidst our differences, I wonder if we have hunkered down in our own corners, perceiving different voices as a personal threat to us. Rather than an opportunity to learn, to differentiate, to see beauty, or to change, our differences seem to point towards a lack of a secure base, causing us to react to protect ourselves. In some circles, it seems Christ-followers are doubting whether the other is a genuine sheep who is in the fold if he/she holds any view that opposes their own.
When I read through Scripture and study theology, human conflict is ubiquitous. As L. Gregory Jones has argued in Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, we, as humans, embody violence. Compassion Communication (a.k.a Nonviolent Communication) holds that interpretations, labels, judgments, evaluations, and blame demonstrate the violence of humans. That is, the way in which humans think and act are characterized by violence. Therefore, when I speak of violence, I am not limiting its usage to fists, knives, guns, and bombs or physically harming or killing the other. Instead, I am expanding its definition to include harm to self and/or others so that such harm could be physical, emotional, or spiritual. It includes words and actions. In short, it is sin.
The way in which we are violent or judging of others is clearly seen in the Gospels. (I am indebted to Jones for generating my thinking in this regard). Humanity judged Jesus, God’s Son—this is the one who is sinless, the Prince of Peace, and human and divine. Hence, even if someone is without sin among us, we as humans embody violence to such an extent that we judge and kill him. As a result, God judges humanity for judging the Son, and God’s judgment against humanity calls for humanity’s death. However, Jesus not only is judged by humanity, and God judges humanity for that judgment, but Jesus becomes the actual penalty or the judgment that God places on humanity; therefore, Jesus is judged by humanity and becomes the judgment that God places on humanity. That is to say:
- Humanity judges the human-divine one, who is the Eternal Judge;
- God judges humanity for judging the Judge;
- The Human-divine one becomes the judgment or the penalty by dying;
- God resurrects the human-divine one so that judgment for judging the Judge is complete.
The above synopsis portrays that humans judge each other. Period.
But in this theologizing, let us not miss how God responded to humanity, the very enemy of God: God becomes human while remaining divine. God sees that we are human, and God enters into our humanity, joining us in our humanity. In other words, God sits at the table with us, eats with us, walks with us, and weeps with us, all the while knowing we will deny and/or betray him by judging him. This is powerfully illustrated in John 13 when Jesus is sitting with his disciples, eating the evening meal with them. In this account, Jesus embodies an act of love, his washing the disciples’ feet, while knowing they will desert him, Peter will deny him, and Judas will betray him. Jesus is not an automaton for the passage speaks of his own distress even though he has foreknowledge as to what is about to transpire. Neither does his foreknowledge stop him from loving his disciples, including Peter and Judas as demonstrated by his washing of their feet. He then instructs his disciples to do the same, to love those even if we know they will betray us. This reminds me of Hebrews 4:16 which speaks of Jesus being our high priest who has been tempted in every way as we have been but without sin. I want to underline that he has been tempted in every way, which means that he shares our humanity while being divine. He knows what it is to share humanity’s love for others while being betrayed, and we are the offending party. Jesus’ actions demonstrate that be it differences, enemies, or even sin, these are not to stop us from loving actions and words toward others who share our humanity.
As I reflect on Jesus’ sharing our humanity, I wonder if this points toward a key for us who are in conflict and who are seeing the other as the enemy. Are we to see the other’s humanity? Maybe this is the understanding of loving our neighbor as ourselves—we love others by seeing the commonality of our humanity. We see they have feelings and needs similar but different from our own feelings and needs. We see how they too long to be seen, to be heard, and to matter. We see how their actions are attempts to embrace longings and/or deep values. We note how they desire for their intentions to be seen, and they too want security and protection. In other words, my differences from the other do not eliminate the common humanity that we share. Rather than our differences being a threat, our differences may provide increased self-awareness and may also be used to expand our own understanding and to learn and grow as humans.
Several years ago I met a man who I experienced as embodying kindness. The gentleman was a middle-aged, successful businessman as evidenced by his living in the community of Scarsdale, NY. When we inquired as to his kind nature, he informed us that it was not always that way. His work was known to be highly competitive, a dog-eat-dog world; however, it was his concern for his sister that changed his perception. He realized in every area he excelled, his sister with a disability was unable to do so as a dependent adult. He surmised that since he yearned for others to treat his sister kindly, he was to treat others in this same manner. In short, change occurred for him when he embraced the shared commonality of humanity: treat others as I want to be treated, or in this case, how I want someone I love to be treated.
In chapter four of the letter to the Ephesians, the author reminds the readers there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one baptism and continues by saying that in Christ’s body, everyone is connected. The chapter concludes with the following instructions, with which I close this blog:
Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift. Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted. Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you. (vv. 29–32, from The Message).