You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones wield authority over them. But it is not to be so among you. But whoever may wish to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever may wish to be first among you shall be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Mark 10: 42-5
The person who has come to know God, not just in mind but in heart and soul, is one, according to Jan van Ruusbroec, who “leads a common life, for [such a one] is equally ready for contemplation or for action and is perfect in both.” This is the true meaning of being human and is the true life that is common to all human persons.
This view of Ruusbroec suggests that the goal of all we work for and do is to become a true participant in the “common life.” This is a radically different perspective from our striving at the pre-transcendent level of life. There, as with James and John in today’s gospel, we desire that our striving and efforts set us apart from and above others. For us, even as for the disciples, our attempts to “lead” others inevitably moves toward exercising power over them, even as we attempt to “help” them be better and more faithful persons.
This past weekend the people of Ireland approved by a margin of close to two to one a referendum extending the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. This event, in a country which for much of its history was a Roman Catholic theocracy, was a striking assertion not only concerning the immediate question at hand but also of independence from the influence and even domination of the hierarchical Church.
The philosopher E. F. Schumacher wrote that the slogan of the French Revolution, “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” reflects rare insight, for it combines the irreconcilables of liberty and equality with brotherhood, a disposition of an entirely higher order which has the power to reconcile the other apparent opposites. It is the recognition of the love that is common to all that makes liberty and equality able to coexist. While the first two dispositions can be legislated, however, the third can occur only by “individual persons mobilizing their own higher forces and faculties, in short, becoming better people.” At this point, however, the problem of leadership and influence arises as we ask the question “How do you make people become better?” This very question reflects our inability to distinguish between those areas that we are able to manipulate by our own efforts and those which belong by right to the unique life of the other and whose emergence we can but lovingly serve. To attempt to force or manipulate people into being better means to “wield authority over them” as the Gentiles do.
To lead by serving rather than being served or manipulating is a challenge to our taken-for-granted understanding. Once we have attained positions of power and leadership, we are prone to believing that we know what is right for the others and our task is to impose on them what is best for them. Although often well-meaning, such a perspective is essentially violent and even potentially abusive. The overwhelming turnout and support for the referendum in Ireland was, indisputably, a societal assertion , especially among the younger segments of that society, of independence from the authorities that had dominated their lives for so long.
At this same historical moment, the Church has been given a Shepherd in Pope Francis who, in deeds and words, exemplifies the servant leadership, based on brother and sisterhood, that Jesus speaks of in Mark’s gospel. Pope Francis summons us as Church to “go out” to all that need us. We must dare, he says, to encounter each person, not as the object of our teaching and superior wisdom, but rather as sister and brother. We are to create a “culture of friendship,” not only with those who look and think and pray as we do, but especially with those in whom it is at first most difficult to perceive and experience what we hold “in common.”
The Church must step outside herself. To go where? To the outskirts of existence, whatever they may be, but she must step out. Jesus tells us: “Go into all the world! Go! Preach! Bear witness to the Gospel!” (cf. Mk 16:15). . . In this “stepping out” it is important to be ready for encounter. For me this word is very important. Encounter with others. Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others. . . with our faith we must create a “culture of encounter”, a culture of friendship, a culture in which we find brothers and sisters, in which we can also speak with those who think differently, as well as those who hold other beliefs, who do not have the same faith. They all have something in common with us: they are images of God, they are children of God. Going out to meet everyone, without losing sight of our own position.
There is another important point: encountering the poor. If we step outside ourselves we find poverty. Today — it sickens the heart to say so — the discovery of a tramp who has died of the cold is not news. Today what counts as news is, maybe, a scandal. A scandal: ah, that is news! Today, the thought that a great many children do not have food to eat is not news. This is serious, this is serious! We cannot put up with this! Yet that is how things are. We cannot become starched Christians, those over-educated Christians who speak of theological matters as they calmly sip their tea. No! We must become courageous Christians and go in search of the people who are the very flesh of Christ, those who are the flesh of Christ! (5/18/13)