Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.Romans 1:5-7
The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.Luke 11:31-2
Globally speaking we live in an anxious time. While we had once expected that technology would make of us a “global village” and then later on with the fall of the Soviet Union that we had arrived at “the end of history,” we discover our world politics seem governed more than ever by nationalism and xenophobia. Despite the fact that we are growing in information about the world, we seem to be feeling more and more that we are strangers to each other.
This may not be as contradictory as it at first seems. For our access to information and to transportation now brings us into far closer contact with each other than never before. My grandparents lived most of their lives within a very small radius. As also true of myself in my childhood, we knew everyone around us, and with but slight differences of religion and background, we were far more alike than different. Doors to houses were never locked, for if a stranger entered the neighborhood, everyone would be aware. Now, however, it is not unlikely that strangers occupy the same spaces. Those who look and believe very differently from ourselves might increasingly be our neighbors, or teachers, or doctors. Such physical proximity often does not sit easily with us.
For many if not most of us, religion has become another form of enculturation. Should we have any doubt about this, we need but observe the far too ready connection between conservative religious leaders and nationalists. For example, among elements of the Vatican bureaucracy itself we see this strange attraction to the nationalistic and culture warrior Steve Bannon. In the United States we see what has become in its extreme the somewhat idiotic messianic identification of the current President. Yet, in today’s gospel, we encounter the words of Jesus himself which are a radical summons to a transformed way of seeing the stranger.
Jesus tells those who feel righteous in their group identification that it is the hated other who will judge them. In the introduction to the letter to the Romans we hear Paul assert that the Gentiles of Rome also belong to Jesus Christ. They too are the “beloved of God,” and so are to receive “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are aware of the struggle it was for Paul, within the fledging gathering of believers in the resurrection of Jesus, to suggest that the Gentiles too were to have a place among the faithful. To truly be a follower of Jesus is to be willing to die to our natural and spontaneous xenophobia, and to “be transformed by the renewal of our minds” into a recognition of how all humanity shares a common life and love. And, as Pope Francis reminds us, “a common home” as well.
One of the most common and dreadful fears of childhood, at least as I recall, is the fear of being “strange,” of being somehow unacceptably different from the others. In this fear and preoccupation, we see a “common” life among most of those around us, a life from which we are always in danger of being excluded. In this light, we can begin to understand from where comes our tendency as adults, once we have found or identified our group, to exclude others. It is defending against that primitive childhood fear of being unacceptable and so excluded ourselves. It is because we fear what is strange and other in ourselves that we come to so fear that which is to us strange in the others.
Those to whom Jesus is speaking in the gospel today are those who have forgotten the vulnerability of their childhood. They are now the religious and cultural power elite. Their power and security resides in their ability to impose conformity. Their problem with Jesus is his refusal to conform to their demands. Jesus disturbs their peace because he is a reminder of the possibility of grace. They know peace to the degree that their world conforms to their small and myopic vision of reality. As every great spiritual teacher, Jesus in his actions and words is always challenging that smallness of perception. The Queen of the South and the men of Nineveh will judge them, says Jesus, because they know something that the powers that be do not. What they know is the action of grace in their lives, and the peace that comes from submission to that grace.
The differences in ourselves and in others are reminders to the arrogance of our pride form of our vulnerability and dependence. Much of the world’s violence is due to our refusal to live in that truth, to recognize our shared vulnerability and need. As a child, almost everyone appeared to me to be stronger than I felt I was. They somehow all had each other and I was alone. I mistakenly understood that to have a place among them I would have to overcome that in me which made me different and, I believed, unacceptable. I would not only have to overcome it, but I would also have to become powerful enough in my relations with others to keep them from knowing that about me of which I was ashamed. And so we create not only false identities as individuals but also as groups, societies, and cultures. The whole imperial effort was based on a sense of group superiority. Much, not all, of Christian evangelization has often been built on the same principle. We proselytize because of our need to believe that our view is the only right one.
Otherness (in ourselves and others) is threatening because it challenges all the presumptions of our false form of life. It evokes in us the terror of our childhood based on our own sense of being other. It takes us back to a stage of our personal formation where we are being formed in conformity to the culture into which we have been born and the unreflected upon resistance we felt to that pressure to conform. In the social sphere, the problem was that otherness, the stranger in us. Yet, in spiritual terms it is much more likely that our greater spiritual conflicts are due to our repression of the “other” in us.
How could an assembly of the faithful based on belief in the Jesus of the gospels be fearful about a “de-Europeanization” of its culture? For Jesus tells us that it is anyone who hears the call to repentance and to new life that will judge. Membership in the closed club is not required. Jesus reminds us that we live in communion but that we fail to recognize it because we are caught up in the judgments of the group to which we have conformed our own uniqueness and strangeness.
On Saturday as I sat before mass was to begin, I experienced, unbidden, being filled with a sense of peace and joy. As the mass began and I heard the readings, I realized that what I was feeling was a gratitude that, in one way, never seems far from me but of late has been largely out of my awareness. As that realization of being grateful for everything swelled within me, I realized that to be full of gratitude leaves no room for the anger, hurt, and resentment that had been dominant in me for some time. I realized that this was grace, the grace and peace of which St. Paul so often speaks. To live in gratitude is to be in relationship to the world in a new and transformed way. When we cease to be fearful of our own strangeness and instead experience thanks for life, we are moved to appreciate the strangeness of others. For, it is precisely that which is beyond our immediate understanding that is what we have in common. A true community of any kind does not primarily consist of our together conforming to superficial externals. Rather, it inheres in those very attributes that at first may most frighten us. Collectives of any kind are built on the most common of denominators. Communities, on the other hand, are constituted by a shared awareness of a common life and a common love of the unique and distinctive life and call of each member.
When I am angry at or hurt by others, I have a very hard time praying for them. One of the strongest experiences I have of my own sinfulness is the judgment I experience at such times in hearing the words of Jesus: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). The other day, however, I experienced that when my heart is moved by the disposition of gratitude, I spontaneously pray for all, especially those whom I have forgotten to be grateful for.
When we live as if our life is our possession, we shall live in fear and even hatred of those who are different from us and with whom we have differences. When we live knowing that everything we are and we have comes from God as free and loving gift to us, then we realize, at least for a moment, that this same love and same gift is given to all. Today’s readings remind us that one can not be a follower of Christ and live out of a sense of ecclesial, cultural, or national superiority.
As I write, yet another potential genocide is unfolding, this time potentially obliterating the Syrian Kurds. In our own lifetime we have seen unfold again and again what we proclaimed at the end of the Second World War in Europe would happen “never again.” Be it the Armenians, the Cambodians, the Tutsis and Hutus, the Uyghurs, the Rohingyas or countless others, (some 40 million in the 20th century alone) human beings never cease to believe that they can only be secure and safe with the elimination of difference. In this case of the Kurds we are discovering how thin and manipulative is our geopolitical sense of friendship and alliance. When we meet only at the level of a single shared interest, nothing of the connection remains when other interests displace it. To love each other is far different from making mutual cause around a single project. It is, rather, a love that the experience of Jesus impels us, that knows the common life that we are.
I’ve always been aware of being an inconsistent personality. Of having a lot of contradictory voices knocking around my head. As a kid, I was ashamed of it. Other people seemed to feel strongly about themselves, to know exactly who they were. I was never like that. I could never shake the suspicion that everything about me was the consequence of a series of improbable accidents—not least of which was the 400 trillion–to-one accident of my birth. As I saw it, even my strongest feelings and convictions might easily be otherwise, had I been the child of the next family down the hall, or the child of another century, another country, another God. My mind wandered.Zadie Smith, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” New York Review of Books, October 24, 2019, p. 4