Friday, November 18, 2016

Mercy – Resolve to understand every person fully

A version of this post was already planned for today. It seems even more pertinent now. There has been a good deal of consternation following the recent Presidential election in the United States. One common refrain has been that the election has revealed just how deep and wide are the political/cultural divisions in America. We do not seem to understand one another. Often enough it seems we do not really care to understand one another. But this is not new. And it is not unique to America.

Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize Community in France, wrote this reflection about a decision he made as a young man in the wake of the hatred and violence of the 1930's and 40's:

When I was a young man, at a time when Europe was torn apart by so many conflicts, I kept on asking myself. Why all these confrontations? Why do so many people, even Christians, condemn one another out of hand? And I wondered, is there, on this earth, a way of reaching complete understanding of others?

Then came a day – I can still remember the date, and I could describe the place: the subdued light of a late summer evening, darkness settling over the countryside – a day when I made a decision. I said to myself, if this way exists, begin with yourself and resolve to understand every person fully. That day, I was certain the vow I made was for life. It involved nothing less than returning again and again, my whole life long, to this irrevocable decision: seek to understand all, rather than to be understood. 
– The Wonder of a Love

Resolve to understand every person fully. What might that look like? Here are three other quotes that I think begin to point the way:

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say, like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
– Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.
– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

Peace will only begin to be possible when we try to do justice to the side with which we do not feel sympathy, and earnestly try to call up in our imagination the sorrows we have not suffered and the angers we do not feel.
– G. K. Chesterton, London Illustrate News June 25, 1932

This requires a degree of self-denial. Before I can see my neighbor, before I can love the other as they are, I need to get myself out of the way. I need to make peace with the discomforting challenge their difference presents to me. I need to let go of my own prejudices and convictions that incline me to interpret the other on my terms rather than on their terms. In order to give the other the benefit of the doubt, I need to be willing to doubt my own assumptions and certainties. I need to entertain the possibility that I am wrong and/or have something to learn from the other. I need to die to myself in order to make space for the other, to imaginatively get inside the other’s skin.

It might also mean that I need to take care how I think and talk about others, what I post on Facebook and Twitter about them. It is so tempting, isn't it, to assume the worst about those with whom we disagree or who we find it hard tro understand. It is easy to roll our eyes when they are mentioned. It is easy to jump to conclusions about them that are less than generous.

This does not mean that we give people a pass for words and actions that are hurtful or violent. It does not mean that in the end everyone is OK just the way they are. It does not mean we do not challenge one another. It does mean that before I can challenge another, I need to take care that I truly understand them as they understand themselves rather than how it is convenient and comfortable for me to understand them.

How might I commit to getting to know others as they understand themselves? Muslims? Evangelical Christians? Liberal Christians? People in the rural heartland? People in coastal cities? Gays, lesbians and transgendered? Conservatives? Liberals? Immigrants? The other person in front of me right now? It begins by learning the story they tell about themselves rather than resorting to the often more comforting stories others – particularly their opponents – tell about them. I can invite others who I find it hard to understand to tell their story and listen carefully, patiently, and non-defensively.

In my experience, this is much harder than it sounds.  But, with Brother Roger, I am convinced it is part of what it means to live into the way of mercy that is the cost of following Jesus. It means making this irrevocable decision: seek to understand all, rather than to be understood.

Related posts:

No comments:

Post a Comment