I And Thou
Like many Americans, I looked to Pope Francis’s visit to the United States with great excitement and anticipation. Not only did the Pope address Congress, but he also spoke outside historic Independence Hall in my hometown of Philadelphia as well. During his visit, Pope Francis encountered every element of American society, from the political elite to incarcerated men in a Philadelphia prison.
Throughout his sojourn, the Holy Father spoke about a number of different issues in both American society and the globe. He discussed religious liberty, interreligious cooperation, immigration reform, and climate change. But what I found especially unique was how he grounded his particular messages in the common Christian soil of faith, love, and hope. In his speech before Congress, he likened the august body to Moses and reminded us of the biblical teaching to welcome the stranger in our midst. In his speech, he noted: “But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.“ I felt that the Pope was not only remarking upon the political polarization and strife we often see in our society today, but also the need for hospitality and encountering the other with generosity and love.
The Pope’s visit illustrates the power of divine-human encounter. Philosopher Martin Buber noted that the crux of reality was the dynamic of encounter, of relationship between the I and Thou, the me and the you. I am you, and you are me. This paradigm is true of any relationship, whether it be with God, family, strangers, or even one’s own self. We are tempted to look askance at people who are different from us: “those people.” We build walls and fences to shut them out rather than bridges to welcome them across.
The Pope’s visit illustrated the power of having an open heart and an open mind. He reminded us of how we as Christians are called every day to encounter the risen Lord, not just on Sundays at the Communion table, but by greeting every stranger we meet with loving-kindness. In Christianity, we are often so fixated on ourselves that we hardly look at the other, except maybe through the eyes of judgment. We fixate on material goods, our wealth, our health, our work, or even our own sinfulness. However, the call to encounter Jesus is not the call to fixate on sinfulness, but to live in repentance by following Jesus- the man who calmed seas, healed lepers, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead, and spoke out against injustice and intolerance.
One of my favorite Bible passages is Luke 5:8-10 when Peter encounters Jesus for the first time. After a miraculous catch of fish with Jesus’ guidance, Peter exclaims “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Jesus’ response is simple and profound Instead of assuring Peter that his sins are forgiven (and giving him a pass by extension) or offering condemnation and judgment for this truthful admission of sinfulness, Jesus simply says “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” The call of the Christian is the call to follow Jesus. It is to embrace the other. If you doubt this, consider Jesus’ disciples; a bunch of fisherman, a few Zealots (terrorists/guerillas), a tax collector, and a host of women. Jesus called followers from every element of society, especially the marginalized ones. Why? Because the kingdom of God is one of peace, righteousness, and joy- the kind of joy that only comes through truly living together with one another in relationship. Welcome the stranger. Embody the I and Thou in every relationship you have.
Discussion Question: What relationships in your life need some work? How can you find little spaces in your life to welcome the stranger in your midst?
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