Courage and Transformation

The Apostles and the brothers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem the circumcised believers confronted him saying, “You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them.”
Acts 11:1-3

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
John 10:16

 

The global consciousness to which our mobility and mass communication have given rise is one of the very positive aspects of our age. As a child, my life and so my consciousness, as well as  that of all my family, was circumscribed by our geographical location and our cultural norms. Even in the public school I attended there was clearly a pervasive Anglo-Protestant culture. Aside from one close friend who was Jewish, the rest of us shared a white Christian cultural background. The rare experiences of any truly significant “otherness” were sources of dis-ease, but their very infrequency did not ordinarily disrupt the arrogance of our cultural understanding and bias of life and world. As throughout human history, life’s meaning for us was basically seen through the taken-for granted mores of our own tribe.

Today, we not only witness the reality of other very different and to us strange cultural ways of being, we are often called upon to negotiate daily life with those who are very other to us. This is very disorienting and even threatening. In the pervasive nationalism and populism that is emerging throughout the world, we are experiencing that our technology and mobility may truly have outpaced any concurrent evolution of our consciousness. Instead of harmony, human life and existence in its differences can seem to be a disturbing and threatening cacophony.

Today’s readings, however, remind us that although what we are going through may be new in terms of its world-wide breadth, it has always been a basic human struggle. The summons of Jesus to the human race and to each of us is a call to a radical new way of living and consciousness. “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” The sheepfold of which Jesus is the gate is universal. From the church’s beginnings, it was clear that all tendencies to nativism, exclusivism, and cultural hegemony were to be resisted and overcome. Peter is taught by God in a dream that his own judgments of what is clean and unclean must be overcome, for “what God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” The Spirit then calls Peter to accompany the Gentiles who are present, “without discrimination.”

The love and the revelation of Jesus cannot be contained by any single cultural view and understanding. Any “church” that claims its origins in him must be, by definition, “catholic,” that is, universal. For human beings, however, this will always tend to be translated as our own way’s being open to all. Of course, we might say, all are welcome, but they are welcome to join “our” world under our terms. This is true not only of church, but of any human society. We want the boundaries, norms, and rules to be set and established in terms of our own culture. Failure to realize this is what brought the exploitation and violence of much of the so-called “missionary endeavor.”

It seems, perhaps yesterday’s election results in France being an exception, that fear is the dominant experience of western culture at the moment. It may well be the same fear of the members of the church of Jerusalem that we see in Acts. They could not imagine the possibility of an ecclesia that could contain both Jews and Gentiles. They did not yet realize that the call of Jesus was to touch the universal in the human person. It was to discover, in the words of Jan van Ruusbroec, that which is common to all. It is from this place in us that we know our communion with each other and with all.

Jesus never founded a church in the conventional sense, rather he called those who would hear his voice to discover in themselves and to live out the Way that is his life. It is astounding that believers who read the Gospel of John could make themselves gate-keepers of the church. There is only one gate and no one or any group or any culture has exclusive rights to him. From Constantine to Rome to the present day, the church of Jesus has always been threatened by a sense of exclusivity and then cultural dominance that stands in contradiction to the person of Jesus. “So there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” The call of Jesus is not to a victory of “Christendom” but about the new life and rebirth to which Jesus calls us. There is an “ordinary” life, as Russbroec terms it, a life that is truly common to all.

We who are participants in what has been the dominant cultures of the West find ourselves in a very uneasy place. As is inevitable in human history, our power and dominance is waning. We understandably fear that what we have inflicted on others in order to attain our prosperity and dominance may now be inflicted on us. And so we turn our backs on fleeing refugees and threaten to build walls against them. We imagine that we can close ourselves off on our little islands and become powerful enough, yet again, to dominate and pillage those who are inferior.

Reaction and violence is the unconscious human reaction to finding ourselves in such a place, at such a moment of geopolitical change and transformation. Another response, however, is that of the heart. It would require of us to take in, with all that would be emotionally required, the demand on us of such a radical change. It would require us to find our capacity for a courage and a hope that recognizes that our life and our future, individually and socially, lie in abandoning ourselves to the Way. It will be painful to face that we are not exceptional but ordinary and common, to realize that in our attempts to be exceptional and to dominate others, we have actually moved away from our true life and capacity for love. We fear change because we place our hope in our current beliefs and understanding. We mistake the world for the world of our own construction. It is not we who are threatened, but the idols we have created.

Peter tells the disciples in Jerusalem that it is God who has shown him that the gift of Jesus, of the life Jesus brings, is for all. To  hold on to their own sense of superiority and place would mean to refuse Jesus, the life that is common to all. In effect, Jesus in John’s gospel,Peter in Acts, and perhaps the work of God in what appear to be our own perilous times are calling us to a  truly radical hope and courage. It is to abandon those customary ways of security in which we have put our trust and hope and to dare to return to the “ordinary” in us, the one who knows that our place, and so our security, lies in our life in God, a life that we hold “in common” with all human persons.

Thus, as finite erotic creatures it is an essential part of our nature that we take risks just by being in the world. As finite creatures we are vulnerable, we may suffer physical and emotional injury, we may make significant mistakes, even the concepts with which we understand ourselves and the world may collapse—and yet as erotic creatures we reach out to the world and try to embrace it. For all the risks involved, we make an effort to live with others, on occasion we aspire to intimacy; we try to understand the world, on occasion we try to express ourselves and create something; we aim toward living (what we take to be) a happy life. As finite, erotic creatures it is a necessary aspect of our existence that our lives are marked by risk. We are familiar with the idea that we are creatures who necessarily inhabit a world. But a world is not merely the environment in which we move about; it is that over which we lack omnipotent control, that about which we may be mistaken in significant ways, that which may intrude upon us, that which may outstrip the concepts with which we seek to understand it. Thus living within a world has inherent and unavoidable risk. If we abstract from the thick conceptions of courage that a culture may put forward in a particular historical period—whether martial valor or counting coups or maintaining a stiff upper lip or being true to one’s conscience—and ask in the most general terms what it is about courage that makes it a human excellence, the answer, I think, is that courage is the capacity for living well with the risks that inevitably attend human existence. At times, when a culture was organized around battle . . . courage was understood in terms of the risks of battle; at a time of, say, the Protestant Reformation in Europe, courage was conceived in terms of standing alone with one’s conscience before God. In different times, in different cultures, there may be different risks; but as long as we are alive and human we will have to tolerate and take risks. The courageous person is someone who is excellent at taking those risks. That is why courage counts as a virtue; it is an excellent way of inhabiting and embracing our finite erotic nature.

Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, pp. 120-1

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