Encountering the Other

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A new king, who knew nothing of Joseph, came to power in Egypt. He said to his subjects, “Look how numerous and powerful the people of the children of Israel are growing, more so than we ourselves! Come, let us deal shrewdly with them to stop their increase; otherwise, in time of war they too may join our enemies to fight against us, and so leave our country.”

Exodus 1: 8-10

These days I am involved in a program for Brothers from three international communities who are involved in the work of initial formation for their respective Institutes. The participants have come from 13 different countries and they speak at least four different languages. One of the most striking aspects of the experience thus far is to see them encounter and communicate with each other even across their cultural and linguistic differences. Although it is very difficult to communicate at times, they have readily crossed these divides and are clearly establishing bonds of friendship. Last evening for example, a multi-cultural and multi-lingual group was heading out to spend time exploring Rome together.

The scene of this group heading out together to take the tram into the city was in my mind as I read the episode from Exodus this morning. Without bonds that occur through relationship and encounter (“A new king, who knew nothing of Joseph . . . .”) it is our differences and the threat that they pose to us that tend to rule our view of each other. In Europe and the United States today, the fear of the Pharaoh is powerfully present: “Look at how numerous and powerful . . . [they] are growing, more so than we ourselves.” There are social and political movements throughout these countries that spring, in the words of Pope Francis, from “attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization . . . .”

The people of Israel are told by Moses: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) We all know deeply in our hearts the experience of being a stranger and the repeated fear of being an outsider. Much of the energy that moves our lives, especially in its earlier years, is the desire to be acceptable and accepted among the others. The pain of this fear and conflict is so deep, that the scriptures realize the need to call us to remember it. For when we forget what the experience of being alien was and is for us, we tend to act it out in our violence toward the others who are strangers.

Pope Francis says we need to replace our attitudes of defensiveness, fear, and indifference with attitudes born of a “culture of encounter.” This is what I see on the part of so many of the brothers around me these days. They work around the cultural and linguistic obstacles that are present in order to encounter each other in the ways that are possible for them. The results are quite amazing, resembling something of the experience of Pentecost where, despite the different languages, all understood each other.

Encounter, however, requires risk. Because we so long to be understood, we fear being misunderstood. To attempt to communicate, with all the dangers of miscommunication there are between us, is an act of faith and of love.

Whom do we encounter when we love the one who is stranger and alien to us? In today’s gospel Jesus tells the disciples: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10: 40) There is a relationship that precedes those of family, tribe, race, and nationality. “Whoever loves Father and Mother more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10: 37) We reverence and love the stranger because he or she is bearing the Lord to us. We refuse to welcome the Lord when we refuse to welcome the stranger.

Fear is not easy to overcome. It is not merely a matter of will. It is rather the slow and steady practice of stretching beyond the culturally and self-imposed boundaries between ourselves and others. As we experience our fear of the differences of the other, let us remember what it was like and is like for us to be the alien, the different one. The way to overcome our fear of being received and accepted is to practice accepting and receiving otherness, in all the forms it comes to us. It is to dare to practice from moment to moment a “culture of encounter.”

Globalization is a phenomenon that challenges us, especially in one of its principal manifestations which is emigration. It is one of the “signs” of this time that we live in and that brings us back to the words of Jesus, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Lk 12,57). Despite the large influx of migrants present in all continents and in almost all countries, migration is still seen as an emergency, or as a circumstantial and sporadic fact, while instead it has now become a hallmark of our society and a challenge.

It is a phenomenon that carries with it great promise and many challenges. Many people forced to emigrate suffer, and often, die tragically; many of their rights are violated, they are obliged to separate from their families and, unfortunately, continue to be the subject of racist and xenophobic attitudes.

Faced with this situation, I repeat what I have affirmed in this year’s Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees: “A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world”.

Pope Francis

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