Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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The Necessary Other
Our “Practice of Christian Ministry” class this past week was blessed by a visit from Rabbi Herman Schaalman, rabbi emeritus of Emanuel Congregation in Chicago. He has served for many years as an adjunct faculty member at CTS and his name graces our chair in Jewish Studies. I had asked Rabbi Schaalman to address the theme of prophetic ministry and, in particular, to reflect on how a pastor or rabbi speaks truth to power while, at the same time, attending to the diverse voices and perspectives within his or her congregation. In the context of his remarks Rabbi Schaalman spoke of the dialogical nature of prophetic preaching, of the need to engage a congregation rather than simply address a congregation or, for that matter, “unload” on a congregation. In the course of this he reminded us that we must “respect the other so profoundly that the other becomes our absolutely necessary counterpart.” It was a phrase that stuck, inviting musing attention in the ensuing days.
A few years ago I visited a senior Shi’ite cleric in Beirut, Lebanon. Sheikh Hani Fahs was one of the signers of a highly publicized letter from Islamic leaders around the world to Christian leaders. A Common Word Between Us and You called for Muslim-Christian engagement on the basis of a shared Biblical and Koranic call to the love of God and neighbor. I asked my host what he and his co-signers intended with the writing of this public letter. His answer was simple: “We wanted to prepare friends for you.” In the midst of our “war on terror, it was a moving phrase for me, an American Christian, to hear from a Muslim cleric educated in Iraq.
We don’t often think of the “other,” whoever she or he might be, as our “absolutely necessary counterpart.” The member of our congregation who bristles at our preaching whenever it ventures into social questions, who complains about our perspective on faith and public life, is often seen as an irritant rather than a necessary counterpart. The member of Congress on the other side of the aisle is increasingly viewed as the reviled opposition to be out-maneuvered and ultimately defeated, not as the necessary counterpart. The person whose faith is other than our own is perhaps tolerated in principle (though these days in the United States that is not necessarily a given), maybe seen as a counterpart, but not often as an absolutely necessary counterpart.
Both Rabbi Schaalman and Sheikh Hani Fahs suggest that absent some move on our part, the other remains alien, perhaps even a threat. It is only our profound respect, or our effort to prepare friends, that has the potential to transform the other into the necessary counterpart. Neither of these leaders is naïve about the sharp divisions and disagreements that separate persons, communities, or nations. Theirs is not a unity of agreement but a call to a community of difference. Paul puts it this way: “The eye must not say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” Perhaps this is, in part, what Jesus is getting at in his strange call for us to love our enemies. Certainly he doesn’t mean we must “like” our enemies. It remains, always, an act of moral will, not simply an emotional attraction. Like it or not, our world is comprised not only of those we like, but of enemies and strangers, too. Others.
The future of our body politic, or of the Body of Christ, or of planet earth will not be secured by the transformation of the other to be like us by persuasion or coercion, or by the obliteration of the other so that only we remain. One shows no respect for the legitimacy of otherness, and thus an arrogance that is derisive and demeaning. The other offers merely a prescription for escalating violence and, ultimately, our own destruction. Like it or not, others endure. Whether they remain threats or aliens, or become necessary counterparts, is in large measure up to us.
The insights of these two religious leaders have deep significance for congregational life, for interfaith relations, for the future of our political institutions, for how we live with increasingly diverse neighbors across this planet. Mobility, the media, and the gradual erosion (albeit against continued resistance) of segregations of various kind means that “the other” is more and more present in our lives. We cannot build walls fast enough, issue religious edicts loud enough, or retreat into homogeneous enclaves far enough to flee the other. He will not disappear. She will not melt into likeness. Flight is not a realistic option. Nor is fight a morally reasonable option. Which does seem to leave us with profound respect and the preparing of friends. Either is a demanding option, requiring a disciplined sense of self, a disciplined faith and a disciplined life. Who needs this? Who needs them? Apparently we do.
John H. Thomas