Seeing Christ in “The Other”
Last night I participated in a local ecumenical service marking the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It was only the second such service that I have been a part of, but these are already becoming a highlight on the calendar for me. It is a beautiful thing to see Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, Salvation Army and United Church folks, and Mennonites worshipping the same God, together. Happily, last night’s service was quite a bit fuller than anticipated with people spilling out into the hallways of the small chapel at the local United Church. It was a very good night.
Last night’s homily was delivered by the Roman Catholic priest. It was a stirring and lively presentation, laced with humour, grace, and truth. Impressively, he used no notes, which was a simultaneously inspiring, and humbling thing to witness for those of us who are still desperately tethered to our manuscripts each Sunday! He spoke from Luke 24 and Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter with his disciples on the road to Emmaus, of how the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, didn’t understand, were slow to believe, of how their eyes were opened at the breaking of bread. He spoke of how we are not so very different from those first disciples—we don’t recognize Jesus when he appears to us in the least of these, in the faces of our sisters and brothers from different denominational backgrounds, in “the other.” It was an inspiring message about the ways in which Jesus appears to us and a challenging word about our slowness or unwillingness to recognize him when he comes.
I’ve been thinking about the message throughout the morning today. Specifically, I am reflecting upon the call to “see Christ in the other.” On the one hand, this is surely a true and important message to hear. Jesus himself says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). Surely, our treatment of ordinary human beings is in some important sense an expression of our convictions about and love for God.
But the exhortation to “see Christ” in our neighbour also makes me a little uneasy. Perhaps this simply reflects my lack of imagination or theological dexterity, but I find myself wondering why it is that I would need to see “the other” as Jesus to treat them with love and compassion? What exactly are we saying when we rehearse this well-known imperative? That “the other” would ordinarily not register on my moral radar were it not for imagining that they were Christ himself? That I need to perform some imaginative identity gymnastics to convince myself to honour those who are different from me? That the threat of punishment (as in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats) is my primary motivation for treating people with dignity and respect?
This rationale strikes me as structurally similar to the whole “you never know, you might be entertaining angels unaware” line from Hebrews 13. Do we really want to say that the only reason we are behaving appropriately to “the other” is because they might be Jesus or an angel? What does this say about “the other?” Is “the other” merely a cipher or a placeholder for the more important angelic or divine beings that ought more appropriately inspire and motivate our behaviour? Is our treatment of “the other” instrumental or do we honour them for their own sake? Should we extend care and concern to “the other” because we see Christ in them or simply because we see “the other” in them?
Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is precisely in honouring “the other” for their own sake that we honour God, the one in whose image each human being is made. Perhaps the call to “see Christ” in “the other” is a call to recognize our common humanity and need for redemption. I don’t doubt that last night’s speaker had these things (and others, no doubt!) in mind. And, of course one cannot expect a detailed parsing of these thorny matters in a ten-minute homily! But, at the risk of ridiculously over-simplifying things, I am thinking of what I often say to my kids: “Treat others the way that you would like to be treated.” So, how would I like to be treated? Would I like someone to treat me well because they saw Jesus in me or because they saw me in me? Probably the latter. Or both. I don’t know.
I hope this doesn’t come across as grouchy or petty, or as a whiny, hyper-individualistic demand to be recognized as unique and special, blah, blah… God knows, I can fall into the temptation of straining out the proverbial gnat whilst gulping down the camel! Just something I’ve been thinking about on a lazy Monday morning…