On Being Changed By The Other

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I’ve watched with some astonishment as people defend the separation of children from their families. I’m not talking about the people trying to shift blame or deflect attention. Those efforts to defend Trump are asinine, but they reveal people’s moral discomfort with the policy. There’s another set of more extreme arguments on my facebook feed: these parents are law breakers, they’re getting what they deserve, they’re bad parents.

When people make these arguments, my impulse is not to fire back with a counterargument. Instead I simply want to say, “What happened to you?” Or perhaps better, “What hasn’t happened to you?” Let me explain.

Entering deeply into the pain and experience of people who are not like us is among the most life-changing things that can happen to human beings. And when it happens, it doesn’t just change our understanding of that particular group of people. It colors our whole moral sense and the way we see people to whom we have no connection. It rocks us back on our heels, it disrupts our certainties. It moves us. Try as we might to get back to our comfortable starting place, the effect turns out to be enduring. We find ourselves permanently decentered. The needs and perspectives of others are not so easily dismissed.

I’m very worried that our churches are full of people who have never experienced this at all. This is what hasn’t happened to them. We are formed by media that teaches us to fear others, by a culture that tells us things are more important than people, by a church that preaches a narcissistic gospel.

We approach the other as a matter of Christian duty, with an episodic and paternalistic sense of free agency. I will be happy to help you. But I will not be changed by you.

I grant that this question of entering into the pain and experience of people unlike ourselves is not an all or nothing proposition. My failure to do this much more than I have is probably my greatest sin. And yet the hint of it that I’ve tasted is the most transforming thing I’ve known.

I’m concerned that many Christians have not even glimpsed this. Which, by the way, would be deeply ironic. The message of salvation we claim to believe in is all about this. Jesus entered into the pain and experience of human beings, emptying himself of that to which he was entitled. When Jesus does it, it’s more than an example. It’s salvific. We can’t do that. But it tells us something about the way God has ordered the world. The fact that rescues us is the same principle God uses to make us a little less monstrous and a little more caring. When we encounter the other in a deep way we become a little more like what we were meant to be.

In this age of Christian callousness, I sometimes fear that the old advice to “read your Bible and pray every day” has become an exercise in self-absorption. Without neglecting those spiritual disciplines, we must add to them an openness to seeing God in unexpected places, like in the faces of strangers.

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