The primary question we are to bring to any relationship with any other person, no matter any matter of their identity is not, “Will you agree with us and become one of us?” (or, in evangelical parlance, “Are you saved?”). It is, “How can we serve you?”
I wrote those words two days ago, and received an excellent request from a friend: “I need some practical advice on enacting these words from your writing when we are dealing with Trump supporters or other non-believers.”
The first thing to say is that, like most things Christian and/or spiritual, we are talking about process. This is true, for instance, with forgiveness. Forgiveness and reconciliation are processes. They may (and usually do) have their moments of revelation, for example, when you can say to another, “I forgive you.” Yet even that definitive statement does not signal the end of anything. It is rare when there is not more processing to do, both internally and externally. There is also the great truth that forgiveness is a two-way street, with responsibility and accountability on both sides.
So, what about my friend’s question? How do we enact the words, “We are here to serve you,” with people who seem so vastly different from ourselves and do not particularly want relationship with us? I think there are several things to say about this, summed up in the title of this essay. The road to radical relationship is a rocky one. My apologies for resorting to a list here. I do not intend for it to be taken as “steps.”
1. I have introduced the word “radical” as a descriptive of the kind of relationship we are after, the kind of relationship I think Jesus wants us to pursue with others. The word “radical” comes from the Latin word for “root” (think of “radish,” a root vegetable). Radical relationships are those that get to the root of the matter. This must be true in at least three ways. First, the root of any relationship we build as Christians is love, defined by Jesus as the kind of love that would involve the willingness to give up one’s life for the other (John 13:15). Second, I must bring to this love the root of myself, inasmuch as I am aware of it, and I must address the root of the other, inasmuch as he or she is aware of it, and together we must be willing to go deeper.
2. I do not myself have a great deal of success engaging people who are from the other end of the political spectrum, with whom I do not appear to share any values. But that’s not just me. We live in a time when the divide is deep and it is filled with all kinds of evil things like mistrust and fear (the cause of most hate) that keep us reactive and unwilling to be with each other. The white supremacist’s desire to live in a country where the races are segregated is just the extreme manifestation of that fear. This is the “rocky” part. We have not only become deeply divided, but the divide itself has taken on a life of its own.
3. St. Benedict teaches us the beginning of radical relationships: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ” (RB 53:1). If you want a “first step” this is it, and as first steps go, it’s a big one. The Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer says the same thing with the promise that we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” (p. 305). Step One is an open, non-defensive stance. It’s the “non-defensive” part that is so difficult these days. We tend to be ready to be defensive even before we meet someone.
4. The further part of this welcome is that we must be ready to listen and not to talk. We have to assume (and this, too, can be extraordinarily difficult) that the other person means well, has a story to tell, and wants to be listened to. Again, we must be ready to do non-defensive listening.
5. When it is our turn to talk, it is better that we tell our stories about how we have come to believe what we do. After years of arguing propositions in the church and lgbtq issues, I firmly believe that we did our best and most decisive work when we told our stories.
6. The last thing I will say is that we must be ready for rejection. Fear is a powerful thing and the anger that results from it is even more powerful. Our attempt at relationship may be completely rebuffed. This reality may be the norm, given the present climate. But we have no mandate from Jesus other than to keep trying. The bottom line, I think is this: “How can I serve you?” is first and foremost is an invitation to tell me who you are.