There are a number of ways of embracing the other, but the one which appears to be prevalent in society is dichotomy or opposition which brings with it a deep suspicion of the other. Perhaps embracing the other through dichotomy is best illustrated through the adversarial system of British politics. There is government and there is opposition. The role of the opposition is to oppose government. The organization of the House of Commons reflects and reinforces this style of communicating by not allowing opposing members of the House to cross certain lines which, when they were first painted, were just beyond the stretch of opposing swords. There are, of course, strengths in this form of governing, but recently leaders of major political parties have tried to move away from the blanket principle of opposing for the sake of opposing. In this political climate, which is a reflection of a particular philosophical approach, otherness, whether it be other ideas, other ideologies or other people, is embraced but with reluctance and difficulty. On the one hand, a critical engagement with otherness is important and healthy, but on the other, an atmosphere can be created where an underlying fear will bring about rejection before a critical engagement can take place.
Another way of embracing the other is to see the other as a potential friend and ally rather than a potential enemy. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who has had a wide influence on thinkers of many faiths, including many Christian theologians, articulated this in terms of an I-Thou relationship. Buber argues that human existence is shaped by the way in which we dialogue with each other, with the world and with God. Relating to another in the I-Thou relationship recognizes the unique value of the other person (the Thou), accepts the other as a fellow human being and is seeking a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity. When people are in dialogue with God (the only perfect Thou), the I-Thou relationship is sustainable. Buber contrasts the I-Thou, subject to subject relationship, with the I-It, subject to object relationship, which is characterized by separateness and detachment. In the I-It relationship, the other is not regarded with respect and dignity and can be regarded as less than human.
Yet another way of relating to the other is by embracing difference. The extent of love for the person who is closest to us can be seen in the way we allow them to be themselves so that they can grow into the person God has created them to be. That person may be very different from us in the way they think and act and they may not end up just as we would choose for them to be– it is important not to mix up love with control. In John Bayley’s moving biography of his wife Iris Murdoch’s decline into altzheimers, he describes their deepening relationship with the phrase that they grew ‘closer and closer apart.’ A relationship bound around with love respects the other even though it may not be easy. It gives gap and spaces in the relationship. Christian theology embodies this in the Trinity where it is the respecting of the otherness of the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that forms unity. Otherness is constitutive of unity, it does not come as a result of unity.
In his book The Dignity of Difference, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, surveying the political and religious scenes, makes a plea for tolerance in an age of extremism. Today’s fundamentalisms, Sachs argues, provide the biggest risks to the earth’s survival and he interprets the disaster of 9/11 as the clashing of the two fundamentalisms of global capitalism and an extremist form of Islam. When one group decides that all other ways of thinking and acting apart from its way are not legitimate or permissible, that group is on the way to promoting fundamentalism. In fundamentalist thinking difference is heavily controlled to avoid diversity. The heart of his thesis in support of embracing difference is summed up in the prologue:
Crises happen when we attempt to meet the challenges of today with the concepts of yesterday. That is why nothing less than a paradigm shift may be needed to prevent a global age becoming the scene of intermittent but destructive wars. I speak from within the Jewish tradition, but I believe that each of us from within our own traditions, religious or secular, must learn to listen and be prepared to be surprised by others. We must make ourselves open to their stories, which may profoundly conflict with ours. Even, at times, be ready to hear of their pain, humiliation and resentment and discover that their image of us is anything but our image of ourselves. We must learn the art of conversation, from which emerges truth not, as in Socratic dialogues, by the refutation of falsehood but from the quite different process of getting our world enlarged by the presence of others who think, act and interpret reality in ways radically different from our own. We must attend to the particular, not just the universal. When universal civilisations clash, the world shakes, and lives are lost. There are many cultures, civilisations and faiths but God has given us only one world in which to live together-and it is getting smaller all the time. [i]
Embracing the other is a risky enterprise. It requires a willingness to be vulnerable and open to change. Reconciliation will only be possible if a person, or a group, is willing to readjust its identity in the light of the otherness of the other. This does not mean going against one’s principles (unless, after close examination those principles are not built on reconciling foundations) nor does it mean losing our identity. Or does it?
At some point in the process of embracing the other, fear, usually the fear of losing one’s identity, will arise. Fear is one of the greatest enemies of the Gospel and it is liable to infiltrate our being at a time we least expect and feel least able to handle it. It may arise over fear of losing something large, but it may equally well up over what may appear to be the most petty of incidents.
On the positive side, fear can encourage caution to think and pray through an action with care. On the negative side, fear can be a trap which discourages innovation and prevents the approaching of new horizons. Jesus recognized this same fear when he told his followers that in order to gain life (a new identity) it was important to lose an old identity: ‘If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it, those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, will save it.’ (Mark 8.34-5) This does not mean losing all traces of the essence of our being to become a totally different person unknown even to ourselves, but rather it means a willingness to cast aside all those things which prevent us from becoming the person God has created us to be. So, if this means shedding, or relegating to another part of the body, those parts which deny rather than promote reconciliation, then so be it. It is in embracing the other that this can happen.
[i] J. Sachs, The Dignity of Difference, London, Continuum, 2003, p.22-23.
Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.