The challenge, Henri Nouwen said in a class I took with him nearly fifty years ago, is not to see how we are different, but how we are the same. Yes, there are differences, he acknowledged – gender, age, culture, race, religion, life experience; but at root we all have moments of joy and grief, hopes and fears – and we all share the same fate: each of us will die. Henri died 28 years ago, but left a legacy of 39 books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of disciples who studied with him, read his books, or listened to his sermons and lectures. I recently began to receive daily posts from the Henri Nouwen society email@example.com, which contain brilliant portions of his spiritual wisdom.
Start with how we share the same humanity, Henri encouraged his students, and his many followers. And only then go to our differences. If we start with our differences, we can become insulated and isolated from one another; and it becomes easier to deny someone else’s humanity.
I have been struggling with Henri’s challenge this Christmas season. Like many, I gathered with family and friends over the holidays. The food was plentiful, the gifts were welcomed, the atmosphere was warm and loving. Despite some covid challenges, everything worked out. At several moments during the holiday week, I contrasted my level of comfort and caring to the stories and images coming out of Gaza, which are violent and suffused with grief. How are we the same, I wondered? I have known some violence, but not like that. I have experienced grief, but not like that. Arguments continue – and often end up in violence, over whether or not Israel’s response to the Hamas attack is justified, and to what degree. Regardless of one’s opinion or perspective on the war, it is clear that Gaza is currently under siege.
In stark contrast, “under siege” is the metaphor that journalist Tim Alberta has identified in his recently published book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism. A staff writer for The Atlantic, Alberta is the son of an evangelical pastor and a professed Christian. He has spent the past several years having conversations with evangelical Christians across the country. He seeks to explain the origin of the marriage between some branches of evangelical Christianity and the right wing of the Republican Party. Alberta repeatedly hears from religious and political leaders their claim that America is under siege from secularism, socialism, the media and academia – which are intent on indoctrinating people with false history and wicked (if not evil) immorality; and that there is an organized effort to persecute Christians and emasculate the church. And that Christians need to stand up and fight against the satanic forces that are wielding their ideological weapons.
While I struggle to see how my humanity, which is wrapped in the pastoral enclave of southern New Hampshire, connects with the people of Gaza who struggle continually for food, shelter, fear, grief, and safety, I have an even harder time seeing how I am the same with those who insist that America is under siege. I not only identify myself as a Christian, but for almost all of my life I have strived to embrace the message of the Gospel, and be a faithful follower of Jesus, whose compassion and witness brought people together from different backgrounds, life experiences and vocations. I don’t recognize the Christianity that Tim Alberta writes about. I don’t see how we are the same.
There are an increasing number of moments when I – and so many others like me, feel that our way of life is under siege: by the proliferation of guns, the intent to criminalize those who seek or perform abortions, the banning of books, escalating anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence, the marginalizing of LGBTQ people, the wanton airbrushing of American history, and on and on.
We all know grief – at different levels, to be sure. The intensity and ubiquity of grief in some corners of the world, may seem to be of such difference that we cannot see our common humanity in one another. But it is there. And we need to work at seeing it, honoring it, and do what we can to preserve the dignity of every human being.
And in this country, most of us know grievance – at the intransigence and nastiness of the other side. In an odd way that binds our humanity together; because beneath that grievance is fear; and we all know fear. The grievance and fear is used, by far too many on far too many platforms, to get us to see our differences first — to such a vindictive degree that we are instructed to seal ourselves off in our differences, and never venture beyond them. That our differences can never be reconciled. Never the twain shall meet.
Hard as it often is, I hold on to Henri Nouwen’s challenge. To see how we share the same fragile humanity. That we all experience, grief, joy, hope – and fear. Instead of exploiting our collective fear, a better way forward is to address it. Head on. Name it. I am buoyed by Jesus’ frequent admonition: fear not. That takes work. Confronting our fear has the potential to both reduce the fear and create cracks in our theological, ideological, and political bubbles so that our common humanity can emerge. Such a process can help us better deal with our differences. And can help free us from the “under siege” mentality, which can enable us to look at the world and one another from a more expansive perspective; and at the same time empower us to more effectively resist various global impulses to engage in siege.