"I believe that in the Eucharist we are enacting God's vision for the Kingdom as revealed to us in the incarnation. The church is meant to be a Eucharistic community, embodying Eucharistic ethics."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29, NRSV)
This is an interesting question for those of us who understand the concept of the neighbourhood in a very privileged sense. By that I mean, we who are able to choose where we live. Who have the ability to move into settings of relative safety and comfort and better opportunities for our kids. Who surround ourselves with the people that we want and remove/protect ourselves from 'the types' that we don't. I don't necessarily mean to insinuate some sort of prejudice there, I'm just referring to decision making that is based on socio-economic advantage. We embrace diversity of race, belief, and orientation in our neighbourhoods; we just expect those around us to adhere to certain unspoken standards and values systems. The truth is, despite ethic or religious difference, we still want our neighbours to be the same as us in ideology and lifestyle. This makes loving our neighbours in this context a relatively risk-free venture.
The problem is, according to Jesus, being a neighbour is not dependant on proximity, convenience, or sameness. Rather, being a neighbour is about crossing the borders that divide us as human beings. Ethnic borders, religious borders, locational borders, economic borders, historical borders of past conflict, ideological borders, and yes, even the protective borders that offer us the safety and comfort we have been privileged enough to hold.
His answer offends the unspoken standards and value systems that his audience would have held to. It disrupts their basic human instinct for neatly compartmentalized lives. He calls them, and us, beyond the chosen boundaries of neighbourhood that they have made for themselves and into something far riskier - mercy.
I write this today because Canada is in an important position right now as we seek to respond to acts of violence that could very well divide us as people. Our instinct is to turn to fear and scapegoating, to build up our borders and hide behind suspicion and distrust of those who are different. The temptation to protect and entrench the 'sameness' of our neighbourhoods is very real. The question of neighbour-ness is just as relevant.
So who are our neighbours in Canada today?
It's interesting to me that when Jesus answers this question, who is my neighbour, he ends up reframing the question to become, who acted like a neighbour in this specific situation? I believe that we are in need of a similarly radical redefining of the very concept of neighbour in our specific situation. The question is not 'who are our neighbours.' The question needs to be, how are we showing mercy and kindness and hospitality to anyone who needs it regardless of the type of borders that separate us from them?
I guess the point is that we're all neighbours; what are we going to do to act like it?
Last week, as our world continued to tear itself apart, I was hanging out with St. Francis of Assisi.
By that I mean I spent the week at a Franciscan retreat centre outside of Orangeville taking a week long class on Spiritual Formation as I kicked off my return to formal education. But, I did have at least one meaningful interaction with him.
One night before dinner I was looking at all these framed sketches arranged on a wall going up a set of stairs that pointed to different scenes from the life of St. Francis. One in particular caught my attention, it was a drawing of St. Francis embracing a large wolf in the woods. I admit I lacked context for it so I asked someone who looked like they knew stuff - I was right, he did. The drawing was referencing St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. The premise sounded intriguing so I decided to download The Little Flowers of St. Francis for 90 cents on Kindle and went to read ‘The Most Holy Miracle of St Francis in Taming the Fierce Wolf of Gubbio’ outside in the woods the next morning. I was trying to engage my imagination.
It turned out to be a fascinating story and I was particularly drawn to the weirdness of it. It can be easy for us to dismiss stories like these that came out of ancient and medieval Christianity; but I’ve had a bit of a love affair for them since I started reading Bede in my undergrad. Anyways, in this one, St Francis goes and confronts a wild wolf that has been terrorizing the village of Gubbio, devouring it's residents, and then somehow manages to broker a peace deal between the wolf and the villagers. I told you it was weird.
Yet as I reflected on the story, trying to figure out why it mattered, I began to think about monsters and fear and hatred. The villagers fearing the wolf, saw it as their enemy. The story even mentions that they armed themselves "as if going to battle" whenever they walked around. In their fear they saw a savage beast, which made it easy to hate, which in turn justified their own intended violence towards it. This is how it is with our enemies. Out of fear we embrace hatred because that's what it takes to survive.
We're allowed to hate monsters.
I confess I've spent the better part of the last year trying to understand how a pacifist ethic could possibly work in our world. I've struggled with not seeing it as cowardly or avoidance. Asking myself if it would be possible for a nation to take a pacifist stance? Or, is my pacifism just an allowance of my own privilege? What does it mean to work for peace in our world as it is? How can peace be made when there are so many monsters in our world?
It turns out St. Francis may have an answer.
As the villagers and the wolf are preparing for some sort of Thunderdome style show-down, Francis puts himself between the two parties in an effort to make peace between them. Pacifism is, apparently, not passive at all. You can't seek reconciliation by sitting back and hoping it will happen. It's not about theory. It requires active presence in the face of violence.
Peace work is a risky business.
Then St. Francis does something even more absurd. Rather than appealing to reason or threat, he opens himself up to the perspective of the wolf.
"O brother wolf... as thou art willing to make peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil." For Francis, peace isn't made through the defeat of our enemies, it begins in empathy. It begins with a willingness to listen and to understand one another. To hear each other's stories. And this may be the most risky thing of all because it might ask us to give up our fear and our hatred towards our enemies. It might ask us to look past the vicious beast and to see a a broken and afflicted individual.
It's a lot harder to hate a monster with a story.
The way to reconciliation is messy. It's not simple, it's not reasonable, it's not even safe; but I'm struck by the way this story ended. "At last, after two years, [the wolf] died of old age, and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly." Is this not the perfect Kingdom image? Those of us who hope for peace root that hope in a vision for the future where enemies are turned into friends, where monsters become our beloved neighbours. Some may see that future as an impossible reality, a feeling I admit I have been struggling with lately, but St. Francis invites us to imagine the impossible again. He asks us to see a different way than the usual ways of violence and fear and hatred. He calls on us to take a stand between enemies and to consider what working for peace might really look like in our world.
It's a step into the crazy redemptive work of all things.