When we dare to become individuals through the risk of entering into the silence where the voice of God speaks, something beautiful happens: we awake to our identity as a member of the human race. This might sound commonplace and ignorant, as if discovering our human identity should come as a surprise to us. But when we examine our lives and the forces that shape our existence, we may soon discover that we are often defined and driven by influences that are in fact de-humanizing.
Think about it. Being or becoming fully human is often something that is frowned upon, as if it is a state that we ought to escape. Here's one example. Have you ever heard someone say something along the following lines: 'I made a mistake, I am just human.'? Maybe you have used such words yourself. But think about the implication of such a simple phrase: 'I messed up ... because I am human.' Now, I have no quibble with the suggestion that we all mess up and make mistakes, but what I marvel at is the reason we so often give for being fallible: because we are human. But this is to mistake the human identity altogether. Maybe it is better to say that I mess up exactly because I am not fully human yet. I relapse because I am still in recovery; I don't relapse because I'm bound by fate to be a drunk.
Thomas Merton, who is always a source of inspiration to me, penned his own personal realisation of our shared human identity in the following way:
'It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member if the human race! To think that such a commonplace revelation should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.’
Indeed, there is no way of telling people that we are all walking around shining like the sun. To awake to our identity as creatures made in the image of God requires more than stale theoretical knowledge concerning abstract ideas. It asks for an awareness, a rebirth, a conversion - and all this is asked for on a daily basis. Regular silence and solitude can facilitate this ongoing shift in consciousness, and as such we should always return there in search of inspiration. But we cannot remain there. Silence, as well as the fruit of our silence, seeks to be shared - either by carrying our fruitfulness into our communities or by inviting others to enter into this silence that shouts louder than the clutter and confusion of this world.
When our presence in this world has been shaped by our silence and all the treasures we discover there, we can offer our fellow man that which we all so desperately need: rest, peace, shalom. Only when we have been stripped of our desire to coerce and manipulate our neighbour to become means in our own desired ends can we love them unconditionally, for only then do we see them for who they truly are instead of how we want them to be. Part of why we find it so difficult to discover and enjoy lasting friendships and healthy communities, I believe, has to do with our unhealthy preoccupation to change people into our own image instead of loving the image of God in them which they already express in a beautifully unique way - if only we had eyes to see; if only they had eyes to see.
To love in a way that liberates and empowers the recipient of our love to make their own choices - even the choice to misuse and reject our love - is to love our neighbour the way God loves us. It's a risky and often times painful love, but it is the only type of love that truly warrants its name. As such, if we are to enter into genuine solidarity with other people, we have to let go of the outcomes of our choice to love our neighbour unreservedly. It is all too easy to love our idea of community - of what people ought to be and become - instead of simply loving people in all their mess and glory. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said:
'He who loves his dream of a community more than the community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.'
Maybe all our talks and seminars about building thriving communities ignore that which is most obvious and that which is most difficult: if you want to build anything of value that exists for the benefit of people you simply cannot ignore or be indifferent towards the person breathing right next to you at any given moment in time. Let us not become experts in travelling land and sea to win one convert only to make such a person twice as much a son or daughter of hell as ourselves because our example showed him or her that it is okay to ignore the people we passed by on our way to reach them. If we live like this we don't love people, we simply love an ideal - and choosing to love an ideal more than the next person you meet is choosing to dehumanize your neighbour.
That is why true solidarity is such a beautiful thing. It cuts across the illusory boundaries we erect between ourselves and other human beings based on skin-deep differences such as race, religion and standards of respectability. It's not that these latter things don't matter, it's just that they are not primary to the man or woman who have decided to love his or her neighbour no-strings-attached. Part of the reason I still cling to the words of Jesus even though I feel largely uncomfortable with the mainline religion representing him is because of the kind of stuff he said over and over. 'You think you're something because you love your neighbour? That's good, but what is it to love those who love you back? What does it profit you to good to those who can do good back to you? I am calling you to love your enemies, to pray for those who persecute you, to shower grace on those who you have judged undeserving of it, to do good to those who can never pay you back or will never buy into your view of the world.'
What kind of world will we create if we take such words to heart?