THE DIVERSITY WHICH CROSSES US
Every Christian, to me, moves and works among others like the disciples of Emmaus. These were moving towards the village of Emmaus, together with a foreigner (“You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days”): they had to share the same bread to recognise Jesus in him (cfr Lk 24, 13-35).
It is from the unknown and as a stranger that the Lord always reaches his house and his own. “Look, I shall come like a thief” (Rv. 16, 15; cfr 3,3). Those who believe in him are unceasingly called to recognise him like this, a faraway inhabitant, an unrecognisable neighbour or a separated brother, met on the way, shut up in a prison, living with derelicts or ignored, almost mythic, in a region beyond our frontiers. The mystic also rushes into the Church as a killjoy, an importune, a stranger. It has been like this for all the great spiritual and apostolic movements. On the contrary, every Christian is tempted to become an inquisitor, like that of Dostoeskij, and to eliminate the stranger.
“This sends us back to something even more bewildering, yet fundamental for our Christian faith: God remains the stranger, one whom we do not know, though we believe in Him; he remains a stranger for us, in the thickness of our human experience and our relations. But He is also undervalued, one whom we don't want to recognise and who, as John says, is not welcome into His house by His own (Jo 1,11). At the end, we shall be judged on this. This is the ultimate exam of our Christian life: have we welcome the stranger, visited the prisoner, given hospitality to the other (Mt 25, 35-36)?
“We must be realistic. The Church is a society. Now, every society is defined for what it excludes. It constitutes itself by being differentiated. To form a group means to create strangers. Here we have a bipolar structure which is essential to every society: it poses an “outside” so that an "among us" may exist; it earmarks frontiers to map out an inside country, "others" so that a "we" may take body.
This law is also a principle of elimination and intolerance. It leads to dominate, in the name of a truth defined by the group. To defend ourselves from the stranger, we either absorb or isolate it. Conquistar y pacificar, two terms for the old Spanish conquerors. But are we not doing the same thing, with the pretext of understanding others and, for instance in the field of ethnology, of identifying them with what we know or think of them?
"Just because she is also a society, though of a particular kind, the Church is always tempted to contradict what she states, to defend herself, to obey the law which excludes or suppresses the strangers, to identify the truth with what she says of it, to count the "good persons" on the basis of her own visible members, to lead man back to God, to be nothing but justification and the idol of an existing group. History proves that this temptation is real. This poses a big problem: is it possible to be witnesses of God and not to limit oneself in making of God one's own possession?
“The Christian experience refuses deeply this reduction to the law of the group, and this is reduced to a movement of ceaseless overcoming. We could say that the Church is a sect that does not accept to be a sect. She is constantly pulled out of herself by those "strangers" who deprive her of her goods, who always surprise the elaboration and the institutions acquired with fatigue, and in which the living faith slowly, slowly recognises the Thief, the One who comes”1.
This long quotation introduces us immediately, though somehow harshly, into the very heart of the reflection we wish to make. It helps us to clear up the field from two fundamental risks.
The first one is to think with a too easy poesy, with a simplistic irenics, of the theme on the stranger, on the other, on the diverse; as the text says, we are supposed to be realistic; the diversity disquiets and questions us; it is perceived as a dangerous menace, because of the basic mechanisms of our personal and social identity structure. For the believers it is still clearer: only in the Trinity the diversity of persons is also the perfect identity of nature, experience of a plural and distinct communion. We are not God and, moreover, we are marked by the original sin: for us the distance is also a faraway place and the distinction always threatens. Only an ethical choice which is vigilant on the difficulties to be taken, only the building of our own way of life within a fundamental option and its consequences, clearly and strongly individuated, allow a constant and progressive conversion to what is not a generic "good natural instinct".
But this for the believers, and here is the third risk, is not a marginal choice, concerning a kind of “luxury” or a “surplus”, just as if we could be Christian and then decide to live or not the diversity as a menace. It is the matter of something which regards the centre itself of our experience of faith, something having many concrete and distinct consequences, but which, in itself, is substantially the great radical question on which we decide to follow Christ, to live according to the Spirit and the possibility of becoming divine.
God, the stranger in our history
Let's start from this point: the question is radical because the true, great, definitive Other, the stranger, is God himself. He is all that history is not; He is the potentiality of every possible diversity, because He himself has put us as "others" in creation, in order to establish and recognise our freedom as superior to our capacity of having it. He has given us freedom so that we might be in relation, we might choose the bond with Him as free from the need of the identity.
This structure of diversity and relation is our own constitutive structure; we are different from God, fisrt of all, we are creatures and not creators, it follows that our relation with Him is not only possible, but also free and elective. Here lies the big paradox of Christianity; whatever is distinct, calls, for a loving bond, as fulfilment of freedom2.
The paradigm of this distinction and of these paradoxical bonds is in the Son made man, perfectly obedient in his total humanity: Calcedonia expresses this well with the technical formula about the two distinct and not confused natures in Jesus, perfectly united and never separated, never without the "other" from self.
Being different from God since creation, others from Him, at the same time "to His image" (differently from the Son who, as John says, is " image", direct, without preposition), we are in the condition of dwelling radically in this fracture: the diversity, the alterity disquiets us and, at the same time, it is the necessary condition of our freedom and fullness.
This is why salvation, which reaches us in Jesus, is like the adoption of children in the Son; if He "attracts us to himself", we can be divinized, that is, inserted in the loving dialogue of the Trinity, who keeps every distinction in perfect communion.
This is the basic theological structure from where the Christian starts his reflection on the alterity which we may experience, on all differences: from here, and only from here, we can reason about what competes us and what happens to us in history: on what we are called and the steps required to walk towards the Kingdom, where everything will be returned to Christ and from Christ to the Father.
The first step: to acknowledge the diversity
The first step to be highlighted, therefore, and then to realise, is to recognise this diversity as a datus, to know it again, that is to give it a name as to something which was already ours (in creation) and whose sense, whose direction has been confused by sin: the confusion of the tongues in Babel has made us to lose the "names" (that is, according to the mythic language, the sense, the deep and identifying reality, together with possession and the government).
It's a matter of finding again, progressively, in the listening to the Word, in familiarity with God and His design in history, and in the Spirit, who makes us children of God with the grace of the sacraments, the original conformation, as a habitation of a fully relational difference.
The first difference to be re-cognised is, therefore, the difference between self and self: the diversity between the measure of the desire in our heart and the possibility of our competent nature; the diversity is not an experience to be known, as an external boundary passing outside us, where a possessed presumed unity of self would meet a diversity, equally possessed, of others. For the believer, the primary experience is that the diversity crosses us, breaks our heart: in fact, it is the matter of the diversity between the image of the Creator and the reality of the creature. This is well expressed by David Maria Turoldo in poetry:
Always torn apart by the 'double thought':
this not wanted and wanted evil: conflict and fiction
which last the lifelong:
prodigal son and senior brother together
and you, to give foundation to you piety3..
We aren't a unity which we possess: we are an invoking desire: this is the realism of the believer.
To re-cognise this diversity, which we could call ontological, is the necessary basis to live, as believers, also all the external diversities, because this self "dispossession" is the condition to face the other, the creature as self-dispossessed, therefore, not threatening, beyond any attitude he may assume.
The second step: to become translators
But concrete attitudes do exist and, at least in history, they produce, both our own and that of others. What to do, then?
To use an image, we are to become "translators". In a more static society, where the diversities were used much more within the structure of the person that in its external rationality, perhaps the dominant image could be that of the copyists: it was the matter of transmitting and keeping with faithfulness and care the patrimony of a balance between the diversity of the Creator and that of the creature, as well as their necessary and free rationality reached after centuries of Christianity. The Summa of St. Thomas is the stupendous cathedral of a well-run and known journey, enlightened afresh with the luminosity of a diamond, whose facets refract thousands of perfect lights.
The ontological difference existed, but was articulated in a history which produced (or intended to produce) the contemplative fruit of equality, of the transmission.
But it happened that this balance was broken: to a certain extent, it itself produced its own need of overcoming, as the quotation at the beginning of this article tells us; the pieces of unity, all of them, break up and crush down, leaving behind only ruins of the stupendous cathedral, just as if an invasion of barbarians had cross the whole territory.
Then, as intellectuals converted to the barbarians and to the wisdom they bring along, we are to become translators, without copyrights, admirers of exotic and unknown landscapes, which attract us, even without having ever seen them; what now is transmitted is the narration, not only a definite content, but the narration of journeys, of other places, of motherlands desired by those who, anyhow, experience to be exiled.
“ … But the copyist changes its body into the word of the other, imitates and incarnates the text in a liturgy of reproduction, simultaneously he gives the body to the word (verbum caro factum est) and turns the word into its own body (hoc est corpum meum), in a process of assimilation which cancels all the differences to give place to the sacrament of the copy. The translator, who in his turn exercises the job of the printer or of proto, is an operator of differentiation. Like the ethnologist, he stages a foreign region, even if he does it to make it appropriate, allowing its language to be disturbed: the manufacture of the other, but in a field which is not prevalently his and where he has no copyright. He produces without a place, which belongs to him, in an intermediate space, along the line where more languages meet and roll up in themselves. The copyist and the translator have the same obstinate resistance, the first, however, more contemplative and with an identification rite, while the second in a more ethical way, with a production of alterity. The History of the Mystics might have converted the copyist into translator, into ascetic who, prisoner of the other's language, and thanks to it, creates a possible one, though losing himself among the crowd. Anyhow, the ways of speaking, depend on this itinerant activity which does not have a place of its own”5.
To become translators not only of words and languages, obviously: it is a matter of translating realities, of being more concretely worried of being a transit place than a depositor of the "whole reason" expressed in an incomprehensible language; of making oneself and one's life, a meeting place of exchange and of progressive reciprocal understanding.
Looking again for common words in reality, going back along the paths of Pentecost, contrary to Babel: Pentecost, where we do not return to speak the same language, but where each one, in wonder, discovers to understand in one's own mother tongue; the diversity is not cancelled, but it is no longer a hindrance to communion.
This operation constitutes the second step.
Third step: co-citizens of the Saints and God's family members
Here is the “final result”, as far as the time of history is concerned: the experience of fraternity, a radical fraternity, whose measurement is the fraternity established in Christ, by God, with humanity.
Christ, Word of the Father, the One who reveals Him (hermeneutic, namely translator), re-establishes the bond, the possibility of relation which overcomes the abyssal difference between the Creator and the creature. In Him, and in Him alone, we are returned our self- availability and, therefore, the fullness of our distinct and loving relation.
The way Christ re-establishes all this is not self-affirmation , the affirmation of one's own identity, but the perfect obedience to the will of the Father, obedience up to death and death of the cross. Then:
Men go to God in their tribulation,
they cry for help, they ask happiness and bread,
salvation from illness, from fault, from death.
This is what all men do, both Christians and pagans.
Men go to God in tribulation,
they find him poor, outraged, without roof or bread,
they see him consumed by sins, weakness, death.
The Christians are near God in his suffering.
God goes to all men in their tribulation,
he satisfies body and soul with his bread,
he dies on the cross for Christians and pagans,
he forgives these and those.
For those who believe in Christ, the radical fraternity is established in relation with God, the Father, and with his will; going to God (whatever the motive, whether it is our tribulation which leads both Christians and pagans to seek help, or his tribulation which leads the Christians to the desire of being close to him, at the feet of the cross), whatever the motive, going to Him we meet one another on the way and we find ourselves under the radical forgiveness dispensed by Him. On this common road, in this reciprocal forgiveness we find the foundation of a theological, not pragmatic, fraternity (sorority).
It is true that the pragmatic fraternity, expressed in the first stanza of the above-quoted poem by D Bonhoeffer, is not to be despised and it reveals in itself already a high level of humanity, but it is also true that for the Christians the second stanza is also necessary: the recognition of our duty to stay with God, in his radical fraternity to history, is the ultimate, true spiritual sense. This allows us to see already here, in history, what will be unveiled to all men at the end of time: namely that all of us are living under the merciful forgiveness of God.
What are we to do meanwhile? While waiting for the full truth of history and of its differences to be manifested in a great communion, like that of the Trinity, while we cover the distances to weave translations, which will consent us to dialogue, while we live the tribulations, which send us to ask help, consolation salvation from God?
Meanwhile it is a matter of being also and always on the way to truthfulness and rectitude.
"We have been silent witness of wicked actions, we know things more than the devil, we have learnt the art of simulation and ambiguous talking; experience has made us diffident with men and often we are left in debt of the truth and of a free worth with them, unbearable conflicts have urged us to give in or to be cynical: can we still be useful? We shall not stand in need of geniuses, cynical people, refined strategists, but rather of sincere, simple, straightforward men.
Has our strength of interior resistance against what is imposed on us be kept alive, and the sincerity towards ourselves implacable, so as to let us find once again the path of sincerity and righteousness?7.
It is a humble way (of humiliation, of lowering like that of our Master), first of all humble in its project; in this humility is the secret of our entering the dynamics of obedience to the Father. It is a hard life, a life of rigour and exigency. But it is the way which the Lord has followed before us. Does any other possible way exist for his disciples?