Commentary: Each Person Another Self

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I spent my earliest years in a troubled, rust-belt city that was plagued by economic depression and racial tension. Ironically, they were some of the best times of my life, if only because of the courage displayed by a variety of people looking for a more loving way.

At one point, when I was about eight years old, small gangs representing various racial and ethnic traditions roamed the streets and alleyways, looking for someone of a different identity to harass or even attack. Two friends from the neighborhood, Gary and John (one white and one black), were walking together and were jumped by a hostile group with chains. When it became clear that John was the target, Gary shouted, “Hit me. If you want to hurt somebody, hit me.”

In that moment, Gary offered his very personhood as protection for his friend and, in effect, John became another self for Gary.

The brutality was real and tragic, but it should come as no surprise to Christians. Humans are of inestimable worth, intrinsic worth – but their behavior is often abhorrent. I am reminded of a God who climbed down into history and confronted such brutality. When the reigning culture marshaled its collective violence to silence him, this God as Jesus said, in effect, “Hit me. If you want to hurt somebody, hit me.” It is a construal of Christ’s atonement that many will resist, and I must confess to being baffled by it all. But I also know that in this moment, God in Christ offered his very personhood for all – especially those who are “different.”

During the excruciating years of the American Civil War, Wesleyan/Holiness prophet and activist, Asa Mahan, gave a series of lectures on the work of the Holy Spirit. It seemed a very docile, professorial thing to do amidst national conflagration. Yet Mahan, an ardent abolitionist, spoke of three basic options for human relationships, and these options were for those who wanted to move beyond conflict.

First, there is a kind of “tolerance” for those who are different. This live-and-let-live principle is not bad, but it requires little in the way of courage or commitment.

Second, there is a kind of “partnership” that promises deeper accord. In partnership, people from different backgrounds work for a common end. Many would consider partnership the apex of relationships. Not Mahan. Partnerships can be equitable, and they can serve higher purposes. They can also serve as cover for those with power and privilege. I am often contacted by assertive people wanting to “partner” with me. Typically, what they really mean is they want me to get others to follow them or for me to do what they want me to do. The language of partnership is especially prominent in business culture and secular leadership theories, where leveraging influence seems to be the name of the game.

Finally, according to old Dr. Mahan, there is “fellowship” or “solidarity.” Here common ends are important, but they cannot be invoked to use others. Getting someone else to advance our agenda is not the core of solidarity. After all, what happens when others do not contribute to our desired end? Do they possess less value? Do they have a weaker claim upon our humanity? The same God who came for each and every human being calls us to love likewise, regardless of whether others fit our expectations or agendas. This unconditional affirmation Asa Mahan termed true fellowship – solidarity. He described it as a dynamic where each person becomes, to the other, “another self.” This way of conceiving human interaction relies on the work of God more than the desires of those with power. It also recognizes the value of each and every person.

I pray that living the way of solidarity will seldom require facing down assailants wielding chains. Sadly, sometimes it may. Sometimes the assailants may even look like us, whatever our primary community may happen to be. The world is a dangerous place, but it can be made better. However we should not be fooled. It will not be improved by trendy notions of “partnership.” This is the real world. It needs the steely love of solidarity, and that is a power from God.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Richard Hicks
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Lots of words brother. Tighten it up.

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