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Culture of Encounter and Intercultural Living

By: Shalini Mulackal

August 23, 2022

The Culture of Encounter: National and Local Dynamics

Christian faith affirms that God gave the gift of existence to humans with a promise of a better and fuller existence hereafter. Humanity is marching towards that finality, with each generation trying to become better human beings than the previous ones. Founders of various religions have played a role in guiding humanity in this process. Jesus, who was born 2,000 years ago, showed a new way to reach our destination. It is the way of love, love for God and love for one’s neighbor. Jesus proclaimed the approaching reign of God, a vision of a new humanity where all live as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of a loving God, living in peace and harmony.

What is the present reality of our world in general, and India in particular, as we compare it with Jesus’ dream for our world? The first impression that one gets is that our present reality is far removed from God’s plan for us. Of course, the present culture of violence, war, consumerism, and materialism is diametrically opposed to the vision of the reign of God which Jesus proclaimed. There is more individualism, selfish attitudes, and desire for self-satisfaction and self-preservation at any cost than there is love of one’s neighbor or even one’s own kith and kin.

As far as India is concerned, hatred against one religious community is being publicly endorsed at present, and violence against other religious minorities is being normalized. “Divide and rule” is the dictum that politicians follow in order to remain in power. As a result, divisions based on religion, language, ethnicity, caste, etc., are openly promoted. The evil of the caste system, which has religious underpinnings in Hindu scriptures, runs contrary to the Christian understanding of humans being created equal in dignity and worth. According to the Rig Veda, human beings are not created equal. Some are superior and others are inferior depending on the caste into which one is born.

However, the above is not the whole of reality. There was a time when India welcomed peoples of other faiths, especially the Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Indian culture, mainly shaped by a Hindu way of life, was tolerant towards others. With the Indian constitution affirming India as a secular, democratic, and socialist republic, for decades after independence Indians lived in peace and harmony. India had been a multicultural and pluri-religious country for millennia. But all that our ancestors, especially those who drafted the Indian constitution, had envisaged India to be has been somehow subverted. Today, the slogan promoted by the ruling party and their ideology of “one nation, one culture, one religion, and one language” is counter to the very ethos and constitution of India, which is multicultural and multireligious. It is in this context that the call of Pope Francis to build a culture of encounter becomes very significant.

Cutting across various religions and cultures is the ideology of the caste system which hierarchically stratifies Indian society into the so-called “higher castes, lower castes, and outcastes.” Today, most Indians, irrespective of their religious affiliation, have internalized the caste ideology of seeing the other as either superior or inferior to oneself on the basis of one’s birth into a particular caste. Christians, including the clergy and religious, are no exception to this rule. In such a caste-ridden society, the culture of encounter is extremely challenging, if not impossible.

The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman becomes remarkable in this context. Jews considered themselves pure and superior in comparison to the Samaritans. Any respectful rabbi was forbidden to enter into conversation with a woman in public. But Jesus dares to go beyond such rules and starts a dialogue with this so-called “outcaste” woman who is not even living a morally upright life, having had five husbands without counting the man she is living with at the moment. Whether her marital state of having had five husbands is symbolic or literal, what is important for us to note is the dialogue between Jesus and the woman. There is no doubt that the encounter with Jesus brought a transformation in the life of that woman. She leaves behind her water jar and runs to tell her people about Jesus. I am sure that her conversation had a positive impact on Jesus as well.

My own research among Catholic women of Dalit origins who are considered as outcastes and untouchables has shown that many of their religio-cultural rituals and practices stem from their deep human need to be respected in society. This is what Archbishop Paul Gallagher rightly observed in his keynote address: “Human beings need respect as much as they need food, and mutual respect is the first form of love because it recognizes the intrinsic value of the other as a person created in the image of God.”

The identity of a person cannot be separated from his or her cultural identity. Respecting the other person invariably means respecting his or her culture and religion. With large-scale migration taking place, today most countries are multicultural and pluri-religious. The first step towards creating a culture of encounter is to recognize cultural diversity as something positive and God-given and to recognize that different cultures add to human richness. To create a culture of encounter, one has to be critically aware of one’s own culture, its positive aspects, and the not-so-positive aspects. The second step is to experience the joy of encountering other humans and their cultures and develop the ability to live with them in peace and harmony. The third step is intercultural living where one relates to other human beings and their cultures– sharing with them the value of one’s own culture and allowing oneself to be enriched and transformed by the other and his/her cultural richness.

Critiquing one’s own culture and respecting another’s culture will not happen spontaneously or automatically. We need to educate ourselves and the young in various ways, including the use of social media, on how to live interculturally. Such intercultural encounters cannot help but become a force toward establishing social justice, fellowship, and peace in a world that is steeped in injustice, individualism, and violence.