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Culture of Encounter: The Need for a Spirituality

By: Indunil J. Kodithuwakku K.

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and the Catholic Church

Today, with a broken heart, we are witnessing another war being waged in Eastern Europe. The world has yet to recover from a devastating COVID-19 pandemic and any war, at this hour, affects all, worsening our already ravaged and battered humanity and nature. It seems that “We have an attachment to war” and as a result “humanity is going backward in bringing about peace” (Pope Francis, To the participants of the Plenary Meeting of the Cong. for the Eastern Churches, February 18, 2022). He further underlines “Those who wage war forget humanity. They do not start from the people, […] but place partisan interests and power before all else. They trust in the diabolical and perverse logic of weapons, which is the furthest from the logic of God” (Angelus, February 27, 2022). How can we act on the appeal of Pope Francis: “Put down your weapons! God is with the peacemakers, not with those who use violence” (Angelus, February 27, 2022).

Warfare is the externalization of violence in the human heart. “For from within, out of the hearts of people, come the evil thoughts” (Mark 7:21). Leo Tolstoy, who influenced Gandhi’s thinking greatly, in his book Kingdom of God Is Within You noted that “the idea of nonviolence was central to the teaching of Jesus. In rejecting that truth through the centuries in favour of nationalism, war and imperialism, Christianity lost its way.”

Personal friendship with God who first encounters us in love impels us to encounter others in love, excluding no one. So, you start creating a culture of encounter with a person and relationship. St. Paul puts it this way: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything is made new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Thus, in a context of war and conflict, the culture of encounter strives to elevate the victim and the wrongdoer to a new place: freedom for the victim and repentance for the perpetrator. Therefore, the life of the perpetrator as well as the victim needs healing. St. Paul continues: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5: 20). All Christians are ambassadors on behalf of Christ with a message of reconciliation to pull down the walls of hostility. Thus, to be a Christian through baptism is a divine call for a purpose: “to ‘be sent out’ (Mark 3: 13-15), to engage actively in God’s mission, to become a co-worker with God for the salvation-transformation of the world into God’s final design” (John Fuellenbach, Church, Community for the Kingdom, 20).

Towards a Spirituality of the Culture of Encounter

  1. The traits of the culture of encounter: “Not just seeing, but looking; not just hearing, but listening; not just passing people by, but stopping with them; not just saying “what a shame, poor people!”, but allowing yourself to be moved with compassion; “and then to draw near, to touch and to say: ‘Do not weep’ and to give at least a drop of life” (Pope Francis, Morning Meditation, September 13, 2016).
  2. Storytelling and awakening religious consciousness: For better communication, the culture of encounter needs narrative theology or “theology as story” and narrative missiology.
    1. Storytelling to unveil injustice: The story of the Prophet Nathan disarms King David. In the first part of the story, David is a disinterested observer and in a second step, he moves emotionally from disinterestedness to empathy, thus identifying with the victim.
    2. Storytelling for liberation: The stories of different religions must lead their respective followers to a conversion of heart or the transformation of a self-centered person into a selfless one—from violence to peace. The peace activist Buddhist monk, the late Thich Nhat Hanh, in a poem entitled “Do not shoot your brother” points out that our enemies are within ourselves:
      Our enemy has the name of hatred
      Our enemy has the name of inhumanity
      Our enemy has the name of anger
      Our enemy has the name ideology
      Our enemy wears the mask of freedom
      Our enemy is dressed in lies
      Our enemy bears empty words
      Our enemy is not man
      If we kill man, with whom shall we live?
    3. Storytelling for universal fraternity: The ethical behavior of people is often shaped not only by the stories of their own tradition but also by those of others. “Gandhi’s ethical views were shaped not only by his own Hinduism but by Tolstoy’s writings on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the ethical views of Martin Luther King, Jr. were deeply shaped by Gandhi’s insights into the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavath Gita. Gandhi did not become a Christian and King did not become a Hindu, but in each case their own religious identity was deeply influenced by the other.” (Darelle Fasching, et. al., Comparative Religious Ethics, A Narrative Approach to Global Ethics, 6.)
  3. The culture of encounter and diplomacy: Pope Francis notes “Through your service, you are in a position to promote the culture of encounter. You are diplomatic officials, and all of your work aims at ensuring that representatives from nations, international organizations and institutions come together in the most profitable way to the growth of positive relations based on mutual understanding, respect and the common search for paths of development and peace.”
  4. Culture of encounter is opposed to throwaway culture: “Throwaway culture” means a society in which whole categories of people–the elderly, the ill, the poor, and so on–are regarded as disposable.
  5. Culture of encounter is proxy for mercy: Reconciliation seeks to restore the broken relationships through acknowledgement of the suffering of victims, the confession and transformation of perpetrators, public apologies, acts of forgiveness, public memorials, the healing of a wide array of wounds, and overcoming of hatred and enmity.
  6. Prayer and culture of encounter: Pope Francis explains: “Prayer awakens our conscience, expels inner fears, heals wounds, disarms the violent, tears down walls of enmity, facilitates forgiving and pardoning, brings about reconciliation, opens hearts to the cries of suffering, urges us to eradicate social sins, enables us to see everyone as our brother or sister, and transforms us to be peacemakers.”