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Our Time in Rome and the Culture of Encounter in Action

By: Barbara Schellhammer

August 22, 2022

Reflections on Rome: The Experience of Encounter

I would like to share three lessons I took away from our time together in Rome as examples of the culture of encounter in action.

The first goes back to a very clear and distinctive understanding of the injustices and pains inflicted by colonialism. Having worked with Indigenous peoples in Canada, I am quite aware of the social, cultural, and psychological consequences of colonialism. However, having numerous conversations with one of my fellow colleagues in Rome made me aware of the fact that my sense for the ongoing culture of colonialism is weak compared to her sharp and sensitive way of picking up power imbalances. Even during our time at the conference, she would call attention to subtle occurrences–for example, the tensions that arise between who speaks and how we listen depending on who speaks. Although in my rational mind I know that men usually take the center stage in philosophy, I am so used to it that I listen with my culturally inert stance, thereby also giving them center stage in my inner self. We are so much a part of the culture that we come from and the history we are entangled in that it will be an important task for the culture of encounter to reflect on ourselves. For this we need people like my colleague; we need others to make us aware of the things we wouldn’t be able to see for ourselves. Rome showed me, once again, that an impactful culture of encounter can’t be homogeneous; it has to be diverse. Thus, we would fall into another extreme if we were to exclude some “cultures” like “colonizers,” “settlers,” or “old white men.” “cancel culture” can’t be the solution. A culture of encounter has to be inclusive, and yet it has to be able to open an “ethical space of engagement,” a phrase I borrow from the Cree scholar Willie Ermine. This genuine and disclosing space makes us aware of our responsibility and our accountability for the injuries we (our culture) inflict upon others as well as for our vulnerability and the wounds we still suffer from. Again, I think we need others to make us aware of both. 

The second lesson that had a profound impact on me relates to the personal precondition for engaging in this “ethical space of engagement.” It has to do with the term “forgiveness.” Another fellow in our culture of encounter group taught me the meaning of forgiveness in Rwandan. In Western psychology, “forgiveness” usually means to consciously work on letting go of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who inflicted harm. This work very much stays within yourself; it is work that we do to cope with hatred, to break free of the negative attachment to an offender, to heal. Also, when we hear the word “forgiveness” we think of the act of asking for forgiveness, which can be a huge burden for victims and could even re-victimize them. The Rwandan word kubabarira connotes suffering, more precisely the sharing of this suffering with others. It means to “suffer with compassion” (com-passion, feeling-with). It means to “also walk in the offender’s suffering,” my colleague explained. Although I am very intrigued by this thought and I am aware of similar concepts – for example, Dan Bar-On’s idea in the Israel-Palestinian context of seeing the victim and the offender in oneself as well as the victim in the offender – it is still something I grapple with. I also like an insight of “non-violent communication” (Marshall Rosenberg),  namely that we ought to look past the angry, negative, and maybe even harmful behavior of the other and into the realm of his or her unmet needs, wounds, and sufferings. Since we all have the same needs and we all suffer, we may be able to find bridges that enable us to forgive. However, it seems to take a lot to be able to “walk in the offender’s suffering.” I hope we can continue our conversations around these issues, as they may help us break many vicious circles of violence we see around the world. At the same time I have a lot of open questions, as it must be so incredibly hard to “suffer with compassion” growing up in a country like Rwanda. 

The last insight I find very important is that there is no singular culture of encounter, but rather many different cultures of encounter. Talking of a culture of encounter bears the risk of using the term “culture” in a colonial way. Culture and encounter are inherently interconnected. Every encounter is special and unique and thus creates a very unique culture between the people who meet. Each person brings his or her own cultures to the encounter. Therefore, we should explicitly look at culture as a plural concept. Interestingly, in the German language, the term evolved from its singular form “Kultur” as an ideal – that all peoples should have a single “culture” in keeping with traditional European understandings of modernity and justifications for imperialism – to the plural understanding of “Kulturen,” the simple, but very impactful awareness that we are all different and, in this difference, equal. Thus, we should not search for a set of characteristics or features of a culture of encounter or for recipes for building one. Rather, we should continue our practice of living it, exposing ourselves to it, and trying to describe and exchange perspectives about how we experience it and how it transforms us. What helps us to engage; what hinders us? How do we deal with the burden of our different, yet entangled pasts? When do we experience “dis-encounters” (Martin Buber talks of “Vergegnung” as a failed meeting instead of “Begegnung”) and how do we deal with them? In this messy process, we will experience many different cultures of encounter and cultivate these encounters by learning about the diverse cultures we come from.