Georgetown University Georgetown University Logo Berkley Center Berkley Center Logo

We Keep Each Other Safe

By: Emily Welty

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and Global Governance

When we consider the culture of encounter, we are implicitly asking what we owe one another, who the subjects are to be encountered, and what such encounters cost those who engage in them. Who is encountering? What forms do such encounters take? If the culture of encounter is predicated on right relationship to one another, how do we move towards that in a moment where individualism seems to take precedence over collectivity?

Marketing everywhere urges us to personally brand ourselves to compete in a global marketplace that demands that we announce our uniqueness. There is pressure, particularly acute for young people, to have their own take, a public pronouncement on each development be it cultural or political. We are told that we’ve never had more opportunities to share our particular, unique perspective with the rest of the world through our words, images, and videos.

And yet.

And yet, we are still living in the midst of a global pandemic in which it has never been clearer that our safety, that our very lives depend on one another.

As the glaciers melt and the waters rise, it has never been clearer that the actions of people on one side of the globe will affect those on the other. My carbon output may well cause the water to lap at your doorstep.

As we edge towards a brink of confrontation between nuclear-armed superpowers, we have no illusions that a nuclear detonation–wherever it occurs–will have catastrophic consequences for all of us. Our safety lies in each other’s hands.

What the pandemic revealed more clearly than ever is how much our safety depends on each other. The New York City subway system designed a new set of posters to remind riders to wear masks for all rides. One poster reads, “Save the life of someone you don’t even know.” This echoes a deeper truth, not of nationalism, which urges us to save the life of someone with whom we share imagined values–but a truth of religion, that we are one another’s keepers, not because we are the same but because we are strangers who are bound by our common humanity.

The decision to constrain our own behavior if it can protect someone more vulnerable is at the heart of what it means to be human and to be in touch with our humanity. Of course there have also been places where we have seen a meaner, less generous impulse also emerge–places where profit has been elevated over sharing, nations that have chosen the protection of their own citizens over the good of the whole. But those more selfish impulses do not erase the rush towards good that has also emerged.

The culture of encounter can take material form when we engage in mutual aid which stretches us beyond philanthropy or charity. Mutual aid centers the idea that we are bound to one another–and that we will experience times that we will be the recipient as well as times when we will be the benefactor in the community. Mutual aid has emerged in neighborhoods around New York City as a way that strangers can offer goods and services to one another outside of the traditional channels of charitable organizations. Just three blocks down the street from my apartment is our community mutual aid refrigerator and shelves. It is unassumingly placed on the sidewalk in front of a neighbor’s home who donates the electricity to keep the refrigerator running. When we have extra groceries, we leave them on the shelf and as neighbors pass by on the sidewalk, they are welcome to grab what they need. There is no expectation that one must meet a particular standard of need in order to participate, and there is no limit on what one can take. The community refrigerator is entirely based on our trust in people that we don’t even know. This lived representation of a culture of encounter challenges the notion that such expressions must necessarily take place face-to-face.

This same impulse of shared security and mutual aid extends from addressing food security to the way that we may also rethink our carceral system in the United States. The ethos of “we keep each other safe” might be distorted and appropriated to justify armed militias policing neighborhoods and taking the law into their own hands. But it might also undergird a rethinking of the way the criminal justice system has treated people as disposable, exposing them to even more brutality in prison without tending to the wounds that may have caused them to cause harm in the first place.

Transformative justice questions this disposability of one another and tries to find ways that harm can be addressed, that accountability can be offered outside of a traditional system that uses violence to punish and deter. This reimagining of justice fits profoundly within our religious traditions in the recognition that no one is beyond the love of God. This doesn’t mean that we ignore harm when it happens in our families and in our communities, but it does mean that we don’t entirely abdicate the responsibility to address that harm to the police, the jails, and the prisons. Transformative justice works with the principle that communities can offer greater support to survivors of violence and also greater systems of accountability to those who harm.

This insight–that both those who cause harm and those who suffer from harm should be supported by community–is profoundly different than the ethos of a system that delivers isolation, disconnection, and, in its most literal sense, solitary confinement as the ultimate punishment. Generally I find aphorisms to be too basic to offer any deeper insight into the human condition. However, the simple phrase “hurt people hurt people” seems to capture something profound that gestures back towards our mutual obligations to one another. This does not justify the harm that wounded, traumatized people inflict on others. But it does begin to complicate our tendency to divide the world neatly into the comfortable binaries of perpetrators/victims, criminals/ prey, guilty/innocent.

As the world right now scrambles to understand what is happening in Ukraine, the allure of dividing the world into heroes/villains, protagonists/antagonists, good guys and bad guys, has never felt more tempting. In a misplaced effort to calm our own frazzled nervous systems that vibrate with the anxiety of a potential nuclear war, we binge-watch the news or doom-scroll through our social media. There is an alternative to the simplistic narratives or to completely isolating ourselves from knowing what is happening entirely. That path lies in understanding ourselves as part of a global community that can impact and be impacted by what happens in other places–and to take that responsibility seriously, not only when we believe that we share something in common with the parties but particularly when we don’t. There is practical work to be done. Continuing to address global health disparities, work for climate justice, ban nuclear weapons, and create economic systems built on dignity rather than exploitation–all of these can help us to address the systemic roots of violence that fuel conflict both in our own communities and worldwide. This is the tangible manifestation of a culture of encounter. Our safety has never been more dependent on one another.