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The space between us…

January 27, 2011

I have been reading Peter Dula’s recent book, Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology.  Engaging the philosophical work of Stanley Cavell, this project provides an important challenge to Christian imagination as we think about companionship in a polarized and violent world.  Dula’s writing marks out a space between the individual and community.  This post is an attempt to reflect on this space.

Dula seems to suggest that companionship requires a space where our attachments to particular accounts of tradition, community and practice do not predetermine the nature of relationship.  Companionship makes room for the skeptic—the other—in ways that the community cannot or will not.

Companionship happens in a space between the individual and community.  It is a liminal space—the shape of which we cannot know in advance.  Perhaps it is the space out of which authentic community is born.  It is the space between questions and answers.

The tone of our political and religious discourse suggests that Dula has good reason to be skeptical that companionship is possible in community–where other interests dictate the nature of our relationship.  Economic interests.  Political views.  Truth.  Whether we get our truth from reading the biblical text, the Wall Street Journal, or watching television, our tendency is to stay within the space where tradition, community and practice are wielded as power over the other.  Relationship with community is often contingent on conformity.

Communal space often presumes to be catholic space, ontological space, inerrant space.  It is this space from which we burn heretics.  It is this space from which we slander the views of another.  It is the space from which we speak of the axis of evil.  It is the space from which we fight just wars. It is from this space that we speak polemical rhetoric.  It is to preserve this space that we disassociate with the other who is too rigid or too loose in her reading of the text.  Truth trumps relationship.

What is required to enter this space between the individual and community?  Companionship calls us to vulnerability.  It requires a willingness to see the relationship as mutual treasure.  It is a space that requires mutual listening. It requires a willingness to live with paradox and ambiguity.

It is a space where we acknowledge that Hagar has a story to share as well as Sarai.  It is openness to the possibility that Ishmael (who is circumcised on the same day as Abraham) also has a story to tell.  The difficulty lies, of course, with our assumption that we already know everything there is to know about Ishmael’s story.  We have missed the possibility that we know nothing until we become friends with Hagar and Ishmael.

Why do we presume to know Ishmael’s story?  Because we read the text and we know that his story is not our story.  Because our imagination is limited—we have predetermined what the text must say—we see Ishmael as a marginal character in our story.  Our story moves on without him.  We are the chosen, the blessed…God’s people.  Hagar is an Egyptian slave girl.  Ishmael is the result of sin.  He must be scapegoated.  We miss the fact that God also blesses Ishmael.

Later on when he comes back into our story, we see him as other—not as a child of Abraham like us.  We fight crusades against him.  We burn him at the stake.  We force his mom to wear a scarlet letter.  We take his land and sell him into slavery.  We shun him.  We ban him.  We blame the economic meltdown on him.  We write scathing editorials about him.  All this is possible because we have read the text and we know that Ishmael’s story is not our story.  He is not like us.  He is other.

Companionship calls us to a space with the other where we suspend our reading of the text.  At least, our well-worn reading of the text does not predetermine the shape of the friendship or the outcome.  We enter the space prepared to discover a mutual treasure as we listen to Ishmael’s story—share our story.

We may find that Ishmael understands his story without or against our communal reading of the text.  This may produce anxiety within us.  If we stay with the relationship we will be disoriented—perhaps even call into question our readings of the text.  This is the risk of moving into a space beyond Constantinian catholicity…the space beyond inerrant private readings of text.  This is the risk of kenosis.  This is the risk of incarnation.  This is the risk of love.

Where is this space?

It is the space between Dirk Willems and his pursuer.

It is the space between German princes and the 100,000 peasant farmers whose demands for reform were violently rejected.

It is the space between medieval Moors and Christians…contemporary Palestinians and Jews.

It is the space between those who prop up the military industrial complex and the soldiers on the front lines committing suicide.

It is the space between those who vote Republican, those who vote Democrat, those who vote Tea Party, and those who don’t vote…

It is the space between your self-reliance and my self-reliance…the space between your gift and my gift.

It is the space between those who have food and those who do not.

It is the space between emerging movements and established church structures…between incarnational neighborhood monasticism and congregational church.

It is the space between your gitter done and my let’s think about it…between your corobarashunda and my Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner…

It is the space between Lutheran and Mennonite companions meeting at Emmaus Table seeking together a generative language with which to share gospel stories…a space beyond denominational structures…beyond Christendom imagination and market pragmatism

It is the space between Anabaptist and Orthodox Christians reading the church fathers and John Howard Yoder.

It is the space in which Lancaster Mennonite Conference leaders are listening to men and women share stories about their journey as sexual beings…it is a space between slippery slopes and fearful denial…

Where is this space?  It is the space between power and weakness.  It is the space between sameness and otherness.  It is the space between fear and love.  It is the space between any two human beings.  The space between you and me.

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