What do you do with difference? – Francis Alvarez, SJ

At that time, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him…” (Mark 9:38).

Why did John attempt to stop this other exorcist he chanced upon? John’s answer: “Because he does not follow us.” Because the other exorcist was not one of them. Because he was different.

What do you do when you meet someone different from you? Do you step back and watch them out of the corner of your eye? Do you automatically feel your pockets to see if your wallet is still there? If ever you let them into your home, do you hide the good silverware and make sure the knives are under lock and key? Those who are different from us are many times met with mistrust, suspicion, and fear.

Sometimes, if we gauge ourselves stronger than they are, then it is we who instill fear in them. We intimidate and bully them. When I was in grade school, classmates who did not wear the brand of shirt everyone else wore – or wanted to wear – were teased. The same fate awaited those who had ears bigger than the norm, noses flatter than most, and skin darker than the rest. Many times, I joined in the teasing also – in the hope that people would not notice the unknown brand I had on and the ears which stuck out of my head too much. There were “in” people everyone wanted to be in with, and there were those who were “out.” We shunned them and tried our best make them feel out of place.

People who are different are ostracized and marginalized. We cut them off like feet and gouge them out like eyes which we are afraid will only bring us to sin. And so our society ends up crippled and blind. And so our society is cut off from the blessings those who are different can bring.

Jesus in our Gospel today tells us, “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.” But lest we become utilitarian about this whole matter and only see people in terms of what great “blessings they can bring,” Jesus reminds us that we welcome people not only because of their mighty deeds. I think that is the point of the very concrete example he gives: “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.” It does not matter if you can expel demons or if all you can do is share your cup of water. You are welcome in God’s Kingdom.

Pope Francis last week challenged the US Congress and the American people to welcome the stranger, the different, those who are not of their color and culture: “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. [T]housands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

How can we welcome those who are different from us?

From our Gospel today, we hear, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” This is a dramatic way of saying that we should avoid sin at all costs. But before we can avoid sin, we have to be able to recognize it lurking at the door and confess that many times we have already let it in our lives. The first step in welcoming those who are different from us is to admit that all of us have used (and most of us have abused) stereotypes of the “other.” Stereotypes can help us function more efficiently, and there is some truth to some stereotypes. But stereotypes can also blind us from truly seeing the other. One of the hardest things for me to admit is the fact that I do not know everything. When I struggle to understand why another person acts differently from me, there is a great temptation to just say that he or she is wrong and that my way is the right way. I have to look at myself in the mirror and remind myself many times: “You cannot see everything. There is another way of seeing things.”

When I was a child, my elders would try to keep me in line by threatening me: “Sige ka, ibibigay ka namin sa mga Aeta!” The Aetas for the six-year-old me were these savages from the mountains who went down to the city for the sole purpose of terrorizing little kids. They scarred their dark skin on purpose. They had no permanent homes. They were uncivilized. I was scared of them until I heard the story of an Aeta guiding a group of researchers up Mt. Pinatubo. Finding a guava tree rich with ripe fruit, the academics had their fill and harvested even more, stuffing their pockets and bags. To these scholars’ surprise, the Aeta guide took only one guava. Urged to take more by the learned group, the Aeta only said, “It would be good to leave some for the other travelers going this way.” The savage Aeta showed them what being civilized meant. Those who are different from us can teach us a different way of looking at things.

How else can we come closer to welcoming those who are different from us?

Maybe some will say, “We have to see that we are all the same.” I think that this is a later step. I think, too, that many disagreements explode because we assume we are all the same. But even those we have chosen to be our partners and friends, those we have grown up with and shared our lives with, even those who are closest to us are very different from us. “Why did they do it that way? If I were them, I would have done it this way.” But I am not them. He is not me. I am not her. And this is good. What kind of body would we be if we were all thumbs? A body that is all left feet will never be able to dance. Because we are different, we can be one body. We can be one.

When I was a high school religion teacher in Zamboanga, a Muslim student of mine invited me to celebrate Eid al-Fitr with her family. (I am embarrassed to say I had to Google what the end of Ramadan is called.) I went to show my student an example of inter-religious dialogue. When I arrived at their house, there were other Catholic guests there. Because my student’s family knew what for Filipino Christians constituted a proper feast, there was a table set aside just for lechon. Roasted pig in a Muslim house just for us hungry Catholics! In class, I talked about inter-religious dialogue in clear and distinct concepts. In that celebration, I was taught about how it happened in real life – some would add “in the messiness of real life.” Some would say “in the mystery of real life.” I will just say it happens in hospitality.

Why did God make us all different? Why didn’t God just make us all the same? Maybe it is because God knows how differences can enrich. Maybe it is also because we are created in the image and likeness of God. The “we” is important. No one person or race or culture can exhaust the infinity of God. But if we all come together, look at each other respectfully and generously, we can catch a better glimpse of our God.

 

 

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