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Compassion for the ‘Other’: The Narrow Gate to Heaven on Earth

Reflection before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, Minneapolis

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it is my privilege to be able to reflect with you on today’s readings. At first glance, today’s Gospel from Luke appears to offer us a generous dollop of hell, fire and brimstone. According to this reading, someone asks Jesus if only a few will be saved. To which he responds: “Do your best to enter through the narrow gate, for many will try to enter but not be able. The householder will rise and close the door” He then allegedly goes on to say “There will be weeping and grinding of teeth when you see your ancestors and all the prophets in the realm of God and yourselves thrown out.” The reading ends with “Those now last will be first, and those now first will be last.”

Let me just be honest and say that this was hard for me to read, if not a bit repugnant as it goes against everything I have come to understand about Jesus as an open and inclusive teacher who frequently transgressed conventional norms that were exclusionary. A further complication for me is that I don’t really believe in heaven in the conventional sense of someplace out there where you go in the afterlife. Lastly, “Those now last will be first, and those now first will be last” sounds to me like, paraphrasing Karl Marx, a palliative for the masses to put up with current injustices and wait for their reward in the afterlife.

Having sat with these readings for a few days, and discussed them with the Word Team, let me share with you how I have come to terms with these texts. I have three potential insights to share, including: 1) some thoughts on the nature of the process, or project, of making heaven on earth; 2) the idea that heaven, or a more just world, is pluralistic, that is, a place where many different ideas and peoples peacefully coexist; and 3) that compassion for the ‘other’ is the key to building heaven on earth.

First insight. While I told you earlier that I don’t really believe in heaven in the conventional sense, what I do believe is that we are called to make heaven on earth or a more just world. With this in mind, what I believe Luke could be suggesting in the gospel with his ‘narrow gate’ metaphor is that we have these limited opportunities to make the world a better place and that we, as people of God, need to be prepared to act when these opportunities arise. This makes sense to me on at least two levels. For starters, one of my graduate degrees is in public policy, and we studied the idea of a policy window, a rare moment when the stars align and you can push through transformative reforms. The opening of such policy windows is often dependent on tenacious social movements to create them, and then adept policy makers who know how to ‘read the room’ and judge when the moment is right to push hard for reforms. The civil rights act, and more recent marriage equality reforms, all involved some measure of both social movements and adept policy moves. Additionally, embedded in this message of passing transformative reforms through a narrow gate is the idea of being prepared. That you need a plan and you need to be ready when such moments arise. Two weeks ago Doug Meeker shared a reflection that touched on the parable of the wedding feast and the servants’ need to remain awake for the time when the householders returned. They needed to be ready and prepared. While some of our leaders have no plans, and claim to have the ability to magically act in the moment on instinct, most successful social justice reformers have a plan and have rehearsed what to do when a critical moment arrives. It may look improvised, but it is not. This was, for example, the case for Rosa Parks and her famous refusal to sit at the back of the bus.

Furthermore, the process of creating heaven on earth, or a more just world, is not linear. I used to think that once we got there, our work would be done. As some of you may know, I am an academic geographer who mainly does research in Africa. Because of this work, for more than 30 years I have been travelling to the continent and often must explain the behavior of American presidents to my African collaborators. I have apologized for Reagan, and then for each of the Bushes. Finally, when Barack Obama came along, here was someone I could feel good about. Not that Obama was perfect, I continued to have a lot of issues with some of his policies, but – if I am totally honest – there was something about having an African American in the White House that assuaged my guilt as a White American male. At last, I thought, we were moving beyond the sins of the past and America would be a better place because were sufficiently over racism to elect an African American president. How could I have imagined Donald Trump and the resurgence of the ugliest and most overt forms of white nationalism in my lifetime. Everything we had attained seems to be unraveling. But today’s second reading from Hebrews exhorts us to persevere. In fact, so much of the Bible is about perseverance against insurmountable odds. At times, we may make great progress in our pursuit of a more just world, but the social contract that supports this must continuously be maintained, because – unfortunately – it can unravel as well.

Second insight. Today’s first reading from Isiah, and parts of the gospel text, also give us some hints about the tenor or complexion of paradise. In Isiah we read “gather people of every nation and language. They will come and witness my greatness. I will give them a sign and send from them survivors to the nations: to Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan.” In other words, this new heaven involves people of every race, language and nation. Today’s gospel also speaks to the multi pluralism of heaven. “People will come from east and west, from north and south, and sit at God’s table.” In fact, God’s tent is so big that it may make some of us feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, this uncomfortableness may be deepened when we begin to understand that the only people who are excluded from this new heaven are the people who exclude others. Today’s gospel discusses this, but in a rather oblique way.

It reads: “You will stand outside and begin to knock, pleading ‘open the door for us.’ But the householder will answer, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets!’ But the owner of the house will say, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me all you wicked people.”

Absent a historiographical perspective, this sounds terrible, fickle and exclusionary. However, some understanding of the cultural context of the time with respect to eating may give us some insight into the ideas Luke is trying to convey. Eating at the time was an intimate and exclusionary affair. Jewish men only, or women only, sat or partially reclined around a low table eating with their hands. Much was shared at such a table. For example, wine might be passed to which everyone would take a sip or dip in a morsel of bread. No one outside of one’s clan would typically be allowed at such meals because you were literally swapping spit in the process of eating.

I am sharing these historical details to suggest that Luke’s somewhat counterintuitive message may have been that those with whom God’s chosen people dined, with whom they were most intimate in a setting that excluded others, that these people did not necessarily constitute the peoples of heaven. In other words, being a member of ‘the chosen’ was not a free pass to paradise. Heaven on earth is a really big tent, in fact the tent is so big that it makes a lot of people feel uneasy. Jesus was constantly expanding the tent, moving the tent stakes, and it made a lot of people uncomfortable. He dined with men and women, members of his clan and strangers, they shared bread and wine and swapped saliva. Interestingly, our most sacred Catholic rituals, that of the holy communion, in which we share a common cup and to which anyone is welcome, and foot washing, continue to make people uncomfortable in our germaphobic age because these ceremonies transgress boundaries.

Third, and last, I want to suggest that our key challenge is that most people are inclined to be tribal, and creating heaven on earth is about creating a non-tribal space. In an essay in early August, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about the national and global ideological struggles between anti-pluralism and pluralism. Anti-pluralists, Brooks wrote, come in many shapes and sizes, white Christian nationalists, authoritarian populists and Islamic Jihadists. “Anti-pluralists yearn for clear borders, settled truths and clear identities.” In contrast, Brooks wrote, “Pluralists are always expanding the definition of ‘us,’ not constricting it.” “Pluralists do not believe that human beings can be reduced to a single racial label. Each person is a symphony of identities. Our lives are rich because each of us contains multitudes.”

Sadly, I – and likely you, are intimately familiar with this struggle between anti-pluralists and pluralists. For the past several years, I have spent parts of my summers doing research in Burkina Faso, a place wracked in recent years by violence fomented by Islamic Jihadists. Their general goal seems to be to destabilize states in the region, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin, by pitting one ethnic group against another, inciting inter-religious violence, and killing westerners as publicity stunts. Because of this political insecurity, I nearly did not go to Burkina Faso this summer. I did go, but I was careful to only work in areas of the country where violent Jihadism was less of an issue. However, the curious reality, which puts my safety in West Africa into context, is that I am more likely to be shot in my own country than Burkina Faso. In fact, some countries have now placed the United States on their travel warning lists as the slaughter and carnage of anti-pluralist white nationalists this summer has escalated.

How do we build heaven on earth in a crazy world where violent anti-pluralism is spiraling out of control? Gun control certainly seems to be part of the solution in our own country, but deeper down – according to David Brooks – is the problem of profound anxiety, fear and insecurity among some of our brothers and sisters. Some white Christian males are violently lashing out in our own country for the same reasons that some Muslim fundamentalists are wreaking havoc in West Africa. They are deeply uncomfortable with a rapidly changing, increasingly pluralistic, multilingual and multi-racial world that fluidly co-exists.

The antidote, according to Jesus, is love and compassion for the ‘other.’ It is so simple, yet – like the narrow gate – so, so difficult to pass through. We are called to set aside our tribalism, even the tribe of pluralism, to be compassionate to those who are anxious and insecure, including the white nationalist and the religious fundamentalist. Only love can pacify the ideology of hate. It is our compassion for the ‘other’ that can bring about their compassion for the ‘other.’ The narrow gate is not exclusionary, it is the road less travelled, that we must – however difficult, seek out and trod through to make a more just and peaceful world. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

Note: This reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, Minneapolis, MN on the weekend of August 24-25, 2019.

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