Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, in his book Love is the Way, borrowed from Martin Buber as he talked about two kinds of relationships. First are the “I – Thou” relationships … ones where you think of and experience others as treasured, loved, respected, cherished. Second are the “I – It” relationships … where others are experienced as separate and different, allowing you to disdain, dismiss, objectify and use them. Bishop Curry doesn’t provide a third option. There is no middle ground. If it’s not “I – Thou” (sacred), then it is “I – It” (in which the other treated as less-than).
In theory, Christians look to Jesus for guidance about relationships. In Mark 12:30-31, Jesus says, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second [great commandment] is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a blueprint for having “I – Thou” relationships with every human being.
Ah, but then we are called to move from theory into practice, and that’s where the rubber hits the road. Our culture is built around sorting people into groups so we can feel “better than”. It’s like Junior High! “Her clothes look like they came from a thrift shop” (making me “better than”.) “He always asks stupid questions in math” (making me “better than”.) “She gets free hot lunch” (making me “better than”.) “He’s always the last person chosen for the team” (making me “better than”.) As adults, we may (or may not) have moved beyond diminishing others because of their clothes, intelligence, money, and popularity, but, if you’re being honest with yourself, how often in the past month have you deemed others as “less than” because of these things … or because of their views on COVID-19 vaccinations, gun ownership, the role of law enforcement, immigration, affordable housing, what should be taught in public schools, or denying Holy Communion?
Perceiving others as beloved and living in “I – Thou” relationships with them … this is just one more part of the whole Christian walk that feels impossible. But (and you can check on this; it’s in the book!) Jesus made a practice of asking the impossible of his followers. He instructed them to heal the sick, walk on water, feed crowds, bless those who curse them, etc. Perhaps he did this knowing that, only when they reached the end of their own capacities, would they rely on him.
This week you will encounter people you know, some that you see on social media, others that you hear about on the news. You will find it difficult, if not impossible, to hold them in “I – Thou” relationship. You will think, “I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t want to, and I just can’t.” At that point, remember Philippians 2:13: “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure.”
God of the impossible, give me the desire to shed the contempt that leaps to my brain when I encounter certain people. Empower me to view these as created in your image, cherished by you, and worthy of being in an “I – Thou” relationship with me. Amen.