The Ethics of Encounter (Marcus Mescher) -- A Review

THE ETHICS OF ENCOUNTER: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity. By Marcus Mescher. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020. Xxiii + 196 pages.

"To encounter is to live" (p. xi). I am who I am in large part due to my encounters with others. That is true of all of us. The nature of these encounters has ethical content. Such is the view of ethicist Marcus Mescher, who invites us to embrace and embody Christian neighbor love as an act of solidarity. It is a calling rooted in our encounters with the God who has created us. As Mescher writes, "Because God is love (1 John 4:8), encounters have the potential to be an experience of love, an invitation to share in the divine life: a Trinitarian communion of love that is offered, received, and returned. When we encounter others, we encounter God." (p. xi).

The author of The Ethics of Encounter is Marcus Mescher, who holds a Ph.D. in theology from Boston College and serves as an associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He draws inspiration for this consequential book from Pope Francis' call for the creation of a "culture of encounter." In developing his vision for creating this culture of encounter, Mescher builds on Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan. That vision invites us to embrace solidarity with one another and with creation itself. He notes that in Catholic social teaching solidarity is understood to be a "moral principle rooted in human interdependence." (p. xix). This ethic of encounter is seen as "a practice of hope," which involves pursuing right relationships with God, with one’s neighbor, and with creation.

While Mescher offers us a hopeful vision, it is a realistic one. He begins his exposition of this ethic of encounter by laying bare "the divided state of America." In the book’s opening chapter, Mescher addresses the fraying of our social fabric, taking note of the various contributors to our divided state, from hyperpartisanship to white supremacy and Christian nationalism. In the course of the conversation, Mescher engages with other observers of our current situation, including Charles Taylor, drawing on their insights as to the nature of contemporary society and how we engage with each other.

Having laid out the context for his proposal regarding the ethics of encounter, a context that is marked by a society that is polarized and self-absorbed, Mescher offers the reader a theology of neighbor that is rooted in scripture. Mescher notes that Scripture continually "reveals that God is to be encountered in the world, to shatter expectations, and to usher in radical transformation" (p. 35). While taking note of the multitude of texts available to him, he focuses his attention on the Samaritan parable, which provides the biblical thread that connects the vision he lays out in the chapters to follow. He notes that "The Samaritan is not only an example of what it means to encounter God in the other but also what it means to reveal God's presence and power for the other" (p. 37). Thus, in offering a theology of neighbor Mescher offers us an extended exploration of the Samaritan parable. From that parable Mescher makes five observations: 1) "not only is 'neighbor' redefined, but love of neighbor now knows no boundaries." 2) "it is always and everywhere the duty to act as a neighbor." In other words, there are no loopholes. 3) Being a neighbor involves acting "with courage, mercy, generosity, humility, and fidelity." 4) Jesus both taught and modeled "rightly ordered love" so that his "disciples could partner in practicing it in the world." 5)Finally "Jesus aims to reorient disciples' vision away from lower limits and toward radical possibilities" (pp. 50-55).

The message of the Samaritan parable finally is to go and do likewise. This is the essence of the ethic of encounter, but what does it mean to go and do likewise? Are we to do exactly as the Samaritan or is their nuance to this instruction? In chapter 3, Mescher unpacks that call to go and do likewise, suggesting, rightly I believe, that we should do so "in a way that suits their abilities and needs, given their specific context" (p. 65). What he offers in this chapter is a process of discernment, so one can know how to love one’s neighbor in a way that is faithful and appropriate. He notes that "human finitude means that people have a limited among of time, energy, and resources." With that in mind, he seeks to provide a way to get to that "virtuous midpoint between deficient concern and its excess" (p. 69). Mescher proceeds to offer a helpful vision of how to get to true solidarity. Solidarity is, he suggests, "the mean between the vicious extremes of excessive individualism and coercive collectivism" (p. 101).

Having envisioned a process of encounter, Mescher then invites us to begin "practicing the ethics of Encounter" (chapter 4). This involves drawing near to others, especially those others who are different from ourselves. This will involve five virtues that lead to solidarity: courage, mercy, generosity, humility, and fidelity. To illustrate this vision of solidarity, Mescher brings in the story of Jesuit Greg Boyle who works with gangs in Los Angeles and was the founder of Homeboy industries. Central to Boyle's vision is that everyone is redeemable, even gang members. It is a relational vision that is rooted in God's very nature. Thus, as Mescher notes, "to be in relationship with God-who-is mercifying implies becoming people of boundless mercy" (p. 109). In a word that is prescient to the current situation in the United States, he addresses the need to overcome bias, especially implicit bias (which we all have). Boyle's Homeboy Industries serves as an example of what a "culture of belonging" looks like. Mescher writes that "Christians, then, should do more than keep God at the center of their lives; they should reflect in the world who God is: a compassion so vast that no one is left out." (p. 138). That is a transformative vision, one that Boyle has sought to engender through his ministry.

The final chapter draws this vision of an ethics of encounter together in service of moving into " a culture of belonging." This is the goal, developing a "habitus" that allows for the practice of the ethics of encounter that Mescher has presented in the course of the book. It is a vision he roots in scripture but also in Catholic social teaching, especially as enunciated by Pope Francis. He starts with the family, as the foundation for creating communities of belonging. He's not naive in thinking that all families can embody this vision, but Christianity has traditionally envisioned the family as the starting point where love is learned. From there he takes us into a variety of places, including the digital world, and ending with our relationship with creation itself.

As he notes in the conclusion to the book, the goal of this ethic of encounter is helping us collectively move from sustaining our current polarized nation, where we live out of our buffered, individualistic selves, toward the creation of a community of true belonging. This is, in his mind, a vision of hope. As he states: "the ethics of encounter refuses to be complacent with a status quo marked by social separation and unjust inequalities. Instead, the ethics of encounter embraces hope not as fantasy or escapism, but rather as the virtuous midpoint between presumption and despair" (p. 185). That is a vision worth pursuing, and Mescher has provided us with significant guidance so we can move toward that goal that provides hope for the future. For that reason, this is an important book that should be read, especially by clergy. It's not an easy read because it takes us to deep places that might lie outside our normal comfort zone. If we can do this, we will all be better for it. Indeed, our nation and our world will be better off if we can move into this culture of encounter envisioned by Pope Francis and developed more fully by Marcus Mescher in The Ethics ofEncounter,  which offers us a vision of Christian neighbor love as a practice of solidarity. I found this book to be insightful, provocative, realistic, and a book that fits the moment.  


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