Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
This is a book you fall in love with as you read the first several pages. The author is an associate professor in a Catholic University and lives the Catholic faith. He has a deep and inclusive understanding of the word encounter. Encounter means to live. The first encounters between our parents leads to countless encounters with others. These encounters inform our sense of identity and purpose, beliefs and values, and deepest fears and hopes. Each encounter is an opportunity to become more attentive and responsive to God who is both transcendent and immanent. We are shaped by our encounters with others, we are also never shaped by those we fail to encounter. If we understand social separation as sin then redemption lies in encounter. The author refers to Pope Francis when he states:”[he] calls the world to foster a culture of encounter that sees Christ in the other, receives Christ through the other, and tries to be Christ for the other.” Contemplating a culture of encounter is an opportunity to rethink how we connect with others and recalibrate our expectations for ourselves and others. It is also an opportunity to dismantle the beliefs and practices that bind us to our shared belonging and interdependence. Solidarity is a key principle in Catholic social thought, a body of teachings drawn from Scripture and Church teaching to construct a vision for the integral human dignity and rights, environmental stewardship, the preferential option for the poor, and the common good.
The book is structured in a way that helps the reader understand the thread of encounter that weaves its way through the text. The first chapter addresses some of the chief experiences of social separation in our country today. Besides the pandemic this includes hyperpartisanship and polarization, social sorting into lifestyle enclaves, racial tension and segregation, class divides, and other forms of discrimination by sex, gender, social orientation and religion. In a time when too few of our religious and political leaders denounce white supremacy and Christian nationalism, this is an important moment to acknowledge the anxiety, fear, threats and violence generated by these hateful beliefs and words. Innate human dignity and solidarity are irreconcilable with mantras like “America First!” and worldviews that stifle compassion and refuse responsibility for migrants and refugees forced to flee their homes. These social trends contribute to moral malaise, anomie, and a pathological permissiveness that grows numb to suffering and injustice. The author considers some of the alienating effects of these digital tools and structures, including the unprecedented rise of social isolation and loneliness. In the next chapter the author draws on the example of the Good Samaritan, one of the best known stories of the Bible, in order to propose a ‘theology of neighbor that guides the dynamic process of moving from encounter, to accompaniment, to exchange, to embrace, and ultimately toward cultivating mutual care and concern and inclusive belonging with others. Popularly, the Good Samaritan is a story about a moral hero, someone who helps another in a personal emergency. Bit this passage is better understood as an essential way to love God and neighbor, at it is framed in the Gospel (Lk 10: 25-27)This story makes it impossible to see the world as “us versus them” or “left versus right” instead asserting with the moral core of the biblical tradition that reminds us that we encounter God through encountering others, including those we might pity, deride or fear that there is no ‘us and them” but only “us”. There is a strong coherence between Luke 10:25-37 and Matthew 25:31-46; to emulate the Samaritan by going out of one’s way and into the ditch to draw near another in need, a person can see Christ in, receive Christ from, and be Christ to the least and lost. An encounter is an epiphany: Christ meets Christ. In chapter three the author outlines the ethics of encounter informed by the Samaritan’s actions on the road to Jericho in displaying courage, mercy, generosity, humility and fidelity. Taken together, these five virtues inspire Christian neighbor love to realize the boundary-breaking solidarity. The emphasis on friendship provides a practical framework for assessing the moral demands of solidarity, especially in relation to one’s pre-existing relationships and responsibilities.
In Chapter 4, the author proposes what it will take to practice the ethics of encounter. This means applying courage, mercy generosity, humility, and fidelity to attitudes and actions in order to cultivate a culture of encounter with others. Father Greg Boyle’s work with gang members at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles provides a living witness of how to mend what is broken in and around us, giving us a powerful template for how a culture Chapter of encounter can lead to an inclusive culture of belonging that makes everyone feel safe, valued, respected and loved. In Chapter five the author presents a vision of the personal and social transformation that is possible when Christian neighbor love and solidarity bring the ethics of encounter into existing relationships and communities of belonging. His begins by considering family life, the foundation for church and society, as well as local businesses and parishes. This culture of belonging can include nonhuman creation. Encountering nature and being a neighbor is to nature are vital ways to not only encounter God, but also to construct a more integral solidarity that mends our broken bond with nonhuman creation.
The author reports that in the end, the ethics of encounter is envisioned as a practice of hope, a way to respond to our vocations to be Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-20) healing the wounds in ourselves, our relationships, our communities and the World. Every word in this book leads to the transformation that the author is calling us to pursue so that we truly can encounter our neighbor.