Drawing Near to Others: An Interview with Marcus Mescher on the “Ethics of Encounter”

At a recent national conference for ministry professionals, the emcee invited attendees to walk through a maze of advertising booths during an upcoming break in the schedule, telling them, “This morning, you heard about a theology of encounter. Now head over to the booths and encounter your publishing companies!”

The comment is revealing for two reasons. First, it suggests that Pope Francis’s steady invocation of “encounter” throughout his papacy is beginning to lodge the word in the vocabulary of U.S. Catholics. Second, it shows how easily “encounter” can be emptied of its prophetic force, especially in the United States’ culture of consumption.

In a new book, The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity, Marcus Mescher, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University, lays out a hopeful vision for constructing cultures of encounter capable of healing a broken, polarized Church and world. What follows are excerpts from my conversation with Mescher about both the transformative power and inherent fragility of encounter.

Early in your book, you point out that the root of the word encounter is actually “meet as an adversary,” which I found surprising. Can you unpack that?

In any encounter, there is an otherness that we cannot master, that we cannot fully comprehend, that we cannot always make reconcilable to our own worldview or reducible to another me. The book starts with a note of humility, acknowledging the reality that when it comes to encounter, we’re meeting the Other in a capital “O” sense: an Other we cannot fully understand. We have to be gentle with ourselves and with each other, because encounter is hard work. God is inexhaustible mystery, and because we’re made in the image and likeness of that inexhaustible mystery, there’s endless mystery in us, too. That’s what makes encounter such a rich concept—and practice—in my view.

Encounter, you argue, is more about “drawing near” to others than it is “making room” for them. Why is this distinction important?

I wanted to distinguish this ethic of encounter from the virtue of hospitality, which scholars like Jessica Wrobleski and Christine Pohl have done good work on already. When a host makes room for a guest, there’s often an inequality there: the host provides, the guest receives. The asymmetry between host and guest can beget a kind of dependence or resentment. While perfect equality or mutuality is idyllic, to draw near others to share life with them is a crucial first step to encounter and the vision of solidarity that I build in the book. We have to honor the biblical mandates to be a people of hospitality, but another problem with making room for the other is that it can be too much like tolerance: I make space for you, but there’s not necessarily a reciprocity or anything more asked of me. To draw near the other is to adopt an others-centeredness that reflects agapic love that Paul argues is central to Christian discipleship (Philippians 2:3). To take up the vantage point of the other helps me grasp a fuller view of reality than I had before. We have a lot to learn from each other, but without drawing near to others across difference, we can get stuck in our own perspectives and priorities.

You present your “ethics of encounter” as an antidote to the “amoral familism” that’s been poisoning our social imagination in the United States for some time now. Can you explain what this means?

“Amoral familism” diagnoses a symptom of American life, especially over the last seventy years or so, rather accurately. The basic idea is that families look after their own and assume that other families are doing the same thing. This withdrawal into the nuclear family prioritizes the success and security of one’s family members at the expense of the common good.

In an American context, many of us have a lot of things that we assume are needs when in fact they’re luxuries. Alternatively, there’s a rising number of families who are struggling to survive but we don’t recognize any obligation to them because they’re not kin. Put another way, I worry that some families are fighting more for the superfluous goods of their own children than being outraged at the deprivation of basic goods for other people’s children.

A goal of this book is to incorporate a preferential option for the poor and a more robust ethic of social and ecological duty into our preexisting relationships and responsibilities. I present the ethics of encounter to recognize harsh distinctions between kin and others are part of the us-versus-them tribalism that we have to overcome if we’re going to live up to the command to love your neighbor as yourself that we receive in the Gospels.

I think most people would agree that personal encounters can be transformative (for better or for worse), but you’re arguing that we need more than just sporadic personal encounters, we need robust cultures of encounter. At the same time, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to do this. Can you say a bit about this?

Pope Francis has been calling us to build a “culture of encounter” for several years. In Evangelii Guadium he states that “the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their please, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” This leads, as he sees it, to being part of a “revolution of tenderness,” the work of mercy and solidarity that he has been stressing throughout his pontificate (no. 88). That strikes me as inspiring, but it raises the question of how do we realize this vision on the personal, relational, and institutional levels of our Church and society?

When we talk about virtues, or practicing the corporal works of mercy, or being part of the “culture of encounter” that Pope Francis has been describing, there’s a temptation to see this as a box to check. I did my good deed for the day. I helped this person or gave that person the benefit of the doubt. I decided to listen rather than tune out. This is a good start, but it’s just a first step in a lifelong journey of becoming the kind of person or church or community we most deeply desire.

We have to integrate this kind of doing into our very way of being. To do this, the virtue of prudence helps us discern what is most fitting for our own abilities, needs, and opportunities. Our conscience can help us know and choose what is good, but it’s worth noting that “conscience” means “to know together.” This is not a private project. It’s a shared task. No person is formed in a vacuum; we are formed in our relationships and the rituals we share, so the ethics of encounter has to be incorporated into families and friend groups, schools and churches, neighborhoods and places of business, healthcare facilitates and government offices.

Encounter is not just two individuals meeting as a dyad; our encounters overlap with others and impact people long after the encounter is over. Encounter is just the beginning to the kind of accompaniment, exchange, and inclusive belonging that can break through ignorance, apathy, and injustice. In my view, Greg Boyle and the members of the Homeboy Industries community model this beautifully, which is why I feature them as a case study for the kind of encounters that produce personal and communal transformation. Their efforts to encounter and empower former gang members can stretch our imagination so we can be more open to others, practice greater compassion and resilience, and witness the kinds of relationships that promote freedom to flourish individually and collectively.

After your manuscript had already been finalized, revelations about Jean Vanier sent shockwaves around the world. Your book contains lines from Vanier about vulnerability, interdependence, and love that read very differently now than when you wrote them. What do you think this teaches us about encounter?

It has been very painful to reread those passages and think about what he did to people who trusted him. And to think about all the people who looked the other way or otherwise enabled his abuse and discouraged survivors from coming forward to give voice to their experience. His story points to the prevalence of sin and how encounter can be manipulated. We have to be a people who are constantly vigilant about listening to the voices of the marginalized and excluded. We have to draw near and listen to survivors of abuse. And we can’t be tempted to move on like “business as usual.” There is still so much lamentation and atonement to be done.

That said, the potential for encounter to be manipulated should not be a reason for people to refuse encounter altogether. Vulnerability is an important part of the ethics of encounter because it’s how we grow into our humanity. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me or think that we should get hurt or to accept that others get hurt. But, I think it’s a myth to think that we can wholly protect ourselves from harm. Part of what it means to love is to trust, and sometimes people take advantage and betray our trust. Trust is an ongoing process, a collective task to build conditions for mutual respect and responsibility that encourages both authenticity and accountability. There are a lot of wounds that need healing in our Church and world. In my view, the ethics of encounter is how we begin the work of mending what’s been broken between us.

Finally, you argue that constructing cultures of encounter within your ethical framework is a practice of hope?

One of the most compelling lines I’ve read is from Jon Sobrino – he’s quoting his slain Jesuit brother Ignacio Ellacuría – who says that we should live already as risen beings. Sobrino explains that the resurrection is not merely a historical event, it’s a cosmic event that changes creation. This reflects, I think, what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20: that we should live as a “new creation” in Christ. The resurrection makes new life and new community possible, thanks to Jesus conquering sin and death. The encounter with the Risen Christ emboldened the first disciples to continue Jesus’ mission by cultivating communities of inclusion and co-responsibility. They crossed boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, and religion. They saw a world saddled with unjust inequality and chose to struggle for new possibilities.

In a time of so much despair, distrust, and division, we need that same commitment today. Dan Berrigan used to say, “the best way to be hopeful is to do hopeful things.” Encounters can be anxiety-producing and difficult but if people can summon the courage to risk some encounters that they wouldn’t normally try to initiate, they’ll see the fruit for themselves in having their horizons widened, their self-knowledge deepened, and their understanding of others broadened.

Encounter is how we become more fully human, and as the Incarnation shows us, humanization and divinization are directly proportionate, so the more fully human we become, the more we become like God. That’s the hope: that we see an ethics of encounter as a pathway to both wholeness and holiness, a way to reclaim the truth that we belong to each other.

Nick Mayrand is a PhD candidate in Theology at the University of Dayton.