Building Solidarity and Belonging Through Encounter in Our Fractured Society

Millennial editor Robert Christian writes:

The United States is a deeply divided country –economically, racially, politically, and more. And many of these divisions divide American Catholics, despite the pope’s call to embrace solidarity. While the costs of extreme individualism, hyperpolarization, and growing social injustice tear at the seams of the country, the mood of the country, especially among its young people, has become decidedly more pessimistic.

In The Ethics of Encounter, theologian Marcus Mescher describes these “divided states of America.” He describes an age of growing insecurity. Feelings of anxiety and helplessness are rising, as is rage. We often lack the ability to talk to one another or even agree on the basic sets of facts needed for any sort of real dialogue.

It is not surprising that this collapse of community and sense of social responsibilities has paralleled the rise in isolation and loneliness. We see it in people’s behavior online. More time on social media is correlated with higher rates of loneliness, isolation, and insecurity—yet social media remains extraordinarily popular….

Without the intimacy of durable close friendships and the stability of a robust civil society, many Americans are losing a sense of purpose and place. The opioid crisis, rise in suicides, and other deaths of despair show how powerful these forces are….

How can the United States reverse these distressing and deadly trends? How can it restore hope and community? How can we overcome some of the deep divisions that stand in the way of needed cooperation and collective action? Mescher is skeptical that tolerance alone is the answer, arguing the problems we face are simply too extensive for it to do the trick.

Something is needed to challenge the assumptions of extreme individualism. Something is needed to get us to look beyond our own self-interest and fixation on maximizing our autonomy and choice. Mescher argues that Christianity has the ability to do this—but it cannot be a watered-down, complacent version of the Christian faith that many have already encountered and found wanting. He has in mind a Christianity that is driven by gratitude and generosity, that repents and atones for past exploitation, that embraces inclusive neighbor love, and that truly works for a more just world. This is a countercultural Christianity that does not make peace with the forces that favor the status quo….

In the book, Mescher describes how we can move from encounter to accompaniment to exchange to embrace and finally to belonging. He explains how distractions can be avoided, fear and bias can be overcome, good habits can be built, and trust can be established. None of this is easy, but it is not impossible.

Subscribers to the Messenger of Saint Anthony can read the full article here.