In the fourth chapter of his book, Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr points to something that lies at the very heart of the Gospel: that Jesus calls us to celebrate difference while overcoming otherness.
Rohr makes this point while speaking of the way in which Jesus, in John’s Gospel, uses the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep to speak about himself and his followers. In the course of teaching about this metaphor, Jesus says,
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
In saying that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold”, Jesus is speaking of people who are different from those he is addressing. Jesus knows that his listeners imagine that these others are not simply different, but they are other: they belong to a different “fold”; they are a different people, with different ways and different customs, and so they are other: alien, foreign, unknown, and thus dangerous. But the voice of Jesus seeks to draw these others into one “flock”; notice that he changes terms here, using the word “flock” rather than “fold”. The flock is a different sort of entity: it is a collection of folds, a coming together of peoples in a way that does not seek to eliminate difference (Jesus has no desire for uniformity). But the flock is nevertheless one, because while the differences inherent in the various folds remain, the otherness has been overcome. The sheep, listening to the voice of Jesus, have learned to celebrate difference while transcending otherness.
The very pattern of Jesus’ ministry, of course, reflects this. He spends a great deal of his time among people whose differences have made them “others”, and alienated them from their families and communities. This is often the result of circumstances that are beyond their control, like physical or mental disease or economic disparities. When Jesus heals such people, when he helps them find divine love and forgiveness, he always sends them back into their communities — back among the people who cast them out for their otherness — and, by so doing, he forces both the formerly other and their community to find a way to reintegrate them, to find a way to overcome the sense of otherness that has been at the heart of their relationship, often for a very long time.
Interestingly, we almost never hear that part of the story. We don’t know how these outcasts and their families and communities managed this integration. But we know that the people involved must have been forever changed by the experience.
Modern American culture is a strange entity. At one and the same time, it celebrates difference while using the very differences between us to keep in place a strong sense of otherness and alienation. We celebrate the American myth that we are a great melting pot, while at the same time preserving a keen sense of who is “other”. And, sadly, religious people — and Christian people — are often the best at keeping our various folds from coming together as one flock.
When we really deeply consider the teaching of Jesus, and when we really take in the pattern of his life, the task before us seems rather clear: celebrate difference, overcome otherness, and stop maintaining the walls the separate us.