The Ethics of Encounter

Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity

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Marcus Mescher
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis
    , March
     2020.
     240 pages.
     $40.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626983762.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity, Marcus Mescher aims to summarize a vast amount of research, teaching and writing, and wise integration of social ethical documents, especially as embodied in lived witnesses. He writes: “(Catholic social thought) principles include human dignity and rights, environmental stewardship, the preferential option for the poor, and the common good. However, the great failure . . .  is that it exhorts people to adopt universal principles into their life without consistently describing how these principles can be practiced by individuals and families or integrated into schools, parishes and other institutions” (xx).

In view of the hoped for end of the pandemic but in the midst of several other health, economic, and environmental crises, this is a timely book  A lot of research and earnest pondering is evident in Mescher's volume. It is packed with copious references and—always a bonus to the reader—annotated footnotes (this compensates for the lack of a bibliography). Throughout the volume, there is a focused dedication to the book's title and subtitle: "Christian neighbor love as a practice of solidarity." Natural law ethics, traces of social ethics, liberation theology,areful biblical exegesis are packed herein.

The oft-cited parable of Luke 10 (25–37) provides the heart of the book's third chapter, "Discerning the Ethics of Encounter.”  Mescher unpacks and elaborates on the depth and range of meanings of "neighbor," and boldly induces far-reaching observations with implications. It is never merely a once-in-a-while incident, or a confined encounter of the outsider with the injured and neglected traveler (but conveniently ignored by passersby). Rather, the parable becomes paradigmatic for biblical ethics and beyond, into the realms of "encounter" where, to endure, the practices of solidarity are affirmed. That is, “Jesus aims to reorient disciplines' vision away from lower limits and toward radical possibilities" (55). Here is where Gustav Gutierrez, a father of liberation theology, is caringly summoned as a traveling helpmate for purposes of a "spirituality of solidarity" (60).

The reader will find several places where Mescher hammers home his multi-layered thesis, and it is almost the case that one compact citation intimates and summarizes the book as a whole—except that despite an apparent intention to repeat the chief characteristics of what neighbouring solidarity aches to mean, each time a summary definition arises, it feels worth being reaffirmed so as to be named, unmasked and engaged (cf. the late Walter Wink's classic trilogy’s titles on "the powers"). Summarily, Mescher reflects: "Solidarity is a form of 'social charity' that seeks unity across difference and inspires  action for justice . . . by promoting shared interests and joint efforts to liberate the suffering and oppressed . . . is orientated toward hope; it trusts in the restorative, conciliatory, creative and ultimately transformative powers of love to make new forms of human communion possible" (72). Frequently twinned with solidarity is the "preferential option for the poor."

If there is one shortcoming of the book, it is that social ethics could be more broadly summoned and applied (although the author does evoke "Catholic social imagination"). To move beyond the person-to-person and group-to-group levels of interaction, the social ethics perspective proffers principles, structures, and strategies for considering "neighboring" as broad based, long range, and in need of a check and balanced reality. It is simply impossible to treat everyone as one's present or potential neighbor, never mind at the same time. Globally, nationally, regionally, and within one's neighborhood or district, there pervades much of the phenomenon of the impersonal or "super-personal" that, as principalities and powers, challenges the ethics of and for encounter (where competing self-interests including that of class and race, relentlessly clash).

Put another way, our institutions sin for us. Mesher hints of what more is needed beyond just the command to neighbor, beyond what even Jesus' powerful parables and those who have sensibly sought to commend parabolic actions offer. Mescher invites, almost to elaborate, the late biblical social and political theologian,  Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is cited on the twin realities of sin and grace—but not beyond—so to include generations of disciplined observation and involvements in the politics of realism, complemented by  prayer and hope (see book’s conclusion “Hope for the Future”). While love indispensably grounds, informs, and critiques the shortfalls of justice-making and -keeping, love on its own is insufficient. Love needs the organizing of power so that meaningful, patient, and persistent action can be taken for the sake of at least approximating justice. Thus, the book would benefit from P. B. Josephson and R. Ward Holder's Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twentieth-First  (Rowman  & Littlefield, 2018). Furthermore, Mescher could also draw from and apply Niebuhr’s brother, H. Richard Niebuhr’s cogent remarks on the range of meanings of “neighbor” (cf. The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, Harper & Brothers, 1956).

Nonetheless, linking a careful love of neighbor with the practices of solidarity, whereby social, political, and environmental ethics come to assist, would give the reader enriched, encouraging sustenance for the long haul. Such  a linking exceeds mere coaxing with urgency that is here and now, but also beyond the nearest need at hand to take action and then reflect so as to take further refined action (i.e. "praxis" cited on page 72, but not indexed). The book duly and crucially hints at the inadequacies of mere charity or philanthropy, since this virtual substitute for justice withheld, as Augustine cautioned “‘[is] vulnerable to the shifting fashion of media attention, and the various modes of feel-good hype’ " (citing Canadian philosopher-theologian Charles Taylor, p. 78 n 53).

All in all, this is a commendable body of enthusiastic, inter-related, and thick themes. It is for scholars, students (including Bible or book studies), one's peers, and the wider ecumenical church. Social activists and those confessing the need for balancing action with contemplation will also benefit.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barry K. Morris is an independent scholar and urban minister.

Date of Review: 
August 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marcus Mescher is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH. He has authored multiple articles and book chapters on family life and the common good, liturgy and moral formation, and environmental ethics in publications including the Journal of Catholic Social Thought and Journal of Moral Theology.

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