Rich Paxson

People-watching absorbed much of my time on Washington’s National Mall one sunny spring afternoon recently. Good weather brought out the crowds. As we strolled the promenades, I tried to see persons interacting, not individuals representing groups defined by nationality or race or physical ability or the manner in which they wore their caps or any of a myriad of other categories.

I noticed how a mother kept track of her two little ones, not how the style of their clothing differed from mine. I watched as the older gentleman maintained his slow but unsteady pace in the jostling crowd. I tried not to look at the distinctive nature of his headgear. Finally, I paid little attention to the kind man’s skin color as he smiled and let me butt in the lunch line to stand with my wife.

I focused on actions I could relate to, behaviors with which I could connect, rather than seeking surface differences to reinforce my identity over against ‘those others.’ James writes that we are inducted by the social “other” into life as a function of the purity code’s maintenance and growth. Living a role in a purity code blinds us to God’s message that all persons are acceptable to and loved equally by God.

God reveals God’s love through our actions as we let go of identities based on ‘us vs. them.’ God loves all persons to the same degree that God loves me. Within God’s love, the other person is fully my equal. The seeds of relationship, perhaps even friendship, lie within that sure knowledge.

Daniel Auteuil starred in Patrice Leconte’s French film “My Best Friend.” Auteuil’s character needed help to learn what it means to be a friend. Three words summed up his mentor’s advice: first, smile; second, be sincere; and third, be social reaching out to others. Genuine friendship, smiling and social, is the opposite of identity formed and maintained over against the perceived threat of ‘others.’

Michel de Montaigne wrote his essay “Of Friendship” about his relationship with Etienne de La Boetie. Montaigne describes Boetie as another self, but also as the union of two souls. Montaigne’s description of friendship was a condition opposite from random encounters on the National Mall. And yet, accidents of friendship continually bridge the distances separating individuals of all “sorts and conditions.” Bonds of friendship emerge within the equality of God’s love through openness to the other person’s state, by a sincere smile, in recognizing that each real encounter is pregnant with another self, with a union of souls.

During my spring stroll that day I did not visit St. John’s Episcopal Church located near the north end of the National Mall. And yet, I was ‘in church’ that day. Church buildings and liturgies like symbols are ways of remembering God’s true church, which lies mostly outside the doors of sacred structures. God’s true church came into being on the National Mall for me that day. Church can also happen among shoppers in their local grocery store. God’s church comes into being whenever we cease seeking personal identity in opposition to ‘those others’ whom ‘we are not.’ We are ‘in church’ whenever we allow God’s loving presence to move us in the direction of embrace, and not exclusion.