Two Strangers: What can they teach us about conflict and peace?

Reach out to those you fear.
Touch the heart of complexity.
Imagine beyond what is seen.
Risk vulnerability one step at a time.

~~John Paul Lederach

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

~~Mary Oliver

So Christ came and declared peace to those who were far off and nearby. . .
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,
but you are citizens with the saints
and also members of the household

~~Ephesians 2:17, 19

Two strangers–an intriguing metaphor in Ephesians 2:11-22; herein is the stranger far off and the stranger nearby, and the dividing wall of fear and hostility that separates them.

In literature as in life, the stranger is a figure of ominous entries, frightening insights, angelic presence and challenging foresight. The stranger challenges the status quo inviting us to broaden the circle of our tightly held beliefs about “others.” Whether Albert Camus’s stranger “faced with the absurd” or T. S. Eliot’s stranger emerging out of the questions, “Who is the third who walks beside you?. . . Who is that on the other side of you?” (The Waste Land), whether Shakespeare’s borderline figures as strangers, Christ the unknown traveler, or in congregations with the newcomer upsetting the norm, the archetype of the stranger casts a shadow. Then there is the metaphor of the two strangers. Who are these two strangers and what can they teach us about ourselves, others and our world? What can they teach us about conflict and peace?

This image of two strangers is no simple metaphor, but rather a touching depiction of suffering we all know and experience. All of us know these dividing walls that separate us from each other and from the depths within ourselves. The metaphor evokes the images from the suffering created in our world from nations, between races, between and among sexes and issues of sexual preference, between parents and children, between and among children, between and among parishioners, staff and clergy. This image also strongly calls to mind our own inner suffering from estrangement from ourselves within ourselves, where our hopes pull one way and our despair another, where what we know to be the case is different from what we want to be the case, where our outer public face, the way we must be seen, conflicts with our real inner condition, who we are.

A reciprocal relationship exists between the divisions and estrangements in the world of our souls and the estrangements that exist in the outer worlds of our society, our culture, and our nations. The dividing walls within our hearts and souls reinforce and nourish the entity that exists between and among us outwardly. The splits in our souls sustain the splits in our world. The splits in our world accentuate, encourage, and feed the (divides within) dividing walls between our outer selves and our inner depths. The inner world and the outer world are indissolubility connected.

The estrangement of our inner lives and our outer participation in society is the fundamental theme of the two strangers; fundamental because it applies to all classes, all races and colors, all sexes, all nations. We all suffer to some degree from a sense that what goes on inside us is partitioned off from what goes on outside us. The life of the heart and soul is life in the world, and life in the world is only effective if it is supported by the soul’s life within. When the outer is not congruent with the inner, then we experience what is “life depleting” in place of that which is “life giving.”

In his book, Inventing the Enemy, the Italian writer, Umberto Eco, writes: “Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our systems of value and in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth, so when there is no enemy, we have to invent one” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, p.2). Such a target, according to Eco, may well be an outsider as enemy, but people can also apply the term to the insider who conducts himself or herself differently than those around him or her. The stranger, whether outsider or insider, can become the enemy—for he/she is different. When there is no human object (I-It), it can shift to a natural or social force that in some way threatens us and has to be defeated. According to Eco, having an enemy is so critical to a nation’s and people’s success, that if we do not have one, we will create one. According to Eco, creating an enemy seems natural and basic to civilization and human kind. But is making an enemy our only narrative or are there alternative narratives to develop?

The sketch of welcoming the stranger is deep in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Genesis 18 tells the story of Abraham and Sarah, who are well into their old age when they make camp in the desert at Mamre. Three strangers approach, and this elderly couple rather than responding in fear, offer them food and drink. The strangers turn out to be angels of the Lord who make the startling announcement that Sarah, despite her advanced age, will bear a child. That child became Isaac, who plays a pivotal role as the second patriarch of the Jewish people and heir of the land of Israel.

In Luke 24 is the story about two of Jesus’ apostles walking down the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion. A stranger comes along and asks why they are so downcast. The apostles ask if he is the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know what happened. The stranger calls them foolish for failing to believe the prophecies about Jesus, but the apostles are not reassured. As they get close to home, they urge the stranger to eat with them. Over supper, their eyes are opened that this stranger is the risen Christ. Both stories show the important role of the stranger—the one that frightens us can also save us. Being open to the stranger, both within and around, requires us to be vulnerable and open our hearts time and again to the tension created by our fear of “the other.” It means being open to God whose middle name is Surprise!

Our inner condition meets us in our outer situations and vice versa. Being attentive to one consciously and intentionally can help us tend to the other as well. When working in a difficult, conflicted environment, I began therapy. The reason was that I knew I needed help separating my inner from the outer. What were my issues and where was the outer in this situation? Nothing is worse than confusing the two. One day, in frustration, I said to the friend and therapist, “Maybe I should quit doing this type of work. I am not in this work to simply put out fires. Maybe what I need to do is go off on my own and work on my own spiritual growth.” (Interesting that I say this when you look at my primary work now, some 15 years later—tending to red fires, tension, anxiety and conflict in congregations and organizations.) My therapist stood up, walked across the room, stoked the peat fire and commented, “I think where you are is where you need to be.” I was not certain I wanted to hear, but asked hesitantly, “Would you say more about that?” She responded, “I think that where you are is exactly where you need to be. As you meet these people and deal with this situation, as you encounter these difficult images in your dreams, I believe you are not meeting only them, I think you are meeting part of yourself that you have not yet accepted. No, this is the laboratory where you learn things about yourself you could never learn being off by yourself on some mountaintop.” “In fact,” she concluded, “remember the story of the transfiguration. While the disciples wanted to freeze the moment and stay on the mountain top, Jesus refused, for it is in the valley that we do the work and learn, deepen and grow the most.” I did not want to hear this, but it is what I needed to hear—the connection between the inner and outer, God in life, including God in my dreams. C.G. Jung comments that when we do not accept what is within us it constellates around us and we live it out as fate. Once I could really hear her insights in my guts that it was not about them only, but about the inner and outer within me also, then the changes began to happen—peace and change began to emerge out of the chaos and conflict. These start in and with me.

This relates to peace because whatever peace we obtain outwardly will not hold up unless it is sustained and supported inwardly. Inner and outer attitudes and actions, and thus inner and outer peace, are inextricably connected. We cannot bring peace if we do not have or know peace, regardless of our intentions. As Otto Scharmer says, “The success of any intervention depends on the inner condition of the intervener. “

Let’s look at life from the perspective of the stranger. What is life like for this person? The Ephesians text describes it vividly. From the stranger’s point of view, according to our narrative, life is alienated. One is an enemy, not a fellow citizen. One is far off, without privileges and without hope, without possibilities. One is confined to this life without hope for any life beyond it, and thus one’s despair can reach no limits, because this is all there is and this is clearly not enough. The far-off stranger lives without God, empty, obliged to face the overwhelming mystery of Being, without any sustaining relationship to him/herself, or to the divine.

In his book Inventing the Enemy, Eco describes how we invent our enemies—their smell, the look of ugliness, their behaviors — all become part of the narrative we tell ourselves about the enemy to dehumanize the other, deepening and justifying the disconnect.

How do these strangers come about? How do we create such estrangements? We estrange within in numerous ways. The first way we create estrangement within ourselves is repression. We do not see our inner situation; we do not acknowledge the stranger exists. The stranger does not exist because we will not see him/her. Much as a child, when the mother says “Don’t do that,” the child turns his/her back and continues whatever he/she was doing because Mommy is out of sight and therefore no longer exists for her/him. Repression operates for adults as well. We do not see the inner other; therefore it does not exist. But to repress something is not to kill it. It continues to live unconsciously within us and influences our perceptions and emotional responses and reactivity. It may become a source of contamination for other people. Freud discovered that repression is one of the main mechanisms in making neurosis; and neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.

Exercise to consider–If we want to get an inner sense of our inner strangers that we reject or repress, there is a simple test. Think of someone of the same gender as you that you dislike. Do this sentence completion—“I hate/dislike this person because . . .” Fill in all the reasons then put it away. Tomorrow make the list again, erase the person’s name and put in your own name. What do you discover? Do you find many bits and pieces of things that belong to us and not someone else? Congratulations! You have just met your inner stranger.

When Jesus says, “Love our enemy and resist not,” could he be talking about our inner stranger? C. G. Jung writes, “In actual life it requires the greatest art to be simple, and so acceptance of oneself is the essence of the moral problem and the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life. That I feed the beggar.

That I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ—all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do to the least of my brethren/sisters, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least amongst them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, yea the very fiend himself/herself—that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of my own kindness, that I myself am the enemy who must be loved—what then? Then, as a rule, the whole truth of Christianity is reversed: there is then no more talk of love and long-suffering; we say to the brother or sister within us “Raca,” and condemn and rage against ourselves.

We hide him or her from the world, we deny ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves, and had it been God Godself who drew near to us in this despicable form, we should have denied God a thousand times before a single cock had crowed” (C.G. Jung, “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” Collected works, vol. 11, pp: 339).

Another way psychic contents make their presence felt is through projection. In projection, something that belongs to us, but we are unaware of and that we do not acknowledge as our own, presses for our conscious recognition by attaching itself to our neighbor’s personality. The unacknowledged stranger seeks to be known. We see in the other person—the outer stranger—what we refuse to accept as part of our own personality—the inner stranger. This may be positive or a negative quality. We may hate in the other what we hate to own in ourselves. This sets up the philosophical insight of Pogo when he commented, “Be aware of those who protest too much.” We may envy in another a positive quality we refuse to acknowledge in ourselves. We may try to oppress in another what we oppress in ourselves. In social repression, personal repression and projections almost always are operating. Not only do we not see the inner stranger that we project onto another person, we also fail to see the other person’s reality, thus transforming him/her into an outer stranger. This notion of repression and projection was a phenomenon Jesus was addressing when he said, “First deal with the log in your own eye, then deal with the spec in another’s eye.” There is also the example of when he encountered the woman being accused of sinning by religious leaders and Jesus responded, “You who are without sin, cast the first stone.” He is recognizing and dealing with this psychological process of projection that is part of the distortion of the human journey.

An example of projection is illustrated by a story told by the Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick. It was out West many years ago, when the people came in from the range with pistols strapped to their sides. As the Perils of Pauline were showing in theatres, the cowboys did not understand how the movies operated. On the screen, the train was barreling down the track and in danger of running over poor, innocent Pauline tied to the track. The villain who had tied her there had on his black stove pipe hat and he was wringing his hands, yet chuckling under his cape. To rescue Pauline, one of the cowboys watching pulled his gun out of his holster and began to shoot the villain on the screen. Fosdick comments that it was a good thing that the cowboy did not understand how the movies really worked, or instead of blowing holes in the screen, he would have shot the projector. Projection is a description of those moments when we confuse the screen with the projector. Because of our discomfort within, instead of looking at ourselves, we shoot holes in the screen or the person who serves as the screen for our projections.

Exercise— Another exercise to meet those positive aspects of ourselves that we project onto others, is to think of a person you admire intensely, perhaps in an exaggerated way, and list the qualities that so complete our fascination. Again, we erase the name and substitute our own. What do you hear and observe? What might be presented is a clear indication of undeveloped potential gifts in our own nature.

A third way we make things and people strangers to ourselves, which is the opposite of repression, is identification. Whereas in repression the difference between the stranger and ourselves is so great that we simply deny the existence of the stranger, in identification we gloss over the differences. We say we are really all quite alike, and that there is no difference between or among us. Again we fail to see the other. Instead we become the other. We do not relate to the other; rather, we adopt their entire way of being. As Umberto Eco suggests, “Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype, without denying or ignoring the otherness” (p. 18). One danger of identification is that we take away another’s otherness rather than embrace or allow for it. Deep relationship has to do with accepting not only what I love and have in common with the other, but also those parts that I do not understand and sometimes do not even like.

The Columbian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, said he knew his wife her so well that she was completely and utterly unknown to him. Those same words describe our encounters with the stranger. The more I know the other or the stranger, the more it is completely and utterly unknown to me. The unknowing can be beautiful and keeps us deepening.

To love the enemy, to resist evil, to welcome the stranger, to first deal with the log in our own eye before the spec in the neighbor’s eye, connect spiritual and emotional phenomenon and practices. Thus, when working with groups, I am listening for the outward manifestations, but also the parallel processes happening within both them and me. What we discover over here, might be the missing peace to the ominous puzzle over or out there and vice versa. Then, a new picture emerges, a new narrative develops, a new story is told and perception and perspectives change. Consequently, the lamb and lion can lie down together.

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!


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