Pastoral Care and Ubuntu

goodShepherdThe Feast of Saints Peter and Paul celebrates the pastoral ministry of the Church initiated by two different personalities with some differences of opinion. Celebrating two formative pastors already points to pastoral ministry as one of relationships. Then there is the whole matter of shepherds, as we often call pastors, in relationship with their flocks.

Having just returned from a conference on the subject of Ubuntu, I am inclined to reflect on pastoral relationships in terms of this social vision. Forrest Harris, President of American Baptist College in Nashville, explained Ubuntu as giving full respect for the being of other people. Naomi Tutu imaged Ubuntu with the African practice of giving a bowl of food to the eldest child in an extended family. This child is expected to share the food with his or her siblings in such a way that all of them, especially the youngest, gets a full share. The oldest child is given to understand that taking more than a fair share may increase the food taken in, but it diminishes that same child even more than it diminishes the youngest who goes without. Ubuntu, then, is so simple that it seems like an insult to one’s intelligence. Even a five-year-old can understand it, which is the point, since the eldest child might be that age.

However, Ezekiel complains of a total breakdown of pastoral care and Ubuntu. The shepherds eat the fat and clothe themselves with wool. “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek. 34: 4) As a result, the flock is scattered. There is no Ubuntu here. These non-shepherds may be fat, but they are more diminished in their humanity than the starved sheep. If Ubuntu is so easy as to insult the intelligence, why is it so hard for anybody in Israel to practice it? Indeed, Ezekiel exclaims that God has given up on Israel’s shepherds: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (Ezek. 34: 15–16) As Psalm 23 says, God is our shepherd. Ezekiel adds that God is our only shepherd. In John 10 Jesus, fulfilling the words of Ezekiel, announces that he is the Good Shepherd who gathers the flock, protects the flock from bandits and robbers and lays down his life for his flock. This is Ubuntu to the max, but it is a one-person show.

But after Jesus had finished laying down his life for his sheep and then rising again, he gathered his disciples who had been scattered by the thieves and bandits. At the Lake of Galilee, he asked Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (Jn. 21) Each time that Peter said he loved Jesus, Jesus told him to feed or tend his sheep. The Good Shepherd is telling Peter to be a good shepherd as he is a good shepherd, to participate in the shepherdness of Jesus.

Making Peter a shepherd was just the beginning of the proliferation of shepherds who would tend the flock of Christ, with Paul being the most prominent. But here we are at a point where the analogy between sheep and church congregations breaks down. Sheep never cease to be dependent on their shepherds, but with humans, it’s a different matter. A big part of Ubuntu is helping other people mature. The young child is given the bowl of food to distribute to the other siblings as an the opportunity to learn the responsibility of being a shepherd so he or she can pass that responsibility on to the next generation.

We are fed with so much wisdom in Paul’s epistles that we often fail to notice the final chapters that are filled with heart-filled greetings to his colleagues in ministry. But what these greetings show us is that Paul, having poured out his life like a drink offering, (2 Tim. 4: 6) has passed the bowl of responsibility to the people he ministered to so that we, today, can continue to pass the bowl of Ubuntu to others, making all of us shepherds of one another.

God’s Reconciliation: A Thought on the Feast of Saints Peter & Paul

220px-Greco,_El_-_Sts_Peter_and_PaulIt is interesting and a bit ironic that we celebrate Saints Peter and Paul on the same day. Although there are famous icons of the two embracing one another in Christian love, the two seem not to have had an easy time getting along in real life. Although the two appeared to have been somewhat reconciled at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that he opposed Peter “to his face” for backing down from what he thought they had agreed on. (Gal. 2: 11) The final chapters of John’s Gospel suggest tensions between the “Beloved Disciple” and Peter, and/or some tension between the two communities derived from them. The Beloved Disciple rests on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper while Peter stubbornly tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. In her book Courting Betrayal,” Helen Orchard argues that Peter was resisting the slavish action of Jesus in washing his feet because he did not want to stoop so low himself. The episode of the Empty Tomb in John shows a rather awkward dance between the two where the Beloved Disciple gets there first but waits at the entrance and allows Peter to go in first. In this little tangle of a narration, both seem to have been first but not in the same way; which suggests some attempt to overcome the tension. In the final chapter of John, after the threefold question to Peter: “Do you love me?,” Peter points to the Beloved Disciple and asks” What about him?” Jesus answer basically tells us it is none of his business.

Peter is redirected to the threefold command he has just been given: “Feed my sheep.” Here is the key for overcoming tension and competition. When we compete with another, we become preoccupied with our rivals and nobody else. What does this do for pastoral care?  The preoccupation of rivals with each other answers the question quite clearly. It is tempting to say that pastors should never fight so as not to undermine their ministries, but there are times when we do have to stand up for the people we minister to. Paul stood up to Peter because he was paying close attention to the pastoral needs of the Galatians and other Gentiles he preached to. There are times in his epistles when Paul comes across as disputatious and rivalrous but in this instance, he was holding his focus on how to feed the sheep entrusted to him and trying to help Peter see the need of the Gentile sheep for himself.

Scripture does not tell us how this conflict ended as far as these two men are concerned although subsequent tradition claims that they were indeed reconciled. Likewise, the Johannine literature stemming from the Beloved Disciple was integrated into the New Testament, creating a deeper unity then Peter and the Beloved Disciple seem to have had. The art of differing and reconciling with others is much too complex to be taught in a brief sermon, but we have a couple of basics to get us started. 1) Keep our attention focused on those who depend on us for pastoral support; 2) Remember that Divine Providence can and will work out a deeper harmony underlying our conflicts and it isn’t always up to us to solve them, which means that, as Peter was told to stop worrying about his rival, we should stop worrying about our own rivals quite so much. And now for a third thought: Both Peter and Paul had much to repent of and they did just that. Can we do the same?

PETER AND PAUL: The Church’s Quest for Mimetic Unity

Sts_Peter_and_PaulThe presence of two strong personalities roughly the same sphere of influence is a perfect recipe for mimetic rivalry that can tear the social fabric apart until it is resolved either through implosion or collective violence against a victim. There is evidence that precisely these sorts of tensions played out between Saints Peter and Paul but there is also evidence of attempts at reconciliation between the two and further reconciliation on their behalf in the early Church to provide a very different model for the relationship between two strong outstanding personalities.

In the Acts of the Apostles Luke seems to have taken great pains to balance the impact of the missionary work of these two apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That Peter drops out of the narrative half way through the book and the seemingly abrupt ending with Paul awaiting trial in Rome diminishes the importance of even these great saints and emphasizes their subordination to the Holy Spirit. At the momentous Council of Jerusalem where the two apostles meet, at the heart of the book, the situation is ripe for conflict, but Luke presents the Council as an amicable solution to their conflict. Luke heightens the reconciliation by having Peter speak up Paul him in with words that sound a lot like a speech Paul could have made himself. That is, Peter imitates Paul to support his position at a time when he could have become a mimetic double in conflict with him. Peter’s earlier struggle over the appropriateness of preaching to of the Gentiles resolved by his vision of a sheet coming down from Heaven with both clean and unclean animals on it sets up this reconciliation. James plays the role of the mediator who states the amicable solution that allocates a separate sphere for Jews and Gentiles so that the two groups need not compete but are given space to follow the guidance of the Spirit. Paul’s letter to the Galatians tells a different story full of tension. Although Peter and gave Paul received “the right hand of fellowship” in Jerusalem, he later found it necessary oppose Peter “to his face” for rejecting table fellowship with Gentiles. Perhaps Peter had suffered a relapse of his own tendency to be swayed by the wrong mimetic crowd, such as happened to him in the courtyard of the high priest when he was surrounded by fellow Jews were against that fellowship. We never learned if this quarrel was ever healed between them in this life before it was healed posthumously in the hagiography and liturgy of the Church but there are hints that it probably was.

In writing to the Corinthians, Paul took pains to quell rivalry that had triangulated him with Peter by taking them severely to task for using such slogans as: “I am for Paul,” “I am for Cephas.” Far from fanning the flames of conflict, Paul distances himself from it in no uncertain terms and renounces any possible gain he might get from the “Paul” Party in Corinth. Although Peter is not believed to be the author of the Second Epistle bearing his name, it is significant that he refers to “our brother Paul, who is so dear to us.” At the very least, these words attest to the Church’s corporate effort to maintain a peaceful relationship between the two apostles. Peter says that Paul wrote “with the wisdom that is his special gift,” but then he cautions his readers that some points in Paul’s letters are hard to understand and are “easily distorted by uneducated and unbalanced people.” Tension and reconciliation between the two great apostles are themselves held in close tension here. A generation later, St. Clement of Rome writes the Corinthians to rage over an “abominable and unholy schism” in the community fueled by jealousy and envy. As a counter-example, Clement describes the deaths of Peter and Paul, stressing the harmony between the two great apostles. A century or so later, St. Ireneaus called the Church of Rome “the greatest and most ancient Church, founded by the two glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.” Archaeological investigations along the Appian Way have unearthed rooms with inscriptions honoring both saints together and a bronze medal dating from the first half of the second century pictures the heads of the two saints on the same side of the medal.

The Golden Legend, a 13th century compilation of saints’ lives by Jacob of Voragine is not the book one goes to for the most accurate history of the early church or anything else, but it is one of the best books for studying the way saints have been presented as models to the faithful. In his entry on Paul, Jacob explicitly curbs the alleged rivalry with St. Peter when he says: “We find that at different times Paul is portrayed as Peter’s inferior, as greater than Peter or as Peter’s equal, but the fact is that he was inferior in dignity, greater in preaching, and equal in holiness.” Jacob seals this unity by affirming the early Church’s legend that they were martyred under Nero on the same day. Before they were parted for their executions, Jacob records that Peter and Paul exchanged benedictions of each other.

This reconciliation between these two apostles is effected by their sharing the same feast day on June 29 when the other apostles get a day each for themselves. The Magnificat antiphon for First Vespers of this feast says: “Peter and Paul were at one in their love of the Lord: neither in life nor death were they divided.” The second half of this text comes from David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:23), so that a verse referring to the protracted mimetic struggle between David and Saul is applied to another problematic relationship to heal whatever division there may have been in real life and offer the Church a model of mimetic amity.