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Why the Pope Hates Polarization

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Pope Francis shook up the Roman Catholic Church by saying in a recent interview that he will not focus on the polarizing issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraception. Instead, he wants to pursue an inclusive church, one that is "the home of all."

The United States could use some shaking up as well, locked as we are in political polarization that caused a government shutdown. We need leaders who will focus on the common good instead of on wedge issues, and work for the benefit of a country that has the potential to be a "home of all."

So why does the pope hate polarization? Because he is a follower of Jesus Christ, who welcomed all people and consistently practiced hospitality. At the end of the Gospel of Luke, on the afternoon of the day he is raised from the dead, Jesus appears to his disciples as a stranger, as a guest, and as a host. Each of these roles can teach us how to become a more inclusive community.

When two disciples are traveling to the village of Emmaus, Jesus comes near and walks with them, but their eyes are kept from recognizing him. Jesus asks about the events they are discussing, and one of them says, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" (Luke 24:18).

Jesus is initially depicted as a stranger, giving his disciples the challenge of showing hospitality. They practice philoxenia, which literally means "love of the stranger." Philoxenia is one of the Greek words used in the New Testament for hospitality. This approach stands in stark contrast to the attitude so prevalent in society today -- xenophobia, "fear of the stranger."

What would it mean for us to practice philoxenia today? We do it every time we teach English to a recent immigrant in an ESOL class. We do it every time we make an effort to get to know a person from a different race, culture, nationality, or sexual orientation. This is philoxenia -- love of the stranger. When we practice it, we discover that strangers really aren't so strange.

Fortunately, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus rise to this challenge. As they come near the village that is their destination, Jesus walks ahead as if he is going on. But the disciples urge him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over" (Luke 24:29). So Jesus goes in to stay with them, and he becomes their guest. They welcome and include him in their lives, and invite him to stay with them.

Jesus wants us to take good care of the guests who come to us by sitting down with them and sharing a meal. He knows that meals have the potential to bring people together, even if they are liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. Washington will remain polarized as long as partisans attack each other across the airwaves, the internet, and the distance between the White House and Capitol Hill. But if they literally "come to the table" and share a meal, progress will be made. The best path to unity is through the stomach.

Then Jesus surprises the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Although he started as a stranger and became a guest, he quickly changes roles again. When he is sitting at table with them, he becomes their host -- he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Then their eyes are opened and they recognize him -- and he vanishes from their sight (Luke 24:30-31). The disciples discover that they were in the presence of holiness when they shared a meal with Jesus.

The story ends with the two disciples racing back to Jerusalem to tell their experience to the other disciples. They say what happened on the road, and how Jesus "had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread" (Luke 24:35). They make a proclamation about how Jesus brought them together in a time of confusion and polarization when he came to them as a stranger, a guest, and a host.

In a recent interview, Pope Francis talked about how proclamation focuses on the essentials. He said, "This is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus." The time has come for Washington to focus on the essentials, the necessary things -- doing the people's business and putting the government back to work. Our leaders need an Emmaus moment, in which they come together around a table and begin to see each other as holy instead of hostile.

The pope hates polarization because it tears people apart instead of bringing them together. In its place, he urges us to practice Christian hospitality and become part of a mighty spiritual movement that can overcome divisions in our terribly fractured world.