Epiphany 5: To Be Understood as To Understand

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:16-23)

Throughout history, when people have had an anonymous quote that needs a well-known author in order to lend it appropriate gravitas, St. Francis of Assisi has been a go-to false attribution, not unlike Mark Twain or George Carlin in more modern times. Take one of my favorite maxims: “Preach the Gospel at all times, with words if necessary.” This, as well as any single sentence I’ve yet run across, sums up my approach to Christianity and the use of Christian theological language. Despite this, there is no evidence that St. Francis ever spoke or wrote these words.

Whatever its provenance, when reading Paul’s letters, I sometimes wished he had heard this little maxim. More than any other individual, Paul was responsible for turning Christianity from a messianic movement within Judaism into a distinct religion. He was the first “evangelical,” as it were, preaching “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) far and wide, making converts of Jews and Gentiles alike. His impact on the development of Christianity cannot be overstated.

Labrador Inuit with Moravian missionary, c. 1819.

Which is why Paul’s language of “winning Jews” and “becoming all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some” in the passage from 1 Corinthians this week makes me more than a little uncomfortable. It smacks of the Christian triumphalism that fueled the missionaries of the colonial era, who were more interested in making converts than in living out Jesus’ Gospel of radical love. It reminds me of my Congregational forebears who came to South Dakota and learned Lakota first and foremost so that they could translate the Bible into the language of the “savages,” who studied Lakota culture, not because they believed that Lakota culture was valuable in and of itself, but so that they could explain to those “poor, benighted souls” that their Wakantanka (“Great Mystery” or “Great Spirit”) was in fact the God of Christianity. For those missionaries, comprehending a people and their way of life was simply a prelude to bringing them into the Christian fold. And if that didn’t suffice to “civilize” them, then naked force would do in a pinch.

Over and against such missionary zeal, I prefer to be guided by another prayer commonly attributed to St. Francis, the aptly but erroneously named “Prayer of St. Francis.” I’m thinking in particular of a line in the latter half of the prayer:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek…
so much to be understood as to understand.

There is huge difference between comprehending something and understanding it. Just take a look at their respective etymologies. Comprehend comes from the Latin “to grasp,” whereas understand has the original sense of standing, not under something, but in the midst of something. To understand is to be surrounded by, to allow the object of understanding to fill us and penetrate us, without seeking to hold or possess it. Those early missionaries sought to comprehend Native culture, to grasp it and then shape it to their own purposes. To “become all things to all people, that [they] might by all means save some.” To “kill the Indian and save the man,” as the infamous boarding school slogan had it.

This desire to grasp and use rather than to truly understand is hardly unique to colonial missionaries. How often have we listened to respond rather than to hear in a conversation? How often have we researched an opponent’s perspective, not in order to understand it from their vantage point, but rather the better to tear it down and assert the truth of our position? Real understanding requires us to let go of our presuppositions and our ingrained beliefs, to let go of our need to make converts to our religion or our cause. It requires us to meet others as they are, not as they might be for our designs. It requires us to stand in their midst and open ourselves to the possibility that, in this meeting, we might be transformed.

So this week I pray, with Pseudo-Francis (as it were), that we might seek not so much to be understood as to understand. I pray that, rather than trying to grasp others different from us and change them to fit our molds, we might instead approach with open hands, stand in their midst, and allow them to change us. I pray that we might preach the Gospel at all times – with words only if absolutely necessary.

Amen. –Tom

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