Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reflection: Personhood

Following is a very personal reflection, as you will see. Perhaps it will have some meaning for you, as well.

Three times recently I have borne the brunt of decisions made by others with some degree of authority over me: one decision made for me, one made about me, and one made with total disregard for me. Each of the decisions has been hurtful; each has struck at some important facet of my identity and each has left me feeling not quite myself. In fact, the cumulative effect of these decisions has forced me toward a deep and radical reassessment of my identity and of the source of my identity. And, though the process has been, and still is, painful, it is a gift from God – a grace and joy for which I am grateful.

Though none of those who made the decisions actually spoke these words, each would have assured me that the decision “was nothing personal.” And therein lies the problem; truly none of the decisions was personal. Yet, I am a person. And those making the decisions are persons. Thus, the relationship between us cannot be other than personal. To treat me – to treat anyone – as less than or different from person is to violate the God-given nature of humanity. To refuse to recognize and acknowledge the essential personhood of the other is a grave sin not only against the person, but against God who created that person, against Christ who redeemed that person, and against the Holy Spirit who draws that person into the life of the Trinity.

As a candidate prepares for the mystery of baptism in the Episcopal Church, he enters into covenant by answering a series of questions with the reply, “I will, with God’s help.” The final questions have never appealed to me; both the language and intent appear too culturally accommodating. Yet, I must admit that, if taken seriously and biblically, they are spot on.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Both of these are person-questions: Will you treat your neighbor as a person? Will you treat every human being as a person? It is highly significant, I think, that the church requires the candidate preparing to become more deeply and thoroughly person through union with Christ to publicly acknowledge the personhood of all others and to vow, in the name of Christ, to treat all others as persons. So, those of us who find our personhood in Christ dare not say to anyone, “It’s nothing personal.” Through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, our Lord has made it all personal. The cross is the ultimate symbol of personhood: Jesus, who united God and man in his person, freely and victorious giving himself for persons waiting – though often in ignorance – to be united in their persons with God.

So, there can be no I-It relationships among us, only I-Thou: person-to-person, mediated through the grace of God. We are truly defined by nothing else so much as our personhood: a personhood created by God, redeemed by our Lord Jesus, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit – a personhood made complete as we become partakers of the divine nature, the sons and daughters of God.

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