“There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” Galatians 3:28
It’s a long, old joke, but still funny and sets up the main issue I want to tackle in this week’s offering:
“I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well, are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are your Christian or Buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too!
“Are you Catholic or Protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, Me too! Are your Episcopalian or Baptist? He said, "Baptist!" I said, "Wow! Me too! Are your Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord? He said, Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are your Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too!
“Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.”
The joke is often told as a critique of religion which, according to some people, inevitably creates division, acrimony, and Inquisitions. Religion certainly can do that. Of course, so can politics, economics, race, nationalities, and SEC football.
The problem is endemic to human nature. We tend to classify and congregate with people who share our particular characteristics. It’s a kind of taxonomy. Instead of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species (I proudly did that from memory), we use religious, political, economic, racial, and other criteria.
I’ll speak personally now. The culmination of this social taxonomy for me could be that I am human, male, white, Christian, 59 years old, southern, and thin. Don’t read too much into my list or begin evaluate me based on the order or what I’ve included or left out. I’m just listing seven characteristics of me. In fact, if you’ve already begun to grade me, please keep reading for you’re kind of my target audience for this article.
There’s certainly no problem with my seven characteristics. They’re fairly obvious and neutral in the higher orders. No one, I think would criticize me for being human. However, as we descend, the potential for problems rises. It happens in two ways: from within and from without.
By within I mean that I could begin to identify only with other 59 year-old, southern, Christian men who run. This would very likely lead to my being rather isolated and potentially having an air of superiority. Even if I focus on only a couple of the characteristics, the effect will be the same. I’ve isolated myself and risk contributing to the general acrimony of the community.
The problem also comes from without when others assume they have little or nothing in common with me because they don’t share perhaps more than one or two characteristics with me.
None of this is necessary even though it’s common. But I think it’s indisputably true that the further down the taxonomy we go the more potential we find for problems, and this gives rise to disputes and divisions concerning gender, religion, age, race, etc.
What’s the solution? On a grand scale we must always cherish and protect most the characteristic that is highest up the scale.
Let’s look at Paul’s words as a test case. He focused on three main dividing lines: religion, gender, and social standing. Implicit in his categories also are economics (slave or free) and race (Jew or Greek). So let’s say we have five categories represented here which are still very common: religion, race, gender, social, and economic standing.
Notice again, that the categories are neutral, none of them in and of themselves either good or bad as long as we stay within the commonly accepted bounds of compassion and fairness. In other words, no one wants slavery, the poor need to have opportunities, all need to be regarded with compassionate concerns and commitments, etc.
The trouble comes when we focus too narrowly on one of our categories and begin comparing, criticizing, and complaining. That was certainly the case in Paul’s day where the divisions were actually far sharper, more vitriolic, and even deadly than what we see today. While all the hatred, spite, and grumbling certainly are at unacceptable levels today, don’t for a moment think “it’s never been this bad.” It can get a lot worse.
As a solution, Paul went up the scale and focused us on our unity in Christ. Nothing is more important than that. Nothing has the potential to better an individual and then the society like adherence to Jesus’ teaching. Divisions melt away in the warmth of love, and a true community flourishes with kindness, compassion, tolerance, and grace.
We’ve got to move up the scale! We simply cannot keep looking through the knothole of our own categories, pronounce them superior, condemn or minimize the other categories, and ignore the grand principles that should bring us together.
Of course, I’m writing as a Christian to other Christians for the most part. So I would definitely say that we need to focus on Christ. He is the healer of individual souls and collective communities. The whole of creation focuses on Him. He’s the point.
However, more generally I’m writing about this topic today because I see so much unnecessary division and vitriol in our country today. We certainly will always have the categories, and I’m not suggesting that the only way forward is for everyone to be like me. However, whatever your categories we must agree on certain shared values that I think are clear from the principles I’ve noted. I suggest the following:
• We must not hate or look down on people from other categories. We’ll never make much progress as a country as long as one half hates the other. If you’re hating blacks or whites or evangelical Christians or the police or liberals, etc. then you’re part of the problem, not the solution.
• The solution to our problems is spiritual. I’m not saying everyone has to become Christian, but addressing the underlying reasons for hatred and divisions is simply never a function of government policy alone. Love, compassion, grace, tolerance, etc. are spiritually based and certainly not the provenance of a political party. People have to find a spiritual foundation, and for those who don’t believe I do suggest that you remain open and fair with the idea of God, or at least find a way to regularly focus on positive spiritual emotions.
• Be balanced in your moral framework. Social psychologists describe five foundations of moral development: compassion, fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, and purity (I call it honor). For example, you can’t be so focused on authority that you neglect fairness. Or so focused on compassion that you neglect honor. Many of our arguments today are rooted in how we rate and value these foundations. We should agree that all are necessary, and we need to have balance in applying them.
• Stop judging. We are all free and entitled to our categories. In fact, I feel pretty good about all of mine, and I’m not going to feel bad about that as long as I don’t look down on someone else’s categories or try to suppress them. We simply have to put the brakes on pointing out other people’s flaws, biases, micro-aggressions, etc. Judging always comes back harder at the judge. Humility is a real key to getting along in a community, and at the very least that means ultimately I’m going to be the one that gets rid of the log or speck in my own eye without having someone else pointing it out. Being judged and judging creates rancor.
• We need to take a break from being offended at every turn. Recently I noticed on a well-known news page that three headlines had the word “outraged.’ Someone or some group was outraged by some offense. I suggest we retire from the national vocabulary for a while the following: outraged, rant, offended, shame (as a verb), livid, furious, rip, and slam. The negative spiritual emotions that give rise to these acerbic expressions never build up and only poison the atmosphere of the individual and society.
A key word in closing is acceptance. I don’t have to agree with other people and their categories. I’m not sure I even have to affirm them. I do need to accept them. That seems to lower my temperature a bit. We will always have differences, but our original national motto is e pluribus unum. Out of many one. When we focus so heavily on the categories and go down the scale more and more narrowly all we’re going to end up doing is pushing each other off the bridge. We sacrifice the unum in the reckless pursuit of the pluribus. We have to rediscover and reclaim the ennobling ideals that make us one.
Dr. Terry Ellis
July 30, 2017