Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Unity, Faith, and the Body of America

While riding on the bus here in DC recently, I've noticed another in a series of ad campaigns by atheist, agnostic, and non-theist groups. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been particularly persistent and prominent. Their basic advertising technique displays a quotation advancing an anti-religious view from a series of important Americans throughout time. They seek to best advance a basic message that religion and government have no part. While I agree that a strict separation or wall between the two is necessary, I would not agree to remove moral teachings with a religious focus altogether from the process. Real religion and spirituality, not its watered-down, adulterated, self-serving imitation is never plentiful.

As we know, President Obama made his name on the national scene with an optimistic notion that there was much more that drew Americans together than separated them. This was called bipartisanship and nervously entertained for a time, before being soundly ridiculed for being pie-in-the-sky and unrealistic. Its core message, however, stretches back centuries.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, "I am not part of the body because I am not an eye," would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?

But now God has arranged the parts, every one of them, in the body according to his plan. If all were a single member, where would the body be? The eye can never say to the hand, "I don't need you." The head can't say to the feet, "I don't need you." In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary.

The solution has been with us for a long time. The issue here is a simple, equally ancient problem involving an unequal distribution of power, resources, and money. Hierarchies are a prime breeding ground for this setup. From that aspect, I understand, at least in part, why Atheism, Agnosticism, Nontheism, or Anti-Religious stances are popular and attractive to some. Having been justifiably wronged, some leave faith behind and make it a mission of sorts to prevent others from being wounded in the same way. Our methods, bias, and personal experiences may differ, but each of us is trying to reach Heaven, be it literally or figuratively. I believe in God, in no small part, because I want to bring to everyone the Peaceable Kingdom, where it is written that the lamb will lie down with the wolf.

But even among the religious, there is no one understanding of what this Kingdom should look like, or even when it will come to pass. Those who think otherwise are fooling themselves. Among individual believers this constant, often unstated tension and sometimes open dissent is prevalent and common. I will tactfully suggest that sometimes Non-Theist groups make blanket assumptions about all believers without examining the plentiful quantity of nuances and even sometimes bold faced contradictions within organized religion. Fundamentalism's own ad campaign should not be believed. They do not own faith exclusively, nor do they have any and all of the answers. I am sure that if I examined Non-Theist groups, there would probably be the same splits, schisms, and factions present there, also.

That which was expressed by Paul of Tarsus in the passage above requires much from each of us. It was a demanding commandment in the First Century A.D. and it challenges us now. If I am to apply the passage to more than just my faith community, I could never say to an Atheist, "I don't need you." If all of us were a single member, where would the body be? This goes for worship and for governance. When the body we refer to is a deliberative one known as Congress, this seems to be a pretty common offense. Still, if we are indeed the very same Americans in both the red states and the blue states, we are still citizens with civic responsibilities towards cooperation and community. Even if one of us proclaimed to be not part of the American body for whatever reason, would that make him or her any less of one?

What if I slightly modified a famous parable of Jesus?

"A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a Baptist minister was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Catholic priest also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But then a despised Muslim, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, 'Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.' Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?"

He said, "He who showed mercy on him."

Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

What if the one who showed him mercy was a Tea Party protester? Or an Evangelical Christian? Or held a strong pro-life stance? Or was an anti-feminist?

The original hero of this Parable was, of course, the Samaritan.

Samaritans were hated by Jesus' target audience, the Jews, to such a degree that the Lawyer's phrase "He who had mercy on him" may indicate a reluctance to name the Samaritan. The Samaritans in turn hated the Jews. Tensions were particularly high in the early decades of the first century because Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover with human bones.

Democratic values, properly implemented, require radical love and inclusiveness. These values may not need to be introduced with a particular verse of Scripture, but their moral under-girding is a historically religious manifestation of morality and ethical conduct. The Founding Fathers may not have been especially religious people in a strict sense, but they were nevertheless influenced by the religion of their upbringing and the primarily Christian faith of their ancestors. I'm not advocating for prayer in school, but I think it would instructive to examine how we got to this place. Without understanding our past, it is impossible to put the present in its proper context. And this exists well beyond religion. We cannot eviscerate our past for any reason, because, if we do, we lose the ability to correctly shape the future. Mistakes will be made, but if we have some guide along the way, they will be less destructive and easier to fix with time.

Yet again, regardless of our identities, we ask ourselves again whether we are advanced enough to save not just ourselves, but others as well. Some may say that Obama's words are still little more than an overly optimistic, albeit ingratiating campaign slogan. One can be sure that bipartisanship will not be a message advanced in the 2012 campaign. I see this as discouraging, but I still continue my own work. Have we yet pushed aside our human selfishness to see that none of us is beyond saving and all of us have worth? If we have not, what must we do next? Until then, we will persuasively, collectively, present our ideas to the world, finding those who are receptive to what we believe, and also finding those who resist us. If we are to succeed as we hope, I suppose it depends on how we interpret the word "body". Some parts of the body that may seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary.

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