Matthew 13:54-57; Mark 3:31-35
The Reverend Tom Herbek
January 17, 2016
Someone once described prejudice as a disease characterized by “hardening of the categories.” It seems that this disease is quite prevalent in today’s world, and even in our own country. Our world today is dangerously polarized, and conflicts have become “holy wars,” a label that makes them so much harder to solve. Yet, we hear things and see things that happen all around the globe in record time. In the past, we might not even know about conflict in other places, whereas today we see it in real time, as it is happening. Our globe is so bound together today that what happens in one place sets off shock waves around the world. And religion has become a tool that fuels alienation and that makes intolerance and injustice acceptable.
As Desmond Tutu wrote in his book God Is Not a Christian: “People become impatient with ambivalence. Differences of opinion are not tolerated, and simplistic answers are the vogue, whereas the reality is that the issues are complex.”
In such a world, what are we being told to do? As they used to say in the Westerns on T.V.: “It’s time to circle the wagons.” It is ironic that what Martin Luther King said over 50 years ago- much different than circling the wagons- seems more significant today than it has for a long time.
Dr. King wrote: “All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
Martin Luther King understood that we are all in this together. Toward the end of his life, he shifted his focus from civil rights to human rights: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I have fought too long and hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concerns….Justice is indivisible.”
We are tied together in a single garment of destiny. Last week, I spoke about expanding our notion of family, of finding ways to include far more people in our group. But Jesus came to help us understand that it is not our belonging to a particular family group that gives life meaning. As Richard Rohr comments: “It is much easier to belong to a group than to belong to God. To belong to a group one usually has to be convinced the group is ‘right’; to belong to God, one always knows one is as wrong as everybody else.”
Jesus saw what happens when group membership becomes paramount, and he spent his life crossing the accepted boundaries of his time. As Rohr writes: “To oppose violence, Jesus has to diminish the very things that people tend to absolutize, because our absolutes are normally what we use to justify our violence. He has to relativize at least three things that almost all peoples idealize: (1) my group identity, (2) my security system or occupation and (3) the nuclear family and so-called ‘family values,’ which are often used as a defense mechanism against the larger spiritual family.”
All those categories, those ways that we define who we are, are ignored by Jesus. He defines family in a much different way, perhaps because he has experienced the way our family may limit who we can become.
For Jesus, the most important sign of our attempts to follow God’s calling is that we expand our sense of family in ways that seem inconceivable to many people. Jesus did not show an overarching loyalty to family or to his Jewish roots. He criticized them both as potential sources of intolerance, bigotry, and idolatry, and the possibility that family, ethnicity, religion, or nationality can all be used to justify violence and hatred.
In a beautiful poem called “Kin_dom Without Walls”, Cynthia Langston Kirk calls us to consider what our hope might be:
Imagine a place
Where mercy resides,
Love forms each heart,
Compassion lived out with grit and determination
A place where lavish signs
Mark each path barrier free.
Imagine a place
Where skin tones are celebrated
Like the hues of tulips in springtime.
Where languages inspire
With symphonies of diversity.
Where Respect schools us
In custom and history
And every conversation
Begins with a bow of reverence.
Imagine a place where each person wears glasses,
Clarity of vision for all.
Recognizing each one, everything
Made in the image of God.
Imagine a place
Where carrots and pasta
Doctor’s skills and medications
Are not chained behind barbed wire –
Food, shelter, health care available for all.
Imagine a place where
Every key of oppression
Was melted down to form public art
Huge fish, doves, lions and lambs
On which children could play.
Imagine a place where
People no longer kept watch
Through the front window
To determine whether the welcome mat
Would remain on the porch.
Such is the work
In the kin_dom of God.
When we expand our definition of family, of “kin”, expand the circle of our acceptance, then we begin to see people as individuals, and we stop putting them in categories, nor do we allow categories to define who they are. An amazing – and quite risky statement by Rabbi Harold Kushner clearly demonstrates the danger of defining people solely by the categories:
When I speak of forgiveness in the context of the Holocaust, what I am saying is that I don’t want the searing memory of the Holocaust to take over my mind, infecting everything I think or do. I don’t want to think of Judaism as a synonym for victimhood. I don’t want the memory of the Holocaust to make me suspect that anyone who criticizes Israel is a crypto- Nazi. Hitler has been dead for seventy years. He doesn’t deserve the power to infect my mind and make me suspect all gentiles of being secret Nazis. What I want the memory of the Holocaust, and the slogan “Never again,” to do is the precise opposite of that. I want it to immunize me against the danger of any effort to stigmatize an entire group of people-be it gays, Muslims, or political conservatives – as being a mortal danger to our way of life. I will criticize individuals when they deserve criticism, but I will not condemn entire populations. We have seen where that leads.
And Rabbi Kushner calls on us all to stop using our religion as a reason for violence, hatred, and discrimination:
I believe that God is looking for Muslims who will say No to those who speak falsely in God’s name. No, I have read the Koran, and I find there a God who cherishes life and protects the innocent.
I believe that God is looking for Christians who will say No to those preachers who claim that anyone who disagrees with them is the enemy. The Christianity to which they turn for the salvation of their soul is a religion that centers on whom they are required to love, not whom they are entitled to hate.
And I believe that God is looking for Jews who will say No; when a Jew is asked to do something in the name of the Torah that makes him less than the Torah calls on him to be, he will not do it.
But it is not easy.
The voices that continually remind us of what “those people” are like are much louder than those who call for tolerance. The pictures of violence are much more prominent than the pictures of compassion. And yet, every now and then, something happens, and we get the hopeful sense that we are a part of a network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny.
Joan Chittister describes a moment in 2003 when it happened:
It was a hot and honest session in that meeting of Palestinian and Israeli women in Oslo, Norway. The Palestinian women said that they supported the Israelis’ right to an independent state; the Israeli women said that they supported the Palestinians’ right to resources, political integrity, and freedom to live in the land. It was a significant political moment.
Nevertheless, what happened after the conference adjourned may, in the end, prove to be even more significant.
On the last night of the assembly, one of these women went to the other and asked to continue the discussion about what had been lost and what must be gained if the two peoples are ever to live together well. They went out for coffee together. I don’t know what was said. I only know that the conversation went on until after midnight.
When it came time to leave, the Israeli woman – old enough to be the Palestinian’s mother – decided she would walk the young woman to her hotel. But then the young Palestinian realized how far the older woman would have to walk alone back to her own place of residence and insisted that she walk her halfway back again.
“I’ve had a wonderful night,” the Israeli woman said as they parted. “This time with you was itself worth the conference.”
The young Palestinian woman went silent for a moment. “I’m glad for you,” she said, “but I’m confused.”
The Israeli woman winced inside, “Why? What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing is wrong,” the younger woman said. “I’m just confused. I don’t know what to do now that my enemy has become my friend.”
The next day, in the Tel Aviv airport, the Israeli women whisked through customs and baggage claim. The Palestinian women did not. When the Israeli women realized that all the Palestinians had been detained, they turned around, went back and refused to leave the customs hall themselves until all the Palestinians were released.
That, I learned, is what it means to proceed in the “ways of peace.” It means having the courage to make human connections with those we fear, with those we hate, with those who think differently than we do. It means refusing to leave the other behind as we go.
– National Catholic Reporter, July 8, 2003
As we widen the circle of what it means to be family, it means we then have the opportunity to make human connections across the boundaries that normally separate us. After all, as Dr. King once said, “We are all children of God.”
In the midst of all the noisy clamoring designed to separate us from each other, designed to make us circle the wagons against “those people,” may we find a way to reach out, to cross the boundaries, to widen our sense of family, and to open our arms and our hearts to those around us in all of their diversity, never forgetting that we are all knit together into a single garment of destiny.