A friend from college days with whom I have become recently reacquainted shared on Facebook an article about the polarization of Americans with respect to President Obama and more recent presidents. With it, she posted the words, “…must not despair…must not despair…”
I posted a comment. “Reckon how that happened…”
I’m sure my comment was taken by some as sarcastic, perhaps accusing, given that this friend and I have often appeared, to the uneducated eye, to come down on opposite sides of this presidential election. But it wasn’t intended that way. It was, instead, a rhetorical question, asked in the hope that it might stimulate self-analysis, an examination of how we two may have contributed to the polarization, unwittingly or otherwise.
As it happens, her posting echoes a refrain I have repeated to myself at least once a day for the past 20 years or so—not just with respect to presidential elections, but to what I perceived was happening to the American polity in general and to the things I hear daily, thanks to the internet, spoken by many who share with me an “affiliation” with Christendom.
I, for one, have never had a great deal of trouble reconciling the tenets of my personal theology and the principles of democracy as they were revealed to me in my own reading. For the record, I have read both the Bible and the documents enshrined by our “founding fathers” numerous times—the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution (especially the Bill of Rights). Many of those tenets and principles are based on similar ideas—not an accident, given that most of the learned men of the commonwealths of Massachusetts and Virginia came from traditions steeped in Anglicanism.
Fortunately, when they sat down together, they managed to keep the heart of the message I hear when I read the words of Jesus, while discarding the crafty, oppressive projections of mankind added through the centuries. The most important departure from the Anglican tradition, in my opinion, was the notion that there would be no “national” church, no particular set of religious doctrines or beliefs that would be used as instruments for denying the stated “inalienable” rights of life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness to citizens who didn’t subscribe to them.
Only 100 years before, the irrational yet all-too-natural human pendulum swing from oppressed to oppressor had resulted in the deaths of innocent souls in Salem. How very quickly those who’d less than a century before escaped religious oppression in England and come to America turned on their own community members! And thank God for the wisdom of those who eventually overruled them. It is lost on some that among the judges who stopped the witch hunts of 1692 was Increase Mather, the father of the very man who’d written the “manual” on the trials themselves. It is also lost on others that the son, Cotton Mather, a prolific writer, was among the first proponents of inoculation for smallpox—a practice that some might have deemed a bit “witchy” themselves.
But I digress.
My point is this: Jesus’ counsel to “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a suitable framework, a commandment that serves two purposes—to underscore the equality of humans in the eyes of God, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and to provide a practical guide for decision-making when “inalienable” rights to protections of that equality is threatened.
Jesus was pretty darn clear about the definition of “neighbor,” too. There is no doubt if your reading comprehension exceeds the fifth grade level that the “neighbor” Jesus said one was to love in the same way one loved oneself could not be designated by membership in a group delineated by ethnicity or gender or religious belief or sexual preference or any other category dreamed up by fools in search of power. There was a reason Jesus chose a Samaritan. The Samaritans were hated by the Israelites, despite the fact that they were both descendants of the same guy.
The bastardization of what Jesus said was almost immediate, so immediate and so insidious that few notice it, especially today. We both see and don’t see the guile, the prejudice with respect to the story itself every day—emblazoned in the names of charitable organizations around the world. Even the man-made headers in the New Testament itself betray us, with one little word rendering the very message of the parable moot.
Look it up. Jesus didn’t say anything about a “good” Samaritan. We’re the ones who added that word, as if this one man, this one Samaritan, was an exception to the rule. Can you hear it?
“Oh, yeah,” we say. “The Samaritan was definitely the neighbor in that story. He was a ‘good’ Samaritan, unlike the rest of his kind.”
“Oh, yeah,” we say. “I’m surprised. That black guy is pretty smart.”
“Oh, yeah,” we say. “I have a gay friend. But he’s different.”
“Oh, yeah,” we say. “I have a liberal friend, I have a conservative friend, I have a Christian friend, I have a Muslim friend, I have a Buddhist friend…” You finish the sentence.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
I must not despair…I must not despair…