First published in the Christian Science Sentinel
We were talking about connections. Is it possible to annul ethnic and religious divides and truly connect as human beings? The novelist at our dinner table that night, a deep thinker and a Zulu man, related a story he had once written.
A black man from rural South Africa stood trial before a white judge in a court based on a European-style legal code. The man was accused of assaulting his neighbor. The victim, still bruised, testified against him. So did several eyewitnesses. But when the judge asked the defendant for his plea, the man said he was not guilty because his victim had insulted his mother. They were at an impasse: The law viewed the matter from one perspective, the man's culture from another. "The two sides cannot be reconciled," the novelist said.
So it seems. The world urges us toward "otherness." It's how we define one another and ourselves, too. A decade ago, South Africa achieved a remarkable political transformation when it set aside segregation for majority rule without going to war. As important as that change was, however, it did not end the discussion about race. It simply redefined the terms. Lasting reconciliation remains a daily endeavor. There's still a tug of war between equality and diversity. Who's African? Who's entitled to hold office, run a company, or edit a newspaper? Who belongs?
It's probably the same right around the world. Muslims are labeled extremists. Americans are regarded as arrogant. Interracial adoption threatens to deprive a child of its heritage. Immigration puts cultures on a collision course. Men are from Mars, women from Venus. An irony of the time is that the more we remove the physical barriers that once separated us according to nationality or ethnicity (think e-mail and air travel), the more we seem to assert those notions of identity. We mingle far more than at any other time in history, but are we really transcending categories? Are we really connecting?
When I'm confronted with the apparent difficulties of breaking down stubborn social barriers, I sometimes think about something the Apostle Paul told the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).
This would not make much sense if Paul were talking about all of us sharing unity in a single human personality - in this case, Jesus. Instead, I think he was referring to God's concept of the ideal man or woman. That presents a wholly different and radical way of thinking. Rather than starting from the premise that human beings hail from competing backgrounds, it is possible to recognize that we all share an essential common heritage derived from a single divine source. Accepting our unity as God's perfect children, being willing to delight in the many-hued ways in which we all express God's unending diversity, can have profound effects. As Paul suggested, it can annul the difficult differences we sometimes associate with race, gender, religion, and nationality.
Mary Baker Eddy, founder of this newspaper, wrote a poem that I sometimes reach for in prayer during challenging moments. It captures, for me, the essence of this idea that we're all united in Christ. Titled "Love," it begins by addressing God:
Brood o'er us with Thy shelt'ring wing,
'Neath which our spirits blend
Like brother birds, that soar and sing,
And on the same branch bend.
("Poems," page 6)
Brother birds, sheltered, soaring, singing, blending. Can we really connect across so many seemingly complex social divides? Through prayer, it is possible to prove that we are already and always connected.
Have we not all one father?
hath not one God created us?