Saturday, May 26, 2012

The politics of division

This Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, we will hear the story of the Tower of Babel and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles, resulting in them speaking in a myriad of languages.

We are hearing these readings when the Anglican Communion still struggles to remain unified. We are hearing these passages when our country is more divided than ever-- by race, by class, by gender, by sexual orientation, by religion, by politics. Unity is a great dream, but unity is also at the same time a great challenge.

The problem is, we are often not honest with ourselves when we say we want unity. We want people to be unified with us through agreeing with us and validating our position. We want unity to occur when others move to US, rather than being forced to move to THEM. We want unity on our own terms.

Which is why we never get it at all.

We say we want unity, yet we worship individualism. Note, I said "individualism," not "individuality." "Individuality" is the reservoir of various characteristics which make us unique from others. "Individualism" is the idea that the interests of the individual to act independently are of paramount importance. A companion word in the political cant of the times is the word "liberty."

 Those who currently like to imagine that their liberty is being taken away by nebulous forces are fond of quoting our founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Jefferson famously said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants." What people do not understand is that he said this attempting to justify the most horrifying excesses of the French Revolution. When this quote is used today, it lacks this context. For instance, many people also do not remember that this is the saying that was sprawled across the chest of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, when he was captured after killing and maiming hundreds, all in the name of his own "liberty" which he claimed the federal government was attacking. Patrick Henry, of the famous "Give me liberty, or give me death!" exclamation, was a slaveowner, as was Jefferson, which certainly was understood by those of our founding generation as being the absolute opposite of liberty. And neither Henry nor Jefferson ever actually served militarily during the Revolution, greatly reducing the chances that the blood to be spilled in defense of liberty would be their own. I am not saying that they were not great patriots, but their words did not always match their deeds, as is so often the case for all of us.

In modern society today, we see the same people bemoaning the alleged crisis in "morality" also trumpeting the right of the individual to trump any consideration for one's fellow human beings or citizens. This hypocrisy is generated by a failure to think about what these terms actually mean.  Questions of morality only arise when one lives in the society of others. Further, these questions almost always arise when one is seen to be violating the community standards of morality by expressing one's individuality in a way that is seen as being detrimental in some way to the functioning of the group. You might even say that those accused of immorality are actually living in truth to their individuality.

The handmaidens of unity are compromise, civility, and kindness toward one another. Vitriol and hatred are poison to society. It is time we remembered this, both in the affairs of our Anglican Communion and in our political discourse.

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