Saturday, August 8, 2015

Thinking Outside the Box

A few days ago, I began reading Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All That Is, a book co-authored by Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., and Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

While the premise of the book is fairly straightforward, it provides a perspective on life that hasn't been explored often before: 
Life itself is an exercise in learning to sing alleluia here in order to recognize the face of God hidden in the recesses of time. To deal with the meaning of alleluia in life means to deal with moments that do not feel like alleluia moments at all... alleluia is not a substitute for reality. It is simply the awareness of another kind of reality--beyond the immediate, beyond the delusional, beyond the instant perception of things.
One of the oldest anthems of the church, alleluia simply means "All hail to the One who is." It is the archhymn of praise, the ultimate expression of thanksgiving, the pinnacle of triumph, the acme of human joy. It says that God is Good--and we know it.

I think that, like a lot of people today, I'm trying to make sense of so much that is sense-less in the world and, in my reading, I have been especially struck by two chapters: "Differences" and "Divisions." In these chapters, Chittister reflects on the fact that differences are not only important for forming a sense of individuality, they are essential for a healthy culture and worldview.
Differences, I learned, were there to broaden us, to make us bigger people than we could ever have been had we stayed locked in our tiny little intellectual ghettoes. They make us think differently about the world. They make us ask questions about our world that cannot be answered on this side of that world's horizons. What else is education, in fact, if not an experience of differences that enlarges our perspective and increases our understanding?
The learnings that come from knowing the values of another people can easily reshape our own...
The new sense of self that comes from respecting the worldview of other peoples--about money, about moral standards, about social systems, about democracy--is both a humbling one and a freeing one. The West is not the center of the universe. Ours is not the only acceptable form of government or the only possible way of life. We do not have an obligation to impose one to avoid the other.
Differences not only teach us new ways of doing things; they also make us ask new questions of ourselves about what is really important in life, what really must have priority, what is really happiness, success, unity?
Differences are a challenge to our small assumptions about the way the world really goes together. An American world, a white world, a male world, a Western world are all simply small slices of reality attempting to be the whole. Only the respect for the Muslim veil, the Chinese smile, the African tribe, the South American campesino can stretch us beyond ourselves, beyond a political imperialism that sets out to corrupt whole peoples in the name of globalization and, in the end, deprives us of the richness of the world community.  
But that is the glorious burden of real Christianity: to follow the one who talked to Samaritan women and Roman soldiers, all the time allowing them to be who they were. Clearly, differences were not make to be homogenized; differences were made to be respected, to be honored, to be cherished. Alleluia.
These are powerful words from a writer far more gifted than I. But, sadly, there is a prophetic wisdom in her observations that our society doesn't seem to be able to accommodate.

In our post-September 11th world, we've become increasingly afraid of differences. But, this fear isn't only limited to political ideologies or governmental policy. This fear and suspicion extends to other cultures, faiths, races, sexual orientations, and classes. Rather than celebrate the amazing diversity that exists all around us, too many are trying to insulate themselves against (or outright reject) those who are different or have other ways of expressing themselves or engaging the world. And, when something happens that we might night not like, we quickly place blame and the ideological trenches of "Us" and "Them" widen. This reality is made all the worse when these judgments and rejections are justified by using God and faith as weapons.

One of the ways that this plays out is in our inability to talk to one another. Recently, Tom Nichols published a wonderful article entitled "The Death of Expertise," in which he explores the notions of equality and opinions. He writes:
Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense...
Critics might dismiss all this by saying that everyone has a right to participate in the public sphere. That’s true. But every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House. 
As the United States begins to look toward the next presidential and congressional elections, we're going to become increasingly bombarded with critiques, complaints, calls for action, and appeals to faith and morality that will, I fear, have little to do with the common good or "justice for all." This has already been demonstrated in the recent Republican debates and there is more--much more--to come.

The wounds that we have suffered as communities and as a country are deep and, in a way, we all feel helpless. Recent months have seen news outlets and social media explosions over the murders in Charleston, police brutality, racial injustice, marriage equality, the Confederate flag, the Pope's encyclical on "the Care of Our Common Home," Iran, Cuba, gun restrictions, immigration, nuclear weapons, dogs and children in hot cars, Planned Parenthood... the list goes on and on. And it's too much. It's too much to process and it's virtually impossible to discern a middle path. Sadly, these are also issues that Americans have been contending with for decades and, in many cases, we've not come very far in our discussions. That says so much.

With so much tragedy and fear and with waves of sound bites and news continually washing over us, it makes sense that people would dig in and try to find solutions and security in a political and economic system that is collapsing under its own weight. Others just walk away and trust that someone else will take care of the issues... as long as inconveniences and changes are kept at a minimum.

As I think about all of this, I'm convinced that Sister Joan Chittister's reflections are correct. Unless we learn to celebrate our differences and diversity and allow our small worlds to be broken open, we aren't going to succeed as individuals or as communities and a nation. This means learning to think outside of the box.

Rather than make grandiose gestures that are really only about window dressing (like removing Confederate flags while ignoring systemic racism or calling to defund Planned Parenthood without working to provide effective and truly pro-life alternatives for women's health, prenatal care, and reasonable processes for adoption), a time has come for new kinds of dialogue that respect the realities of our time and place but which look toward new kinds of solutions that are more expansive than party lines and political rhetoric. And this means compromise and sacrifice. It means using our imaginations. It means trusting one another. And listening.

We don't have any other choice. The status quo isn't working.

In his book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Father James Martin, S.J., shares these insights:
Many of us live in fear of being seen as uncool, foolish, gullible, unsophisticated, and consequently rejected. But why not be foolish for Christ? You could be foolish about forgiveness and offering reconciliation to some against whom you’ve held a grudge—even though others tell you to write him off. You could be foolish about humility and refuse to seek acclaim—in a culture that prizes it. You could be foolish by living simply—in a world of materialism. You could be foolish about your relationship to God and set aside time for prayer—in a society that prizes nothing more than activity. You could do all this even though people disdain you... 
You can be like those in the crowd, keeping people down, laughing at those who want to change their lives, praying that people are punished, not forgiven. Or you can be like those in the crowd who want to do the Christian thing, who want to be compassionate, but are kept back for fear of looking foolish or being rejected. 
There's so much pain and injustice in the world, but none of us is helpless. Every person has the power to effect change and to contribute to public debates. But, for any real and lasting change to take place, each of us, I believe, must also begin from a place of compassion and hospitality rather than from a place of judgment, simply seeking to protect our selves and what we think we have a right to. We have to risk imagining a different world.

This was the message that Jesus proclaimed two millennia ago and, especially for us Christians, we must allow our hearts and worldviews to expand to embrace others. This means being informed and formed by our differences and diversity and seeing the needs and opportunities around us with new eyes. This also means risking change and even vulnerability. But, how beautiful would it be if, in the end, we are able to create something new--a new way of being together, a new way of promoting justice and life, a new way of ensuring that all God's children have what they need to truly live and sing their own Alleluia?

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