I don’t want to jinx it.
But I think we might be starting to learn something during quarantine.
I hesitate to say it out loud for fear that I’m being overly optimistic or premature.
I don’t want to set myself up for disappointment if I’m wrong.
But it could be that we’re starting to see it…to sense something we’ve always known but that we lost sight of a long time ago.
I think we’re starting to remember that we need each other.
That we might be just on the first steps of a long journey back to a sense of our collective good.
It’s fragile. Tenuous at best.
But it could be that we’re starting to collectively put the lie to the ideal of the rugged American individualist and see that there’s a value higher than the sovereign self.
That we’re better together than we are alone.
The irony is that it took social separation to teach us.
Even more ironic is that it may be that images of heavily armed white men screaming for their “individual rights” might be responsible for helping the rest of us see what a shallow promise “individual rights” really are when they come at the expense of our common good.
I’ve been saying for awhile now that America in the 21st century has become the most toxically hyper-individualistic society history has ever seen.
And I’ve also been saying that it is as much a theological problem as a sociological one.
For too long, too much of American Christianity has been trying to sell a doctrine of individual salvation. Of how a “personal relationship with Jesus” will get your eternal fire insurance paid.
It’s not necessarily that those aren’t biblical ideas…although I think they’re more nuanced than the way they’ve been presented.
It’s that our notion that individual rights/freedoms are somehow explicitly Christian goes against pretty much everything Jesus ever taught.
When we see our own individual salvation as the ultimate value in life, we can very easily lose any appreciation for the value of others. When we see ourselves as particularly favored by God, we can quickly see others as not favored.
The power of vulnerability
Franciscan Friar, author, and public theologian Richard Rohr has noted that part of our problem is that we’ve turned Jesus into a religion rather than a way of being.
Jesus, Rohr reminds us, never asked anyone to worship him.
He asked people to follow him.
But it’s far easier to hold Jesus up as a religious icon representing God’s authority than it is to adopt his self-giving, sacrificial way of loving all people equally.
To walk through the wide gate of self-importance and self-indulgence rather than the narrow gate of compassion, justice, and mercy.
Rohr’s theory is that in viewing God only as almighty, we miss that God is also all-vulnerable.
And that sets up a power dynamic where we view God as caring more about exercising God’s control over us than unconditionally loving us.
But in one of his daily e-mail meditations this week from his Center for Action and Contemplation, Rohr says this:
“A community inspired by the Trinity will be a community of people who treat each other as subjects and not objects. Just as the persons of the Trinity know and love one another, from God’s side we are always known and loved subject to subject. God and the human person must know one another center to center, subject to subject, and never subject to object. This is why there is no seeking of power over in the Trinity, but only power with—a giving away, a sharing, a letting go, and thus an infinity of trust and mutuality. This has the power to change all relationships: in marriage, in culture, and even in international relations.”
When we objectify God as almighty but not all-vulnerable, we also objectify ourselves, imagining God sees us as mere playthings to be manipulated for whatever we imagine God’s purposes to be.
And that, in turn, gives us permission to objectify others. To rob people of their worth and dignity in our quest for our own sovereignty.
But what if God’s power is really centered in God’s vulnerability?
What if God’s authority rests in God’s suffering?
What if the key to living well in the world is not to seek control, but to lose it?
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few
As many of us find ourselves isolated in our homes and realize how much we need human interaction, we might be starting to see why Jesus’ highest value was not for the individual, but for the community.
We may be starting to understand how vulnerable the most vulnerable among us really are when we see how lack of access to public health services make marginalized communities disproportionately subject to the worst effects of Covid-19.
We could be beginning to understand how prevalent white privilege and white supremacy still are in our nation when we see heavily armed white domestic terrorists marching on government buildings without repercussions, knowing full well that if black and brown people adopted the same tactics they would be faced with a violent response.
In fact, many of us who are white, middle-class folks might be starting to grasp what many marginalized communities already know…that there is strength in unity.
That real freedom only comes when we sacrifice individual desires for a common benefit.
Opportunity in crisis
I don’t know. Maybe I’m too hopeful.
Maybe I’m setting myself up for disappointment.
Maybe it’s too much to ask.
But maybe, just maybe, we can collectively see the opportunity within the crisis to become better than we were before.
To not go back to a normal where greed, power, and privilege rule our lives.
But to find a better way. To remember that all of us together are stronger than any of us are alone.
Just don’t tell anyone.
We don’t want to jinx it.