Saturday, May 7, 2011

Finding Unity-In-Diversity with Apostle Paul and Jon Stewart

Reflection based on Galatians 3:23-29.

“Our identities have become wholly dependent upon rejecting each other. After all, who am I if not, not you?”

This quote from Stephen Colbert is funny because it’s true. So it’s actually kinda sad. Listen to the attack ads. And cable news shows. And partisan commentators like Sean Hannity and Michael Moore. They would all have us believe that we’re all enemies.

We’re all-too-often told that there are only two sides to everything. Democrats vs. Republicans. Liberals vs. Conservatives. Pro-War vs. Pacifist. Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice. And the list goes on and on. It’s all about “us” versus “them.”

Partisan, polemic rhetoric is destroying civil discourse in our nation. And it seems to get uglier with every election.

Thankfully, we have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to help us out. Their “Rally to Restore Sanity” was an event to say, “Let’s ignore the 20% of Americans who are loud and extremist, and honor the 80% of Americans who hold common values.” So let’s honor the spirit of the 80%!

Divisiveness is not new. Apostle Paul was facing major divisiveness in Galacia. That’s the background of Galatians. Basically, there were two “sides” that were fighting against one another: Pagan Greeks and circumcised Jews. And you didn’t cross the tracks…unless it was to kill someone.

So in the Galatians letter, Paul used a baptismal liturgy that the Galatians heard when they where first baptized – as a way to help remind them of their baptism – and their unity in Christ. “There is no longer Greek or Jew; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female. For all are one in Christ Jesus.” That was their baptismal liturgy. Pretty radical stuff.

With this liturgy, Paul reminded the Galatians that the cultural dichotomies which only served to estrange and divide the community were annulled. Especially, in this town, it was important to bridges the Greek-Jew divide. All the dichotomies were abolished through their baptism in Christ. Paul declared that all people were "heirs according to the promise."

I envision Paul freaking-out because in his mind, Jesus is going to return at any second. So, the important thing is not the rules and regulations of the law – or the cultural divides. Instead the truely important thing is understanding God’s love for all people. And, for Paul, he drives this home through their unity in baptism.

The good news that Paul shares in Galatia is that God’s propensity to include, transcends humanity’s propensity to exclude. The divisions don’t ultimately matter. God matters. And God has already embraced them – and embraced all people. So, through God, both "sides" already have unity-in-our-diversity.

How might the baptismal liturgy of this text be addressing us? What might Paul’s vision of unity look like in our communities?

Our culture is just as dichotomous as Galatia. It seems that we are all forced to join one of two sides on everything, and then subsequently rally around our common disdain for “the other.”

I’ll never forget watching the show “Meet the Press” a few Sundays after the 2004 elections. The topic was politics and religion. And the guests were Jerry Falwell, Richard Land, Al Sharpton and Jim Wallis. As the conversation shifted from introductions to civil liberties, the lines were drawn and war was quickly declared in this group of ministers. At one point, the fighting got so intense that the moderator, Tim Russert, had to jump in and say, “Peace, peace, peace. I think we need to take a commercial break.” With that statement, Mr. Russert, the secular presence on the show, had to teach these popular ministers about peace. In this case, by being a referee in this religious brawl.

And, ironically, a few days earlier I had just finished reading the book “Resident Aliens” by Hauerwas and Willimon. In the book, they argue that Christians are the “good presence” in a “bad world.” But Tim Russert’s call for peace during that morning’s war, shattered that idea. These ministers were a “bad presence” on an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning. After the show was over, I left for church with heartburn of the soul.

It seems that frequently metaphorically, and sometimes even literally, humanity follows the words of Esther 9:5: “The people struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them.” All we have to do is read a newspaper or watch cable news to be reminded of the “Esther 9:5” mentality in the world.

What could it mean to live towards a Galatians 3:28 vision in an Esther 9:5 world?

I think it means moving towards unity-in-diversity, but not forcing false uniformity. Our particularities – our differences – will still be present. I will always be a white male. At least, I think so! But that doesn’t mean we can’t be united. We can honor our differences and celebrate our commonalities.

In Paul’s letter to Galatia, he tells them that they have oneness in Christ. Baptism in Christ obliterates the divisiveness of our differences and calls us into harmony. Different notes are needed to make harmony work. Diversity is needed. It’s not the enemy. And we’re certainly not the enemy of one another – despite what we’re told on TV.

This isn’t an idealist dream. It is possible. I have seen it happen time and time again.

At Evangelical UCC in Saint Louis, I worshiped God with Jews and Christians of all ages as we sought to tear down the walls of separation between us.

At a Christian lobbying event in Washington DC, I joined Catholics, Evangelicals, Unitarians, and Progressives as we talked our senators into supporting a minimum wage increase.

At height of the anti-Muslim rhetoric surrounding the Cordoba House (“Mosque at Ground Zero”), Jewish and Christian leaders in Iowa City came together to publically show our support for our Muslim neighbors.

At the National Mall, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert gathered over 200,000 diverse people together to rally to restore sanity – to restore civil discourse in our nation.

At a time of deep division in Galatia, Apostle Paul brought Greeks and Jews together.

Unity is possible. Good and faithful people call us back to it every time we stray too far.

What if instead of bemoaning our differences, we decided to appreciate them. It seems as though it’s the tension, balance, and diversity that makes our nation great. And it’s the thing that makes the Church operate as God intends. We each have our parts to play for the common good. The challenge for each of us is to make room for the gifts of the people that we see as “other.”

Jewish theologian Jonathan Sacks says that “Difference does not diminish; it enlarges. Only when we realize the danger of wishing everyone should be the same…will prevent the clash of civilizations…We will learn to live with diversity once we understand the God-given, world-enhancing dignity of difference.” That is worth soaking in. “We will learn to live with diversity once we understand the God-given, world-enhancing dignity of difference.” That was Paul’s main message to Galacia, too. So, perhaps, the liturgical reminder that Apostle Paul would give us today would be: There is no longer Greek or Jew, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, Pro-War or Pacifist, Pro-Life or Pro-Choice – for we are all one in God. We are all one global family.

Through Paul and Jesus, we know that God has a preferential love and care for all people.

Through Stewart and Colbert, we know that we can disagree without thinking the other person is Hitler.

We can be united right now. In fact, by the grace of God, we already are. So let’s be living sacraments of our sacred unity. And living testaments to the real possibility of a Galatians 3:28 world.

From our classrooms to our board meetings. From family reunions to strangers on the street. From the dairy farms in Iowa to the high rise apartments in Chicago. The journey of unity moves on!

From Apostle Paul to Jon Stewart to each one of us, the journey toward unity moves on.

Let the baptismal waters of unity - and the Spirit of God - lead us onward.

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