May  2018 22
Calling Bridge Builders

Congratulations, graduates. 

As I reflect on today, I recall my own graduation from seminary in 1981. The US president, Ronald Reagan, dominated the news cycles. He was despised by many students because of the massive arms build-up, cutting programs to help the poor, and the perception that he was using race and class to divide. Many of us thought the president was setting the agenda we were going into ministry to combat. 

Sound familiar?

How do you see the present moment? What is the Gospel that needs to be manifest through your work? Please reflect with me as I give my answers to these questions.

I am struck by the violent contrast between, on the one side, the precious and precarious nature of life on planet earth. And, on the other side, I see humankind cycling back powerfully into the ethno-nationalist divisions that erupted into World War I a century ago.

But in the 21st century, those ethno-national and tribal ways of organizing are raged-up with far more powerful weapons of mass destruction than existed in 1914. Communication networks link socially-estranged people who in other centuries would never have met each other. 

Today’s weapons and instantaneous, amoral communications networks exert more peril to democracy, more peril to hopes for freedom and equality, more peril to communities built on compassion and justice, and more peril to the planet than some days I can face. 

It would seem like a good time for human beings, wherever we live, to recognize our intimate and global connections, the fragile and rare conditions for life on the planet, and work together! 

But humankind continues a long cycle of seeing and acting on division. Calls for unity fall on skeptical if not scoffing ears. Cries of reconciliation and peace are sometimes received as language of oppression, to keep things as they are and have been. 

And not without cause. There have been too many centuries of oppression. Too many bodies on the ground. Too many broken and wasted lives. Too many narratives about national or church life that look and smell like whitewashed tombs. Too many lies.

In the face of all this, calling for unity and reconciliation seems hollow, mean, or oppressive.

But I am also struck by the wicked contradiction between the world’s politics of division and the basics of modern science. The scientific claim is that everything exists in relationship, and the life we enjoy on planet earth is a cosmic rarity. 

Scientists might say, “In the beginning was the relationship.”

Everything that is or ever will be was present in the singularity 14 billion years ago from which space and time, began—in which the you and I and everything that ever was and will be began.

About 26,000 lightyears from the center of the Milky Way spins our sun, and our 4.5-billion-year-old home. 

The earth orbits in a Goldilocks zone—just right for complex life. Astronomers have seen other Goldilocks-zone planets. But they are rare. 

The earth is rare. Exceedingly rare.

On this rare, rare planet, that has already survived five extinction events, humankind’s ancestors developed about 2.5 million years ago. Our race, the one race, the human race, only 200,000 years ago, and the African continent is the geographical home of the first humans. 

Human beings became fruitful and multiplied and spread. Scientists tell us humans were able to become fruitful and multiple because… we… can… work… TOGETHER!

We communicate, we form communities to engage together in tasks that are impossible to accomplish alone. We use fire to cook food. Cooked food allows us to digest more calories, and more calories allow both brains and cultures to evolve.  

Cultures developed and often accentuate difference, how me and my people are different from you and your people. How fascinating and marvelous and interesting are our differences!

But at the genetic level, there is far more alikeness than difference. All human beings share 99 percent of our DNA with all other human beings. 

Humankind’s problem is that we’ve spun not only difference but profound divisions out of that one percent difference. 

As a species, from the time two family groups or tribes or nations or states or religions developed, humankind has lived in a post-Babel world. Scattered, struggling for resources, centered on the rightness of my tribe. We’ve found a myriad of ways to differentiate ourselves from one another, and to divide ourselves from each other.

Brain wiring and chemistry contribute to division. Our brains divide friend from stranger, whom to love and treat with fairness and compassion—and whom we should fear, reject, hate, or eliminate. 

In prior centuries, this us/not us division was mostly a local or regional problem.

In the 21st century world that is economically intertwined, militarily vulnerable, digitally connected, and in which the climate is changing in a way that may be starting a 6th extinction event, the categories of “like us” and “not like us” are matters of global life and death. How we define the boundary between like us and not like us has never been more critical. 

The hope I have, as a Christian, is this: while brain chemistry and cultural formation create very powerful dispositions in how we divide “us” from “not us,” spiritual and moral imaginations can be transformed.

Experiencing the Gospel can expand our moral imaginations to encircle a bigger “us.” It is time to choose life so that everyone and everything might live. 

But in order to choose life, we are going to have to cycle out of the long arc of division. 

Theologian Robert McAfee Brown felt that arc of division in 1975. Brown was invited to open the 1975 World Council of Churches Assembly in Nairobi.

The Assembly theme was “Jesus Christ Frees and Unites. Brown knew he would be viewed by the Assembly as America was then viewed: rich, white, the country that still washed its hands of any global wrong-doing, even in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, calling for peace without more justice. All over the Two-Thirds World, colonized nations were throwing off their colonial overlords, colonial cultures, colonial ways of thinking, colonial religions, and colonial theologies. 

It was a tough time to be a white, male, American addressing a global audience on the topic of unity.

Brown did not believe he could be heard if he stuck to the theme of “frees and unites.” So, he added a word to the theme: divides. “JC Frees and Unites… and Divides.” 

He walked his audience through examples of the freeing power of Christ. He walked the audience through the founding WCC theme that Christ unites. But he developed a stage between freedom and unity: division.

The 1970s, he said, was a time of many divisions because there was so much injustice. Jesus, he said, cannot side with injustice, in the churches or in society. 

But Brown also said that division is not the final movement of the Gospel. Reconciliation is. He reminded his audience of the power of the Gospel to form the Christian imagination, how we imagine who we are.

If we Christians were defined primarily as members of nations or classes or economic groups, there would be little hope that true unity could emerge. But we Christians have at least this much going for us from the start—that we are basically defined as members of a global community, not as members of parochial communities; we are basically part of the human family, not the American or the Brazilian family; we are basically members of a class of sinners, not members of a class-denominated bourgeois or proletariat. This is not for a moment to discount or deny the realities of class, race, and nation that divide us, and which sometimes need to be accentuated in order to bring out the contradictions latent within them. But we have the possibility…of seeing the divisions within a unity more comprehensive than the divisions themselves. (Read an editorial from The Ecumenical Review, July 1974)

That more comprehensive unity is rooted in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus, repeating the Torah, said the great commandments are: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. In word and deed, Jesus extended boundaries, exhorted his disciples to include others in their family who might not otherwise be included.

Your family, your circle of neighbors, your neighborhood, is bigger than you think, bigger than you imagine, because God’s love does not see all the divisions human beings have made of our differences.

In our deeply divided world, the ministry of reconciliation is a countercultural idea, countercultural to both the political right and the political left. 

As she often does, BrenéBrown speaks to me when she criticizes connections based on divisions: “[N]ine times out of ten, the only thing I have in common with the people behind … bunkers is that we all hate the same people. …I call it ‘common enemy intimacy’ —Our connection is just an intimacy created by hating the same people... It’s counterfeit connection.” (Here Brown on OnBeing.) 

To play with Robert McAfee Brown’s language: there is a ministry in the midst of division that is necessary to rectify an unjust social order. But the ministry in division is not God’s endgame. Divisions, pure communities, safe spaces per se are not the end of the gospel. 

Reconciliation is.

If humankind is to have a flourishing future, if Christianity is going to be an ally in a flourishing humankind on a regenerating planet, Christians need to expand our moral and spiritual imaginations to include more of “them” with “us”. Enlarge the circles. Swiss-cheese the boundaries. 

As a step toward enlarging circles of compassion and Swiss-cheesing boundaries, we need more bridges. More means of connecting two sides, or—better yet—manifesting the God-created connections that can be hidden but never severed. 

Bridges are functional. Bridges can be beautiful. Good bridge design is art and science, imagination and technique. Those who want to keep things as they are don’t want bridges. In wartimes, bridges are targets because bridges connect. Warring parties want to blow up bridges that otherwise connect.

Today’s divided world needs bridge builders. Bridge-building between divided groups is going to take imagination. It is going to take courage. Bridge builders are going to be attacked and called sell-outs and distrusted by their own group for their disloyalty. They will fail often. 

But I can’t imagine another century on this fragile, rare gem-of-a planet without a constant effort to build bridges, to see beyond ministry in division in order to advance the ministry of reconciliation, which Paul says has been entrusted to us, entrusted to you. 

Congratulations, again, graduates. I hope to meet you soon on a bridge, maybe on one you build.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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