As our economy threatens to implode, a worldwide pandemic rages, urgency fills every street and headline, and oppression, inequity, and racial/age/gender profiling seem to dominate every decision, I have been reading about St. Francis.
Among other things, a key aspect of Francis of Assisi was his primary assumption that every one of us – every person, every creature, even every element of creation (from wind and fire to the sun and moon) came from a common hand and held a similar—though individually distinct—place and destiny within the created order.
At its baseline, to Francis, there was no “other”; even death had its duty and place within creation.
Our cultivated social fragmentation (which reaches across and seems embedded within every action, word, or belief system) plays to our worst instincts and allows, if not necessitates, self-justification and increasing isolation within our philosophical “bubbles.” Out of necessity, at the very least, it reduces the credibility of any opposing or alternative explanation or understanding.
But as we see all too clearly in virtually every conversation on any topic from food to technology preferences, the real energy in the relationship is invested in whether the two people “agree” or are “on the same page.”
Nothing else, from reliability of sources to vastly different life experiences, seems to matter anymore; all that matters is whether we agree or not.
Intellectually this is paralysis—no learning is possible, no change of position is tolerated, every new idea is a threat, and every possible point of disagreement is grounds for any hostile, brutal and possibly permanent disengagement. Our long-standing social fractures have been emphasized by recent events and have been clarified and exaggerated to a point where they and their repercussions are unavoidable to even the most oblivious or earnest deniers.
The cost of such a shared belief system is becoming more obvious every day. Who among us feels welcome, safe, appreciated or even acknowledged in any given social setting? Who of us feels “at home” almost anywhere? As the pandemic began, it was described as an “equal opportunity virus” – it hit everyone, from celebrity to our neighbors. As time went on, it became painfully obvious that COVID “stay at home” rules and the inevitable economic repercussions were anything but “equal opportunity.”
Those at high risk, became, by several layers of magnitude, far higher at risk. Those cushioned from life’s standard assaults became even more comfortable. Those vulnerable became even more vulnerable. Those who were safe, became even more safe.
Some of us find it (relatively) easy, if not comfortable, to stay at home. It is an unexpected vacation that allows us to explore hobbies, crafts and neglected projects. My predominantly white, residential neighborhood of owned single-family homes, for example, is abuzz with lawn and home improvement projects. The work being done illustrates the bifurcation of our economy and culture far more than any protest, news-piece or meme. At least in my neighborhood, virtually all of the labor is the result of the hands of young people – mostly people of color – at the request of, and payment from, older white people.
All that landscaping, roofing, painting and housecleaning was being done by those whose lives, except for their labor, would never intersect with those who paid them. When I was younger I did more than my share of work like this. But for me, and most white people, I and everyone else knew that my labor was temporary and transitional.
I would do that labor, but as everyone knew, I wouldn’t do it for long. I and many like me were “working our way through college” – labor was a waypoint on an upwardly mobile economic journey. For far too many people of color, hard labor for low pay under difficult and inconsistent conditions was the not the beginning, it was the sum of their careers. We may have worked together, but we all knew that we were on different trajectories.
Our options in life were never equal, never fair, and never related to merit or work ethic.
Politicians might make vague claims about believing in “equality of opportunity” but are suddenly silent as the absurdity, if not impossibility, of such a system becomes increasingly obvious. But for anyone with perception, compassion, or a sense of decency, it was glaringly obvious from the beginning. In our current situation, or perhaps any challenging time, the “opportunity” of creativity expands while for others it shrinks, if not evaporates, completely. The same principle has become tangible in areas we never would have imagined possible from the right to vote to the right to peaceably assemble.
Driving, running, bird-watching, or doing almost any other activity “while black” has become a flashpoint, if not capital offense, in many neighborhoods and public situations. Police forces, whose existence and public support has been premised on their mission to “protect and serve” local citizens, have become, through accumulated bias and historical precedents, the biggest threat to far too many of our citizens.
Too many of us have become “the other” to them – and too many of them have become “the other” to us.
As Francis would remind, there is no “other.”
In my area, some police officers have been putting black tape over their names and officer ID numbers – literally obscuring their identity and accountability. In other words, their sheer humanity is covered up. This is far more than merely symbolic. It is the practical embracing of the bland, anonymous, blank emptiness of pure inhumanity: loss of identity, belonging, and community. All of these things demonstrate what we are: creatures with a destiny not so far from any other creature made of the same hand and in its image.
Creation groans, (Romans 8:22) and more of us groan along with it as we find ourselves increasingly isolated from each other, from nature, and from our own individual and shared destinies. As the poet Pablo Neruda put it in his Noble Prize acceptance speech, “There is no such thing as a lone struggle.” There is no lone struggle, there is no lone destiny, there is no lone restoration.
It is no philosophical or theological abstraction, there is in fact no “other.” Our isolation, our philosophical barricades and “news filter bubbles” are killing us and giving us (in our own eyes at least) justification to kill each other. And we can feel our souls shrivel in such an atmosphere.
But there is a way out.
The kingdom of God, as always, can be found within and among us. It is there to be seen, and held, whenever we are willing.
Creation itself cries out for us to respond.