March 22, 2019
Toward the end of his book SAPIENS, the historian Yuval Noah Harari observes: “To satisfy both optimists and pessimists, we may conclude by saying that we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.”
I was thinking about Harari’s observation this week, following the attacks on Muslims in New Zealand and growing reports of extreme and hardened polarization around the world. Each side is fighting to maintain its identity in a world of change and upheaval. Last Sunday’s destructive Yellow Vest rampage along the Champs Elysees in Paris is another prime example. People wanting to assert their own identity at the expense of — or total destruction of — the OTHER.
History has not decided where we will end up, but you and I can.
I begin this week’s reflection with a somewhat comical experience, related to contemporary identity issues…..
A couple days ago at my local Belgian grocery store, I was in the check-out lane and a young lady in front of me, probably a student from India, hadn’t weighed the vegetables she wanted to buy. The young fellow at the cash register was polite and told her, in Dutch, she had to weigh the vegetables first. She said in English she didn’t understand what he was saying. In the check-out lane right behind me, a very annoyed lady said to me in Dutch “Just what we need! Another foreigner!” I chuckled and said in Dutch (with my inescapable American accent) “It is a question of perspective. In someone’s eyes, we are all foreigners, even you.” She moved to another check-out lane. Ironically, as fate would have it, when I got to the parking lot I saw her again. Our cars were parked adjacent to each other..
Well, today I have ten brief observations and then a concluding prayer:
(1) If our societies continue on the path of extreme polarization, in which there is no tolerance for the other, we will slip into chaos.
(2) In times of chaos, people surrender to authoritarian rulers. One does not have to think, just follow directives, and without questioning. Let the big boss take control. George Orwell’s Big Brother. Today we see an alarming resurgence of political and religious authoritarianism.
(3) Authoritarian regimes is springing up all around the world, supported and manipulated by people like Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn, in Hungary; President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Turkey; Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro; Brazil’s far-right authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro; and yes his authoritarian good friend in Washington DC.
(4) Authoritarian rulers stress the importance of a national identity, anchored in rigidly extreme and powerful nationalism. Such nationalism is a red flag, because it mirrors Nazism and the other extreme forms nationalism seen in the first half of the twentieth century.
(5) I suggest, however, there is also a good, healthy form of national identity – I prefer to call it patriotism — that accepts the diversity of peoples within a country; that is not exclusive; and is not aggressive. (That by the way, I would say, is what really makes America great.)
(6) This healthy patriotic identity stresses that: we are a democratic community, with shared ideals and political values; and, as a community, we need to work together to support them. We need to integrate people, rather than polarize and divide them according to race, ethnicity, and religion.
(7) Of course Christianity can make a contribution here.
(8) Years ago I was attracted to Jesus of Nazareth because he was strong and courageous and he gave people healing and hope. I was a very religious young man. In high school and college my classmates called “Pious Dick.”
(9) As he grew in his understanding of faith, religion and the world around him, Pious Dick became critical of organized religion and he discovered as well that Jesus was critical of hardened and self-righteous religion.
(10) Religions have many faces. Throughout Christian history, we have had great and heroic men and women. We also have a rogues gallery of men and women who proclaimed Jesus as their Lord and Savior but then contradicted, in the name of their religion, everything Jesus taught and lived. They could talk the Jesus talk but in fact they were cruel, warlike, greedy, racist, and selfish. They could not walk and live as Jesus walked and lived.
To conclude….History has not decided where we will end up, but you and I can.
My concluding prayer is called “A Franciscan Blessing.” I rediscovered a few days ago thanks to a Facebook post from a good friend, who went to high school with Pious Dick…..
May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain to joy
And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.