NOTE TO READER: If you happened to listen to or read last Sunday’s sermon, this newspaper column may sound familiar. I shrank it down to 500 words (or so), which is my limit for the newspaper, and extracted explicit references to God, Jesus, or spirituality. In short, it is the secular version of a theological idea and I love the way it translates. See what you think.
This is a sermon without God or spirituality in it. It is not religious.
One of the hallmarks of the 21st century is that we are faced with asking really big questions but we do not get really big answers. Even spectacular break-through moments of discovery, technology, and treatment are only small episodes in a vast cosmos of unknowns.
So one of the hallmarks of wisdom in the 21st century is a willingness to stand in the tension between really big questions and mostly small answers without falling into fantasies that make us feel better or apathy that numbs us. For example, “everything happens for a reason” is an utterly unsubstantiated and made up answer to the scourge of random events that plague us. Such notions seek to erase the tension rather than help us live within it.
Big unanswered evils still snarl at us from out of the shadows of another 9/11 anniversary. But we have fresh blood on the ground, too. Russian missiles raining down upon civilian targets, not to mention the evidence of brutal war crimes left behind in liberated villages. Likewise the plague of police killings of unarmed black and brown youth rages on, as does the mind-boggling ruthlessness of gang and militia warfare in parts of Mexico, and East and Central Africa.
There are other unanswered evils humans have little or no part in: diseases, viruses, accidents, and weather events that include suffering we can address around the edges but for which we are not the prime cause nor answer. However, bombs, missiles, marginalization, mass imprisonments, segregation of ethnic and racial groups are purely human products. We are the driver and we are the answer to these evils, and we need to see them clearly without softening our view.
Community, true community, is a small answer with big impact. It sounds nebulous but when it comes to mitigating human evils community is a small answer we can wield.
Community is what happens when we recognize our inter-dependence and both consider and use it as a strength rather than resist or flee from it. Like any natural ecosystem depends upon the presence and balance of its constituent parts to remain healthy — the unseen microbes and bacteria as well as trees, fungus, mammals, and insects — true community among humans embraces each person and group of persons as intricate and necessary for the success and health of all. True community nurtures a culture of radical hospitality around an open table at which everyone has a seat.
Conversely, human evil is generated by the gravitational pull of a life lived in a descending orbit centered around the self. Extreme evil is empowered by extreme self-orbit. Once we have allowed ourselves (person, neighborhood, city, or nation) to be the center of the universe, we are capable of ever escalating acts of evil because we see everything else as a resource to serve us. But true community erodes self-centeredness with inter-dependence. “Them” becomes “us” as we understand how our ability to thrive depends upon the health and success of those with whom we share community.
How to build such community requires more than five-hundred words, but it seems important to name it right now as an alternative and answer to the presence of human evil. We can do something about human evils, here and now, right where we live.