And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brothers? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brothers! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother. Mark 3:33ff
You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43ff
Do you have a cultural identity? Do you need one? Is it just given to you at birth by your family, or can you choose it? Can you have several? At the same time? Sequentially? If there's one thing Americans are confused about, it's their cultural identity. The American pastime of reinventing oneself, for instance, is only possible in a culture in
which any sense of cultural identity has become so anemic as not to matter. But clearly it matters to some: those who think they have it either want to keep it or want to escape from it or trade it in for a new one, and those that feel they don't have it, try to get something like it by becoming part of something larger. It's understandable. The one thing that nobody wants is to feel alone and isolated. Solitude is to be escaped, not embraced. No one wants to be thought of as a loner.
And yet modernity seems bent on creating a society of loners, generating Mersaults by the truckload, so many isolated "strangers" complacent that their flat, isolated, anomic, instinct-driven, talking-animal existence is all there is. For this is what the human being without culture is--uncultivated and soulless, not because he hasn't a soul, but because the soul only develops vigorously in conditions that favor it. Understanding what those conditions are for us now and here and promoting them is of critical importance at this time in this place in human history.
For there are forces everywhere working for the destruction of the human soul, but precious little working for its cultivation. One cannot look to the churches for a solution, for they do not have one. The churches are themselves tribal enclaves, and they have rarely been the locus for creative problem solving; at their best they preserve resources for individuals and groups seeking solutions to draw upon. But the solution will not come from the churches and their leadership; it will come from the fringes, the wilderness places, from those who are monks and nuns, despite themselves, shorn of their cultural identity living in the cultural wasteland modernity has created, embracing it in solitude, absorbing it into themselves, learning from it, and then returning to teach the rest of us what they have learned.
For here's the paradox: the Judaeo-Christian tradition is one of movement from embeddedness to disembeddedness from tribal identity to individual identity, from submersion in the golden-calf worshiping clan to the lonely encounter with the I AM on the mountaintop, from exterior group enforced laws to the law that works intuitively in the heart. For the people we have most to learn from are not those who know a lot, but those that have "wise blood", as Flannery O'Connor would put it. Her Hazel Motes is one of those monks referred to in the preceding paragraph.
The paradox lies in that we need to be a part of something, a larger living community or tradition, and we need to be stripped of everything. We need to be connected and in communion, but we cannot cling to the encumbrances that get in the way of realizing the kind of connections for which we were created. The old tribal connections no longer work in a healthy way; we need to find a way of connecting that differs dramatically from the old tribal connections of blood and kinship. We are all meant sooner or later to transcend blood and clan. Some in the past did it on their own. Now we're being forced to do it across the board as a society. Resistance leads to reactionary political and cultural movements and in the long run is futile. Embracing the loss of the old connections needs to be imagined as a way forward.
We need to find a way of connecting that is counter-instinctual--that's the point of the admonition to love one's enemies, which is the extreme case meant to dramatize to our imaginations the enormous difficulty and unnaturalness of the task. To "love the enemy" is utterly different than "to love humanity". The first task is concrete, the second abstract. We know with vivid specificity who our enemies are. They are the ones who either get our blood boiling or those whom we do whatever we can to avoid.
Loving the Other is not something anybody does easily or consistently. But if one is serious about being a Christian, he has to think about how it might be possible and how the obstacles to practice of such a love might be removed. This is a life-long project in our personal lives, but it is also a challenge posed to us collectively in the cultural sphere. For one thing is clear, it simply is not possible to love the Other in a world in which one's tribal loyalties come first.
And so in the past, when tribal loyalties were the primary reality for everyone, only a few extraordinary souls attained what we might think of as a more fully realized Christianity. We called them saints. Everyone else, though they may have been decent enough human beings, lived primarily as pagans, no matter what they professed to believe. For the main characteristic of paganism is tribal embeddedness. It's simply not possible to live as a more fully realized Christian if one is deeply embedded in a tribal culture.
Because I recognize that God writes with crooked lines, I am not a moral absolutist in anything--including issues relating to violence, war, and peace. I won't, for instance, judge Bonhoeffer's choice, and I am loathe to judge any individual's choice of conscience in any matter. But we must be vigorous critics of the public mood and the toxic groupthink it generates. We can judge it because we all participate in it and experience it to some extent. And the groupthink that supported this invasion of Iraq, for instance, was as contrary to the spirit of the gospels as anything I can imagine. To the degree that anyone was influenced to support the war by the groupthink complex that possessed war supporters in this country, he is morally culpable. The complex is evil, the people who participate in it are not evil except the degree they become servants of the complex. Someone like Dick Cheney has all the symptoms of a man deeply possessed, and John McCain is not much better. There have been times when McCain made some sense, but it's as if the human being John McCain has stopped speaking and the power complex has taken over.
We are at a time now where there is no stronger moral imperative than that to transcend the tribal mentality and its groupthink to find a more healthful way to form human connections. That's the paradox of modernity: while on the one hand it has stripped us of the cultural supports that have traditionally nourished the soul, it has created the conditions on a collective level for us to transcend our tribal limitations and to create something new. So much depends on what that new thing will be. Will it be new forms of toxic embeddedness along the lines of what we saw in Germany, Russia, and China in the last century? Or will it be something more healthful but as yet unimagined?
There's a lot more to be said about this, and quite frankly I'm just writing here not because I have any fully developed ideas about it. I am simply trying to work it out for myself as I'm going along here at this time and in this place. But here's where I think I'm going with it: We are entering a critical time in human evolution during which our understanding about what it means to be human will be dramatically re-imagined. Our current understanding about what it means is terribly muddled. Most people's thinking about it is an incoherent mixture of premodern ideas that embrace soul and spirit and modern/postmodern notions that humans are nothing more than talking animals or wetware machines.
The the animal/machine idea is abhorrent, but the soul and spirit ideas are linked to tribal and cultural supports that are no longer sustainable and which now clutter things up to make the re-imagination task more difficult. The trend toward one form or another of cyborgism wins by default unless we find a way that retrieves elements of the premodern and represents them as a robust postmodern alternative that does not depend on the older tribal loyalties and other cultural accoutrements of the past. Christians, rather than looking at the loss of their cultural identities as an evil to be resisted, should embrace it as the necessary movement from embeddedness to disembeddeness which has been at the heart of the Judaeo-Christian impulse since the time when our father Abraham was called to leave Ur to go into the desert.
The Judaeo-Christian impulse throughout history has been fundamentally about moving out of the past and into the future, and that has meant out of embeddeness into increasing levels of disembeddedness. Those who have lived from this impulse have given up the comforts of the past to believe in seemingly impossible promises. They have trusted, like Job, that even when everything is stripped away, that their essential identity, their 'I am' created in the image and likeness remains, and that if the great saints are to be believed, it's only when everything else is stripped away that we are revealed to ourselves and see no longer through a glass darkly but face to face. It is not possible to willfullly strip everything away, but we should not resist the historical forces that gradually peel off the layers that hide and too often suffocate the unconsuming fire that burns within.