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Parties of God – Br. Mark Brown

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Mark-Brown-SSJE-2010-300x299Today we celebrate St. Simon and St. Jude, about whom we know virtually nothing. They are named as apostles in the Bible and there is a tradition that they were martyrs.  We do know that in the first century you could get killed for your religious beliefs by people who had different religious beliefs. In the 21st century you can still get killed for your beliefs by people who have different beliefs. Or, if not killed, then demonized, ostracized, anathematized, marginalized.

The Letter to the Ephesians presents Paul’s vision of a united humanity—united in and through Jesus Christ.  We are no longer Jew and Gentile, but one people of God.  In Christ the dividing wall between the two are removed and hostilities are resolved.  The dividing wall he refers to may refer to an actual physical barrier in the Jerusalem Temple. There seems to have been some kind of wall defining the area where only Jews could be—outside of which was the court of the Gentiles. Gentiles could be put to death if they went beyond the barrier.

The Temple is long gone, of course, but a symbol remains: dividing walls that define who is in and who is out.

This “who’s in and who’s out” way of thinking even finds its way into the Gospel of John.  We heard a few moments ago about the conflict between those who are “of the world” (the bad guys) and those who are not “of the world” (the good guys).  I’m not sure if I understand what this means, but I suspect this juxtaposition (“of the world” and “not of the world”) reflects actual conflicts experienced by the church at the time of the writing of the Gospel—some 60 years or so after the Resurrection.

This kind of black and white, good guys and bad guys thinking comes all too easily to us.  And it can be especially dangerous when religion is involved.  It can be especially toxic if we begin to identify ourselves as the “Party of God.  “Party of God”—or, in Arabic,   حزب الله [Hezbollah].  Hezbollah is an actual political entity in the Middle East: an Islamic party that has appropriated to itself the rather grandiose title, “Party of God”.   If you believe you belong to the Party of God, there can only be one.  It’s a fundamentalist approach to religion: what I believe is religion; what you believe is heresy, apostasy, fantasy, idolatry.

Thomas Friedman had a piece in the New York Times a week ago Sunday [Oct. 20, 2013] called “From Beirut to Washington”, with the caption: “We weren’t that far from a Lebanon on the Potomac.”.  He makes the point that the Party of God, the Hezbollah way of thinking has now infected American politics: the far right wing of our political spectrum is our Hezbollah. If you’re the Party of God, you have the truth, others don’t, so there can be no compromise—it would be immoral to compromise.

In his critique Friedman also uses an agricultural metaphor: monocultures and polycultures. Monocultures, where one single crop is planted over large areas, are more susceptible to disease than polycultures; monocultures deplete the soil in a way that does not happen when there is biodiversity. During the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930’s, he points out, the monoculture crops died, but the polyculture prairie, with its complex ecosystem, survived the drought.

Friedman notes that the Hezbollah approach to religion and politics is an attempt to create monoculture, which is an unhealthy thing. A “Party of God” sees anyone who does not belong to it or agree with it as an enemy—and enemies must be converted or destroyed or compelled by force to bend to the will of the Party of God. Of course, this doesn’t really work in the real world, which is far too messy and complicated to have only one Party of God, whether in politics or religion.  Somebody else is bound to think that they are the Party of God.  Then all hell breaks loose–as it has throughout history, even among Christians.

Polyculture is a good thing for sustainable agriculture.  Polyculture is a good thing for sustainable politics, according to Friedman.  And, I would say, for sustainable religion.  Actually, in any human endeavor that seeks truth.

It’s only natural to give our own point of view, our own understanding, our own beliefs priority—it is only natural to give a privileged position to our own perceptions and understandings.  I know I give my beliefs a very privileged position in my own mind! But a polycultural approach whether in politics, religion, or any other human endeavor, calls us to a certain modesty about what we think we know, what we think we believe.  An epistemological modesty, if you will; that is, the awareness that what we think we know may be true, but it may not be the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Epistemology being the consideration of how and what we can know, epistemological modesty is the awareness that knowledge, the understanding of truth, is partial and progressive, whether in politics, religion or any field of endeavor. We learn things over time, through interaction with the complexities and messiness of this world, and with those on the other side of our barriers.

The gospel today speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.  A few verses into the next chapter Jesus says that this Spirit of Truth will guide us into all truth [John 16:13].  He says that he has much to tell them, but they cannot bear it all at once.  The truth is something we are guided into over time.  How much time?  Probably a lot—lots and lots of time.  But those who have a “Party of God” approach to things, to use Thomas Friedman’s framing of the political landscape, consider themselves already in possession of the truth.

Which is so easy to do–especially when we just KNOW WE’RE RIGHT!  But we do well to cultivate a disposition of modesty: epistemological modesty, political modesty, religious modesty. There’s always more truth out there waiting to be known.

And not only modesty, but curiosity: a gentle and generous curiosity about “the other”, an eagerness to learn about “the other” across the barriers we’ve constructed to protect our sense of identity. Even, I suppose, for us as Christians, a generous curiosity about the intolerant and those who wish us harm, whether parties of God or parties of tea. I suspect the Spirit of Truth has much to teach us in mixing it up with people unlike ourselves.   Paul’s vision of a humanity united in Christ calls for mixing it up with all sorts and conditions of people.  If we construct dividing walls between ourselves and those unlike us, we may discover that we’ve built barriers against truth.  If we believe ourselves already to be in full possession of the truth, we may find ourselves unreceptive to the new things the Spirit of Truth has to teach us.

Some of what we think we know may indeed be true; but we don’t know the whole truth and some of what we think we know may not be true.  These are the limitations we live with as human beings—and a certain amount of anxiety about our limitations is natural.  But we can come to terms with these limitations and anxieties, and embrace them as a gift.  In accepting the limitations of human knowing we can find our way to a certain suppleness of mind, a disposition of openness and curiosity, a willingness to engage “the other”. If we’ve already ossified into a member of the “Party of God”, the Spirit may find our hearts difficult to penetrate.  But in suppleness of mind, in a disposition of openness, in a benevolent curiosity, and in a sense of wonder at what is yet to be revealed, we can be more receptive to what the Spirit of Truth has to say.

And he has so much more to say, so much, much more…

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