The Divine Father of the Whole Human Family
For Sunday July 26, 2009
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
2 Samuel 11:1–15 or 2 Kings 4:42–44
Psalm 14 or Psalm 145:10–18
Amartya Sen, Harvard professor and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, still remembers the day more than sixty years ago when Kader Mia stumbled into his family's yard in Dhaka, Bangladesh, bleeding from knife wounds and begging for help. His father rushed him to the hospital where he eventually died. Kader was a Muslim day laborer who was murdered by a Hindu thug, and was one of the thousands of people who died in Muslim-Hindu riots that erupted in British India in the 1940's.
Most of those rioters shared an economic class identity as disenfranchised poor people, but evenso they demonized each other with what Sen calls a singularist "identity of violence" that reduced their humanity to religious ethnicity alone: "The illusion of a uniquely confrontational reality," writes Sen in his book Identity and Violence; The Illusion of Destiny (2006), "had thoroughly reduced human beings and eclipsed the protagonists' freedom to think." One might even read Sen's book as an extended exploration of this memory of his as a bewildered eleven-year-old boy.
Significant violence today is fomented by the illusion that people are destined to what Sen calls a "sectarian singularity." Stereotyping people with one, singular identity, he argues, leads to fatalism, resignation, and a sense that violence is inevitable. Caricaturing people with a singular dimension partitions people and civilizations into binary oppositions. It ignores the plural ways that people understand themselves, and obscures what Sen calls our "diverse diversities." In particular, he objects to the "clash of civilizations" thesis popularized by Samuel Huntington.
Sen argues against identity reduction and its consequent violence in three ways. First, he observes that all people enjoy plural identities. To understand a person fully one must consider a broad array of factors — their civilization, religion, nationality, class, community, culture, gender, profession, language, politics, morals, family of origin, skin color, and so on. Plus, these diverse differences within a single individual depend on their social context, whether the characteristic is durable over time or only temporary, how relevant it may or may not be in a given context, whether the trait is a function of constraint or free choice, and so on.
Second, Sen urges us to transcend the illusion of destiny and identity violence by what he calls "reasoned choice." Instead of living as if irrational fate destined us to confrontation with others who are different, a person should make a rational choice about what relative importance to attach to any single trait. Finally, Sen appeals to our common humanity; everyone laughs at weddings, cries at funerals, and worries about their children. More important than our many external differences, even though these are powerful, important, and often the source of good and not merely evil, is our shared humanity.
Christians too have partitioned humanity into "us and them" down through history. But in his letter to the Ephesians this week Paul makes a phonetic play on words that echoes Sen's thinking. God, says Paul, is the patera of every patria — the "father (patera) from whom every family (patria) derives its name" (1:14–15). God is not the God of Jews alone, or the God only of Christians, but rather the "father of all fatherhood," the "father of every family," or the "father of the whole human family." He is the God of Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists. In a curious phrase that I find more mysterious than obvious, Paul expands God's patrilineage even further; he says that the fatherhood of God embraces "every family in heaven and on earth."
Conversely, just as God is every person's father, so every human being is his child. To those who would partition people according to ethnicity, economic class, or gender, Paul writes that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" (Galatians 3:28). Peter learned that as an observant Jew he had to welcome even a Gentile like Cornelius, for "God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right" (Acts 10:34–35). To those who limit God's lavish love to the morally upright, Matthew says that God "makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (5:45). Whether gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, Christian or wikkan, wealthy entrepreneur whom you envy or beggar bum on the street who repulses you, Paul quotes a pagan poet to affirm that every single person is God's "offspring" (Acts 17:28). The Psalmist for this week rejoices that Yahweh is "loving toward all he has made" (Psalm 145:13).
There's an internal logic to the Christian good news. Since God "created all things in heaven and on earth" (Colossians 1:16), seeks the worship of all "things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth" (Philippians 2:9–11), intends to "reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven" (Colossians 1:20), will sum up or bring together "all things in heaven and on earth" (Ephesians 1:10), then of course God delights in bestowing his fatherly favor on "the whole human family in heaven and on earth" (Ephesians 3:15). The Psalm for this week makes just this point: "The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made" (Psalm 145:9). In fact, the words "all" and "every" occur eighteen times in this Psalm 145, extending God's bounty beyond every human family to the entire created cosmos (cf. Romans 8:19–22, Acts 3:21).
In his book Velvet Elvis, pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reminds us that the Christian gospel is good news about God's fatherly favor to every human being and to all of creation, "especially for those who don't believe it. . . The church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the 'un' and 'non,' they work against Jesus's teaching about how we are to treat others. . . As the book of James says, 'God shows no favoritism.' So we don't either" (James 2:1–13). No exceptions allowed.
For further reflection:
* Sen never explains why people partition the world into "us versus them." Why do we do this?
* Have you ever been outed or excluded when someone reduced your humanity to a "sectarian singularity?"
* How have you played favorites?
* Consider Terence, the Roman dramatist (185 BC–159 BC): "I am a man, so nothing human is alien to me."
* Cf. Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence (2006).
Image credits: (1) ABraveNewWorldInc.org; (2) Schoolhouse Video; (3) The Milli Gazette; and (4) Asia Grace.