Wednesday, September 2, 2015

I Am Because You Are

"Blue Skies, Desert Days"

I have been following the recent story about a Kentucky legal clerk who, even though it is the law of the land, keeps refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The clerk now stands in “contempt of court” and she is facing fines or perhaps even prison time, but this woman continues to refuse to administer the law because she is a so-called “Christian,”  and according to her, by issuing a marriage license to people of the same gender she would be breaking the law of God.

That Kentucky law clerk obviously sees herself as being different and separated from the Gay couple who comes before her seeking the right to be legally married. She is in one camp and they are in a very different other camp, and she obviously believes that her camp is the “right one,” and that she possesses the truth, the correct position that must be enforced and imposed if the truth is to prevail.

I have found this story to be quite troubling, and I also think it is fairly iconic of what is happening across a large swath of American culture nowadays where we see example after example of the various “righteous camps” into which people have withdrawn - Conservatives and Progressives, atheists and believers, citizens and foreigners, rich and poor.  At times the camps are more like armed-fortresses and many times those who are “inside” the camp are quite convinced and certain that those outside have it wrong and those on the inside have it right, those on the outside deserve less and those on the inside deserve more.  

I recently came across a wonderful story about a group of “White European”  missionaries who had traveled to Africa in order to convert the primitive, pagan tribes to the true Christian religion.  One of the missionaries decided to play a little game with a group of native children by placing a bowl of fruit under a tree, challenging them to a race - whoever got to the tree first would win all the fruit in the bowl.

As the race began, instead of running to the goal, the children mysteriously all joined hands with one another and together gathered around the tree sharing the bowl of fruit. They simply had no idea of what it might mean to run against one another, no concept of how or why only one person would have it all while others looked on. In fact the very way in which these children defined and understood themselves was not as competing individuals but as a sharing community.

The mark of any “civilized” society is the willingness of citizens to work together for the common good, in a “barbaric” culture it’s “every man for himself.”  When I heard that story about the missionaries in Africa, I wondered who were primitive barbarians and who were civilized?

The African word for “I am” is ubuntu. Actually in the Zulu language there is no word for “I am,” the word ubuntu is best translated as:

I am because you are

So many people in America today have fallen into the trap of deceiving themselves into thinking that we are such an advanced and sophisticated society that everyone else wants what we have. Maybe that’s why we are so concerned about defending our borders and building walls of separation to keep foreigners out. But, as I see it, when we withdraw into isolated camps and think we are better than others we are in fact very unsophisticated and “less than civilized,” in fact we are less than human.

I think sometimes that our primitive ancestors and people who we may pejoratively label as primitive societies are sometimes far more civilized than we are and maybe even far more “human.”  The fully alive and fully human being understands something about Ubuntu – “I am because you are.”

I think of something the priest and author, Richard Rohr, once said about our so-called primitive ancestors and primitive societies:

Our primitive ancestors enjoyed an attitude about life that was invariably
tribal, cosmic and mystic.
They lived in an enchanted universe where everything belonged including themselves.

I am convinced that this “sense of belonging” is a far more advanced spiritual wisdom than the belief that “I am different” and that “the people in my camp are better and more correct than the people in yours.”

This morning I woke up to another beautiful desert day- the skies are blue, the air is crystal clear, everything seems to belong to everything else. It reminds me of one of my favorite Zen wisdom sayings:

The true person is not anyone in particular,
But like the deep blue color of the limitless sky,
it is everyone – everyone in the world.

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