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One of my favorite bits in the Bible is in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. He uses the metaphor of a body to describe the community of the faithful. And I would argue that this theme–even when not always in the same language–is pervasive in the Jewish and Christian canons.
Each body part tends to think it’s the only one that matters and has a hard time seeing past its own ways of looking at and interacting with the world. Or, um, that’s the way the eyeball would say it. The eye wants everyone to think and act like an eye. The reality is that we’d look (damn, there’s that bias again) pretty ridiculous and be completely dysfunctional if we were all just eyeballs. Or ears. And even the lowly sphincter, toenail or intestinal villus is important–vital even.
I have rarely felt that folks fully comprehended the truth and profundity of either the passage or broader analogy or the depth and breadth of its proper application, let alone the extent to which most of our behavior belies it.
That we should fight against discrimination in all of its forms–gender, race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, disability, age, etc.–should go without saying. And yet it must be said.
Too many operate under the illusion, for instance, that we live in some kinda of “post-racial” society. However sincerely they might believe it and however much I wish they were right, I know that they are wrong. And the most telling rebuttal is the experience of racial minorities. One need look no further than the morning news to see bigotry rampant–in everyday life, in popular culture, in public policy.
Discrimination–including both extreme manifestations such as apartheid (which exist in essence in parts of this country), hate crimes, genocide, blatant economic and political oppression and lesser but still dangerous forms such as hiring, social and consumer biases and bigoted speech–is in itself an issue of justice and social responsibility. It is, in other words, a moral imperative.
So-called “affirmative action” policies may or may not be situationally effective and their inclusion in specific solutions would therefore be conditional. Deliberately, proactively–indeed, aggressively–attacking the problem is not. Action is necessary and it must be targeted and strategic. Simply ignoring the problem, thinking wishful thoughts against it or even rhetorically opposing it won’t make it go away.
As with any issue of this enormity and importance, action most be taken individually and collectively. The solution must be part of how we live but it must also be institutionalized both in corporate and governmental policy.
But my point extends beyond issues of discrimination, oppression, inequality of opportunity and disenfranchisement. Returning to the body metaphor, overcoming bigotry and xenophobia and practicing inclusion are acts of enlightened self-interest. We are stronger, smarter, more effective, more whole–indeed we can only be complete and we can only ever hope to overcome our challenges and achieve our potential–to the extent that we not only tolerate and respect, but seek out and embrace diversity.
The principle of diversity applies to religion. While we may in some sense be called a “Christian” nation, those who cling to that identity must acknowledge that “Christians” themselves fundamentally and broadly disagree about both core values and practice. More importantly, what has allowed this nation to survive and thrive is not an arbitrary “Christian” dogma but pluralism and an appropriate separation of Church and State.
Religious freedom does not mean–as some seem to think it does–that I have a right to impose my personal religious convictions on others–either to compel or restrict their behavior. As a person of faith–yea, as a person of passions and conviction–I cannot separate my beliefs and religious values from my public and political participation, but as a citizen, I must exercise and express those values in a way that respects the beliefs and values others.
To be clear, we are stronger as a nation in part because of our cultural, philosophical and religious heterogeneity.
The principle of diversity applies not only domestically but to our engagement internationally. Our foreign policy must fully respect not only the humanity but the cultural legitimacy of both our allies and those we label as “enemies.” Of course we shouldn’t embrace what is immoral or amoral, but we should be circumspect enough to recognize that many times these judgments are wholly subjective and that often it is our behavior and/or the behavior of our allies that is repugnant.
Being American doesn’t make us right. Being American doesn’t elevate us above or excuse us from accountability to the rest of humanity or to the court of nations.
Our foreign policy should be free of imperialism and it must not subordinate the rights and interests of other states. We should be cooperative participants in the international community and guardians of the ideals that unite, protect and advance all of our planet’s citizens.
Much of the greatness of our identity is that we are a nation of many peoples and that our cultural and intellectual inheritance is international, global and encompassing.
We are an immigrant nation. Indiscriminately locking down our borders or tolerating a subordinate, essentially slave class of disenfranchised laborers is inconsistent with our national achievements and the nobility of our ideals and aspirations; and it is a tragic waste of the costly lessons of our national history.
Our immigration policy must be merciful and rational and it must recognize the contributions of our undocumented residents and acknowledge and accept our responsibility to humanity beyond our circumscribed–geographically or otherwise–borders. The pathway to citizenship must be open and not unduly arduous. Our treatment of immigrants–documented or otherwise–has to respect their human rights and their basic human needs.
Again, a humane immigration policy is enlightened self-interest, appreciating and facilitating the continued infusion of vitality, innovation and productivity from our newest residents, workers and citizens.
We have a social responsibility. I am my brother’s keeper.
We need each other. We have a moral obligation to one another.
Government is one of the ways that we exercise that mutual responsibility.
I can agree that Government–in general and in each specific instance–is flawed, corrupt, inadequate, inefficient. But so is every other human institution or system–including any organization, business or corporation, including the Free Market itself, including the Church. I would argue that government–depending of course on the specific context–can be more effective, more representative, more just than any and all of these other institutions. Yes, sometimes it is less effective.
I don’t think that Government is the Answer or Savior. But I don’t think it’s the Enemy. At least it doesn’t have to be. We as a nation, acting through the agency of our government have accomplished a great many good and significant things. I think it both foolish and irresponsible to abandon that effort, least of all to suggest–as many on the Right have done–dismantling, crippling or inhibiting one of our most powerful means to the common good. Even our financial success can be largely attributed to the political environment that allowed it. We are great not in spite of government, but to a large degree because of it.
To be very clear, I do not believe (and see little evidence for and much to the contrary of) the assertion that the Private Sector or the “Free” Market is intrinsically able to overcome the challenges we face better than or without a larger framework of cooperation.
Each institution is subject to its own unique weaknesses and each has its own strengths. I don’t suggest subverting or eradicating any of them, but I am emphatically opposed to tendencies I see in our society to lean on Capitalism, Commerce, Privatization as the panacea for everything that ails us. That capitalism exploits the selfish urge is perhaps its genius, but that urge is also its great weakness and what profoundly limits and distorts it’s progress toward the good.
Perhaps just as importantly, each man or woman acting on his or her own is intrinsically inferior to our acting together.
Individualism is one of the most lethal and insidious cancerous lies infecting our contemporary culture, especially Conservatism and especially the Church.
That’s certainly not to deny the absolute requirement of individual responsibility or the vital necessity of protecting individual liberties. Indeed one of the things that I believe our particular form of government is relatively (v. Business, v. the Market, v. Church, v. anarchy) well-equipped to do is to secure the rights of individuals and minorities and to prevent a tyranny of the masses or a reduction of all its citizens to a bland anonymity.
It is imperative that we protect the variously vulnerable members of our society against oppression and reckless indifference or abuse that they might otherwise suffer whether by racial animus, individual prejudice, emotionalism, consumerism, greed, dogma, ignorance, etc.
Moreover anyone who lacks food, shelter, education, healthcare, justice, economic opportunity, access to culture, represents our moral failure as a species.