What Unites Humanity?, by The Rev. David Henson

If Jesus comes not to bring peace but division, then what is it that implicitly unites us as a species?

What is the unspoken unity that Christ’s division rightfully disrupts?

What unites humanity, but unites it wrongly?

As I’ve pondered the division Jesus seeks to inject into our unity this week, I found myself thinking back to August 2005, 17 years ago, when one of the most devastating hurricanes in our nation’s history—Hurricane Katrina—hit the city of New Orleans.

At the time, I was a newspaper reporter in California, and in the immediate aftermath, I remember being absolutely horrified by the reports coming across the AP wire from the flood-ravaged city. Not only was a natural disaster unfolding, a civil one seemed to be as well as stranded survivors were corralled into the Superdome and anarchy seemed to break out in the streets.

Snipers were shooting at relief workers, rescue helicopters, and law enforcement officers.

Gangs were roving the streets looting stores and destroying property to their hearts’ content.

The city was awash in violence, even murder, especially in the overcrowded Superdome.

The horrifying reports of a society descending into violent anarchy resulted in officials from a nearby city, who feared the viral spread of lawlessness, actually closing off a bridge—a viable escape route—and sending refugees back into the disaster area of New Orleans at gunpoint.

The entire nation believed the reports. No one seemed to doubt the outlandish stories coming out of the city. As terrible as it all seemed, it seemed, to most of us, as entirely plausible, like typical human nature and wickedness at work.

Except, little of it was actually true. Most of it was urban myth, exaggerations, or outright lies.

Many of the stories were quietly corrected, clarified, or retracted months later.

There were no snipers shooting at relief workers or at rescue helicopters and boats. It was instead, the popping relief valve on a gas tank, or military vehicles rolling over water bottles, or simply stranded people in flooded areas desperately trying to call attention to their location.

But those stories, false though they were, created such fear, mistrust, and panic that they did end up interrupting and delaying rescue attempts.

There were no roving gangs targeting police officers and survivors, but there were quasi-militias and vigilante groups that formed in response to such reports, who committed unprovoked, often racially motivated violence.

The looters were by and large groups of citizens who had been abandoned by civilized society, left to fend for themselves in a disaster and were desperately scavenging for food, water, clothing and shelter to survive, sometimes even with the aid of police.

Authorities expected to find piles of bodies in the Superdome, especially after initial reports of violence. Instead, despite the deplorable conditions, when the floodwaters finally receded, they found only 6 people had died, none of them murdered.

The irony, of course, is, even when confronted with the truth of what happened in the aftermath of Katrina, many of us find the truth more unbelievable than the lie. We have a persistent belief that, deep down, human nature is fundamentally selfish, bad, and things are getting worse. It’s a belief that cuts across race, creed, gender, nationality and socioeconomic status—that without the structure of society, in a moment of chaos or societal breakdown, released from the consequences of law and order, we believe humans would revert to a sort of primal state and descend into violence and disorder.

It is a belief so pervasive it transcends our usual divisions and unites seemingly opposite approaches to the world.

Capitalism, our economic system, assumes—indeed, relies on the idea—that greed and selfishness is at the center of the human soul.

Science often assumes the selfish motivation of self-preservation at the heart of even the most inspiring examples of altruism.

Philosophy, by and large, particularly in the rational Enlightenment shares that rather negative view of our species, with Thomas Hobbes, a founder of modern political philosophy, describing human life, without science or society, as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Christianity, by and large, agrees. Many religions tend to believe not just that we will sin but that we are fundamentally sinful, bad, evil at our most basic levels. St. Augustine famously believed “no one is free from sin in God’s sight, not even an infant whose span of earthly life is but a single day” and that the “minds of infants are far from innocent”.

We have some incredibly damaging, harmful stories about who we are as a species that shape how we view the world, ourselves, and each other.

These beliefs, even across our differences, have profoundly, maybe even subconsciously united us.

Jesus said, I come not to bring peace but division, division to this destructive tie that binds us, discomfort to the comfort of believing the worst about our fellow man and woman.

And if you don’t think this would bring conflict, just imagine for a moment having the audacity to read the news from this week, from the unfolding political drama to the tragic, heinous stabbing of Salman Rushdie, and instead of believing there’s barely any good left in humanity and the world is going to hell in a handbasket, we were to declare humanity actually isn’t so bad.

And that in fact, push come to shove, day in and day out, most people are pretty good and do the best they can to be the best they can to each other.

You’d have an uproar. Bring it up at the dinner table and suddenly even people on opposite ends of the spectrum would become allies because you would be questioning the unspoken fundamental beliefs on which we have organized our lives, the scaffolding on which we’ve built faith, either in God or their politics.

You’d get example after example of the evil and unkindness of humankind, from atrocities as gutwrenching as genocide to more mundane things like aggressive drivers whose only turn signals are the flip of the finger.

It wouldn’t matter that it takes an enormous amount of social conditioning and propaganda for genocidal leaders to erase humankind’s innate resistance to killing each other or it wouldn’t matter how many times you’ve actually witnessed or received courteous behavior on the highway.

The pessimistic and threatening leave long-lasting, looming shadows in our psyches.

How easy was it to believe in the lies in the aftermath of Katrina? Very.

How difficult is it to believe the truth? Even harder.

The lies are easier. Almost always.

Because, rather than burdening us with a call to action and honest self-reflection, the unifying lie gives us someone to blame.

There is a strange comforting stasis of knowing who is to blame for the perceived terrible state of humanity and the world, of knowing who your enemy is.

Because the world is always easier when there is an us and a them as long as “them” are the problem.

It’s ironically the other thing that everyone seems to be able to agree on these days—that we are more divided than we’ve ever been, and the “other side” is an existential threat.

I don’t care who you ask, conservative, moderate, liberal. There is near perfect unity in our belief we are divided beyond reconciliation. And that no one on their side of things is to blame. It’s someone else’s fault. The media, social media, the pandemic. This political party or that. This leader or that. This ideology or that.

Our country perhaps is more united than ever … in the certain belief in our division. So much so that there is an increasing sense of resignation that we are hurtling toward collapse or civil war or the end of democracy.

And it’s always, almost exclusively, the other side’s fault, because they are the bad guys, beyond redemption.

We need to believe that we know better than those other guys, that they are bad and we are good, because we can’t fathom that idea that all of us could, at the same time, be good. Which is to say, deep down, we can’t fathom that any human, including ourselves, deep down, is good.

If we can believe that an entire group of humanity is the problem, is bad, then we can’t believe there’s anything really all that redemptive, all that good, all that lovely about humanity as a whole to begin with.

Jesus wants to burn all those unifying beliefs away. He wants to divide us from the terrible unity of believing we who God created as good are fundamentally bad, that we who God has bound and held in love are irreconcilably divided and broken.

He wants to baptize the world with the holy fire of truth, the truth not that humanity is evil, greedy, and bad, but that, even when we are those things, who we are, fundamentally is beloved of God and worthy of love, so loved and so worth loving that God came down in the flesh to LOVE us in person.

This is the truth God believed about us from the moment of Creation, the story, throughout Scripture, that God told about us, even when we killed him.

Forgive them, he said, not condemn them.

They don’t know what they are doing, he said. They don’t know the truth, about you, how you made the world, how you made them. They are disfigured by the biggest lie of them all, that love, trust, and relationship is powerless rather than the only power of God, disfigured by the lie that the only way to maintain our humanity is through suspicion, control, and domination.

But it can be so hard to let go of the lies that have given us meaning, purpose even. They creep up on us even when we least expect it.

Even today, the unifying lie of the violence after Katrina is more pervasive than the divisive truth.

But God comes with the sword of truth, the cut of love, to divide us from the lies that unite us.

Friends, we have to start believing in humanity, in each other as much as God believes in us. We’ve got to start trusting in each other as much as God trusts in us.

We’ve got to start loving each other as much as God loves us.

Imagine the transformation if we but begin to see the world, ourselves, and each other how God sees us, and sees all creation, from the snakes in the grass to the birds on the wind, all of it as utterly beloved; not as fundamentally bad, or even just good, but as God says in Genesis surveying all God had made, as very, very good.

 

Sources:

Solnit, Rebecca. Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster

Bregmen, Rutger. Humankind: A Hopeful History

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2015/08/hurricane-katrina-10-years-later-the-myths-that-persist-debunked.html

https://www.propublica.org/article/post-katrina-white-vigilantes-shot-african-americans-with-impunity

https://www.facingsouth.org/2008/12/if-it-moved-you-shot-it-investigation-details-vigilante-shootings-in-post-katrina-new-orlean

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/law-disorder/blog/2010/04/new-evidence-in-post-katrina-vigilante-shooting.html

https://www.nola.com/opinions/article_0f3ddca5-0f4c-5f48-927f-4c8e9a7d6a5c.html

https://reason.com/2005/12/01/they-shoot-helicopters-dont-th-2/

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