“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta
The “forgetting that we belong to each other” smacks you in the face at so many turns these days. Our politics is based on a tribalism that “otherizes”, intentionally and consistently casting other groups as enemies, as people who, by definition, do not belong to us and to whom we do not belong. And that political tribalism has bled into almost every other part of our culture, not least of which our churches. It used to be, Catholics and Protestants were suspicious of each other, except when the specter of non-Christians loomed on the horizon. Now, as they say, the calls are coming from inside the house, as every brand of Christianity in America faces up to the reality that, to the extent Christians are presented a choice between prioritizing the unity that resides in extravagant mercy and the division of our political tribes, we will take the latter. Pretty much every time.
Honestly, though, it wasn’t our toxic culture that put this quote back in my mind. It was the tents and RVs.
This image and issue has been rolling around in my head since this summer, and I have been wrestling with how to express it in a way that y’all can hear it, because it’s easy for me to say it wrong. So I’ll ask for some grace up front.
We spent some time this summer and fall in Los Angeles, and earlier in the summer we were in Seattle, and in both places, I was haunted by the parks crowded with tents and the streets lined with cars, trucks, campers, and RVs. All over the city park across from the hotel. All along Culver Boulevard, from Playa del Rey to Culver City. On the way to the Trader Joe’s. Rickety vehicles parked on the side of the road that had become campsites and almost homesteads; in October, several had put up Halloween decorations. This was Nomadland but real and ever-present; this was linear neighborhoods of people whose best option was to live in their car.
Wait. Wait. Wait. You are probably feeling some kind of something right now. It might be fear, because you might think folks who live like that are scary. It might be anger that “those people” are cluttering up a beautiful area and getting in “our” way instead of living “respectable” lives. It might be smugness, that WE don’t have THAT problem on this side of the world because we are better at hiding or abusing or chasing away “those kind” of people. It might be indignation at a society in which anyone feels like this kind of life is their best option
Me? I feel a lot of sadness. We have failed to recognize that we belong to each other, when we have so much empty space, and so many people untethered. When we have so much work to be done, so many jobs to fill, and so many not working. When people with all the cushion in the world and people with no margin at all are only united in their disconnection from each other. When we are desperate in our loneliness and unable to include each other in our community.
A friend asked, after I wrote last week about corporate and systemic sin, whether I thought that the answer to our social problems lay in personal changes of heart or changes in systems. To the extent that I have an answer, it is both-and. We need to work into our individual hearts – employers and investors and consumer and workers; those with houses and those without; those on the front lines of the tribal political and culture wars and those too focused on making it to Friday – the reality that we all, all, all, all belong to each other and need to make our choices with that in mind.
But as someone who has dabbled in trying to make better choices, it’s pretty dang hard to choose “all of us” in a culture focused on individualism to the detriment of the whole, an economy focused on consumerism and winners and losers instead of solidarity and mutual gain. Your heart can be changed, you can be metanoia-ed, but you still have to figure out how to live out belonging, in a world that is not wired for that.
So we need hearts and minds across all our divides to realize that we sink or swim as one. And we need systems that vision a world of winners and winners, which would be different from any of the systems we have tried so far.
I am tired and could use some peace. I am willing to ask myself and hear from others who it is that I have forgotten I belong to. How about you?
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