DISTINCTIONS WITHOUT A DIFFERENCE
Faith in Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
May 20, 2022
So God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…..
31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
This will be a blog in which you get bullet points.
Distinction without a difference
The theme for the next four Sundays is “Honoring God’s Diversity”. In the series, we will be looking at marginalization, entitlement and our responsibility to honor all God’s creation. But first we must realize that at least as the creation stories tell us, diversity among humans is not of any importance to God. We make a big deal about race, gender, nationality, social standing, political affiliation, etc but fail to realize that placing such emphasis upon what makes us individuals is misplaced in the eyes of God.
Scripture simply says: “God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Humans make distinctions that make no difference to God. Every human is a child of God. Even the most obvious difference between humans—male and female—has of no significance to God. What is important is our faith claim that each of us is made in the image of God “and, indeed, it was very good.” While not always true, most parents love their children no matter how different they are from one another.
Why then, do we make such a big deal over these distinctions?
The phenomena of ranking, comparing and differentiating between people on arbitrary and self justifying categories is as old as humankind. In the first century, Samaritans were second class citizens though genetically, you would be hard pressed to separate them from their Jewish neighbors. In Nazi Germany, Jewish identity was determined by ancestry. Whether or not you self identified as Jewish, if any of your grandparents were identified as Jewish, you were Jewish. You could be stripped of citizenship, deported and/or be sent to concentration camps. In the United States after the Civil War some states ruled that if you had one eighth black blood, you were considered black. During World War II, people of Japanese ancestry were sent to internment camps because they might be spies.
We have a very long history of making differences between people critically important to inclusion into ordinary society. The need to compare and rank each other runs very deep. It emerges out of fear of differences as well as the hunger to be safe in the world. We identify with people who are like us starting with family, and move slowly out to clan, tribe, ethnic group. Outsiders are threats. Whole groups are labeled as lazy, promiscuous and dishonest. Marginalization of peoples is always justified by viewing others as less than. I remember being told that the Russians would put a man into space first because they had no regard for human life. The completely unexamined assumption was that we (the United States) were morally superior.
This is not just a social phenomena. Our biological survival depends upon ‘survival of the fittest’. We are hardwired to protect and advance ourselves. It is a fundamental mechanism for the survival of our species. When we live life through the lens of our biological imperatives, everyone is seeking an edge. Everyone is a potential threat and we must be vigilant. Competition for resources and adversarial relationships become the norm. Giving away an advantage is foolish. The spiritual concept that our differences are incidental to our common humanity is just so much abstract idealism.
Finally, our human vision is simply too limited. We cannot know what we don’t know. A life in relationship with God means a life of humility. What we see is a very small fraction of what is. Our eyes can see only .0035 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum. If we depend upon what we see, we will never know about infrared, ultra violet, or X Rays—to name a few. Before Galileo, we thought we were the center of the universe. Now we realize we are more analogous to a grain of sand on the beach. Quantum physics shows us that what we thought was solid matter is actually made of subatomic particles that are constantly changing state. God’s vision for us is much broader than our individual self interest. If we simply depend upon what we know about what is important in the world, we attempt to rely upon our false self sufficiency. We will never see the broader, grander vision that is offered to us. That is the promise of the creation story and that is the promise of the servant Lord we call Christ. Love matters. It is the only thing that is eternal. It is a big faith claim but it is our core.
Though certainly contrary to our hard wiring, the spiritual faith claim is that regard for the whole is a better way to live. Our hard wiring is good for our individual survival but it does not work very well corporately. When our self interest is paramount, we end up in a dog eat dog world. Underdogs will ultimately knock off top dogs. Every empire has fallen. Force has never been more than a short term advantage. There is no reason to think that the human species will not go the way of dinosaurs—and at the current rate, probably much faster.
The Christian alternative is the faith claim that love is the only thing that lasts. Love survives death and our lives are ultimately measured by our capacity for regard and kindness. Everything else in our lives will be lost to time—our accomplishments, wealth, position, our very names will be lost to memory. How many of us know the names of our great grandparents? Our biological imperative to advance our self interest is a necessary part of creation but it is not sufficient. We must find a way to look beyond ourselves to include the needs of the whole. Otherwise we will unwittingly create the conflicts that will destroy us.
Unfortunately, these faith claims are really hard to live out. It sounds good to imagine every human being as a child of God but surely there are exceptions to such radical inclusion. What about pedophiles? What about the man in Buffalo who with malicious intent carefully planned to murder? Clearly these people deserve punishment, if not death. They could not belong under the umbrella of God’s care. Unfortunately that is not what the creation story, nor what Jesus’ life said. There were no exceptions to God’s care. How do you ever include people that are real threats to others? In real life, that might well be beyond us. But we, at least, should struggle with our self righteousness. Everyone of us has had dark thoughts about others. All of us have the capacity to do harm. Even as we imprison and contain those who do harm, I would like to think we do it with humility. The minute we say, “I would never do such a thing.’ We claim a moral superiority that allows us to think of others as less than us. That is a bridge too far. When we cross that bridge we have begun the process that allows us to do harm. Permission to do harm begins with self assigned moral superiority. It is one thing to say a behavior is unacceptable and must be stopped and another to claim we are better than.
God’s desire for us is that we see one another as God sees us—each and everyone made in God’s image. That will lead to mindfulness and regard.
Let it be so.