Photo: “Reconciliation” at Coventry Cathedral
In the midst of a vitriolic presidential campaign and partisan obstructionism over the Supreme Court, not to mention recent episodes of religious and ethnic strife, I thought it appropriate to share some excerpts from a retreat I led last weekend on the topic of reconciliation:
When I have seen the world’s great bridges span
Wide waters, and have heard men boast of one
Longest of any ever built by man,
And how a million wires were slowly spun
To make its cables, then I think of you
And of the rainbow bridge between you and me,
Built in a night of spider-web and dust
But spanning the whole sky from sea to sea.
How frail it seems, how prone to accident,
How open to the storms of dark and change,
Yet the wild weathers our misfortunes sent
Against it, find it firm all the long range
From me to you, from you to me, and filled
With richer freight than bridges that men build.
–Maxwell Anderson, For Gilda III
Something there is about us that loves a bridge. If you’ve ever seen the Golden Gate or the Brooklyn or any other of the world’s great bridges, recall how your heart leapt up just at the sight of one these majestic wonders, the thrill you felt–perhaps the fear–as you crossed the span. Anderson’s poem points out the delicacy and risk of the bridges that we build between each other. How frail they are, built of “spider-web and dust”, but these “rainbow bridges” between us are the very foundation of human society. Without them we would each sit in our several huts, armed against friend and foe alike, afraid and unable to reach out in love to our fellow human beings. Lately, it seems like this is the world some of our politicians live in and one that they hope to impose on the rest of us. But in the same way that our hearts leap up to our throats when we see the architectural wonder of great bridges, so does God’s heart leap up to see a bridge that has been made between human hearts, particularly between hearts that had previously seemed hopelessly separate.
This metaphor of building bridges illustrates the underlying concept of pluralism, aka E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one.”—the idea that there can be an I and a thou and together we create something greater, a we, while yet maintaining our I and thou-ness. In many parts of the world, pluralism is only a fantasy. Israel, for example, where tensions and misunderstandings between Jews and Arabs frequently erupt into violence. Other Middle Eastern and Asian countries which experience strife with different sects of one religion, let alone between religions. Europe, where xenophobic protectionists seek to deny to recent immigrants the comforts they enjoy as privileged Westerners. Although we hope reconciliation will come to areas like these, it is already too late for many suffering persecution and worse. And even the survivors may feel it is too late to pick up the threads again once they have been viciously broken. By contrast, pluralism teaches us that differing parts add up to a stronger whole. This was illustrated by St. Paul writing to one of the first Christian communities
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor 12:14-21, NRSV)
Paul, with mostly uncharacteristic humor, is saying we wouldn’t want our hands to try to convert our eyes to the idea that hand-ness is better and our eyes really should become hands if they ever hope to achieve anything. Absurd; yet working together, our eyes and hands can do more than each part can by itself. The same is true of the church, the nation, or any group of people. We may wish to convert others to our own beliefs. But we will never move forward until we realize that each group contains some piece of God’s revelation needed in order to build the kingdom of heaven on earth.
What’s the first thing we’ll build in this kingdom? Castles, perhaps? We already have those, well-fortified with moats and dragons and barbed wire which we like to call “being on the right side.” Roads? We already have those, too and are quite good at traveling them–as long as our traveling companions are everyone else who happens to share our own particular point of view. No, what this kingdom needs is bridges. It is these ethereal, rainbow bridges, the delicate connections from one person’s heart to another that are more important and eternal than even the sturdiest engineered steel we can devise.
The purpose of a bridge is to create a zone of safety over which it becomes possible to cross an otherwise perilous environment, a canyon perhaps, or a rushing river. It is this quality of bridges Paul Simon illustrated when he wrote of the “Bridge over Troubled Water.” We are not interested in building bridges over un-troubled waters. It’s already easy to reach out to those with whom you agree. It was that fact that got me involved in reconciliation work over a decade ago when a member of one of my former parishes declared that it was a “scandal” that it was so easy for our very liberal parish to reach out to Jews, Muslims and persons of every other faith or even no faith, provided they were also liberal, yet we had never reached out to Christian brothers and sisters worshiping just across the freeway from us at an Evangelical church. That remark led to the creation of a committee I was part of, which led me to become a leader in diocesan reconciliation seminars working with parishes struggling over issues of same-sex ordination and marriage. What I learned from my participation in that ministry is that to perpetually surround ourselves with those we agree with and avoid engaging in the uncomfortable work of bridge building is exclusion, and exclusion is a sin whether it manifests as racism or homophobia or in more insidious ways such as excluding people due to their political beliefs, worship style, taste in music, etc. We mortals are not in a position to decide who gets to sit at God’s table and who doesn’t.
But it is important to understand that the type of bridges I’m asking you to create can naturally create conflict since the goal is to bring together bitterly divided groups. At the same time, know that there is already a natural if invisible bridge that connects each of us to one another. It may be only the size of a thread, but it’s there. We feel a tug on this thread whenever tragedy strikes, even if the victims are very different than we are–a bomb in Iraq, a school shooting in New England, war and starvation in Syria, and on and on. Our hearts don’t worry about what these peoples’ political or religious beliefs are. Our hearts simply go out to them when tragedy pulls on that little thread. And it’s that same thread that Christians remember when we come to communion. The ritual of receiving the bread and wine gives us a physical reminder of the invisible thread between us and Christ. And whenever we are reminded of our connection to Jesus, we ought to be reminded of our connection with other people, for isn’t that what Jesus told us? “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”(Matthew 25:40, KJV). So whenever we take that step to reach out to our sister or brother across a perilous divide, we are reaching out to our brother Jesus.
Reaching out can feel threatening, yes, but one comfort is that in reaching out to the other, we do not lose our own uniqueness and beliefs. Jesus loves us in all our diversity. Remember how he reached out to the rich as well as prostitutes? To Tax Collectors and Lepers? How he healed Jews and Gentiles alike? Jesus doesn’t ask that we change who we are, but Jesus does ask for a spirit of oneness among us. Jesus says–no, demands–“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, NRSV).
We tend to think of reconciliation as one, dramatically cathartic moment. But really, it’s made of small moments of bridge building, however tentative, developing the tangible and intangible strands of connectedness among people so that they can live together in peace, and from that foundation, work together for the common good. If you still believe in the common good, the time to begin the work of reconciliation is now, before we have become so irreconcilably divided it is indeed too late for us as well.