Romans 12:1-8 and Excerpts from No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton
Hello and Happy Sunday! I am grateful to be here together and like many of you have shared, it is something on the calendar to look forward to! Thank you for being here for our worship this morning, from wherever and however you are connecting with us.
As you are so moved I invite you to take a deep breath and to let yourself arrive, even in this hard time it’s good to be alive on this shared journey. Join me in a spirit of prayer. God, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, wherever they are, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
“COVID suggests we are barely a country at this point. More like an aggregate of self-interested individuals.” These words from New Yorker Magazine Staff writer, Jelani Cobb made me pause, because they don’t feel entirely true and yet they don’t feel entirely wrong either.
Maybe you have seen how differently cultures and leaders around the world have responded to this pandemic. Some have contended that in addition to leadership vacuums, a significant contributing factor to the situation in the United States is related to our hyper individualized culture.
In Japan for example, a more collectivist culture, a sense of communal obligation led to the public wearing masks at a rate near 95%. As Paul De Vries writes in the Japan Times, “Three of the motivating factors that induce Japanese nationals to adhere are courtesy, obligation and shame. Courtesy is the willingness to act out of genuine concern for others. Obligation involves placing the needs of the group before those of oneself. Shame is fear of what others might think if one does not comply to group or societal norms. There is no shortage of courtesy among the silent majority of the West, as unlikely as that can sometimes seem. A sense of obligation also exists, but typically toward groups less large than society as a whole. Shame, on the other hand, is not a dominant Western trait. Additionally, in some regions of the West, anti-collectivist behavior can be a source of identity and pride.”
At the end of July, about 67% of Americans were wearing masks. Are we simply a group of self-interested individuals who happen to live on the same piece of land?
Coined in the nineteenth century, individualism is the product of the values that emerged from the Enlightenment. Of course a huge part of the ethos of this country includes the themes of individualism, now a dominant culture of favoring the freedom of action of individuals over anything collective, deciding that this individual freedom includes the right to not wear a mask, the right to own military grade assault rifles, the right to pollute. Some have decided that freedom means we are under no obligation to do what is best for others- for humans and creatures in the long run. It is our right, to do what we want- that, that is what freedom is.
I grew up surrounded by these stories that centered individualism. In my coming of age time in the 1980’s, it was a time filled with self-esteem retreats and talks of the importance of what one person could do. The best of it invited me to claim my life as my own and to be accountable to who I said I wanted to be. But the false side of this mythology conflates liberty with the right to live with complete selfishness.
In 1744, Elisha Williams a Yale graduate who served in the Connecticut General Assembly, as a judge on the Connecticut Supreme Court, and as a delegate to the Albany Congress wrote The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants. This essay is cited as an essential primary source for the Movement of Individualism. In it he writes, “Man by his constitution as he is a reasonable being capable of the knowledge of his Maker; is a moral & accountable being: and therefore as everyone is accountable for himself, he must reason, judge and determine for himself. That faith and practice which depends on the judgment and choice of any other person, and not on the person’s own understanding judgment and choice, may pass for religion in the synagogue of Satan, whose tenet is that ignorance is the mother of devotion; but with no understanding Protestant will it pass for any religion at all.”
But while each of us are accountable in matters of conscience and religion, politics, and reason, good judgement and thought, we are not separate from one another- our individual choices are directly linked to the experiences of others.
That is part of what Paul says to the early movement makers when he wrote,
“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”
In the context of imperial Rome, Paul is asking for non-conformity and for sacrifice. Remember you are members of one another. The common, the whole, all of us, engaging in the give and take, as vulnerable as we are, what is enabled by the fact that we are connected, is simply magnificent.
As Thomas Merton wrote so eloquently, “We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others. What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others.”
But believing this and living this is radically countercultural, perhaps unamerican even- prioritizing the whole human family, the whole ecological body, over the individual member…
Paul writes, “ I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world...”
I appeal to you beloved of God, do not be conformed to this world of short-sighted, self-interested humans...
To be sure, I am not advocating that we discount our own care or that we dismiss our own needs, no what I mean is more like what Thomas Merton spoke of- when we begin to comprehend that this whole thing isn’t about us, we can love ourselves and others, we can accept life as a gift, we can experience the joy that comes from how we all relate, connect and move.
What is our role as people of conscience, as a people committed to the bigger project of a just world for all? When circumstances are summoning us, are we willing to accept personal discomfort to heal the whole? Are we willing to be inconvenienced for the common good? Are we willing to give something up for that which we say we are about?
In an essay Paul Krugman writes that some elected officials in this country have “sacralized selfishness, hurting their own political prospects by insisting on the right to act selfishly even when it hurts others…This rage is sometimes portrayed as love of freedom. But people who insist on the right to pollute are notably unbothered by, say, federal agents tear-gassing peaceful protesters. What they call “freedom” is actually absence of responsibility. Rational policy in a pandemic, however, is all about taking responsibility. The main reason you shouldn’t go to a bar and should wear a mask isn’t self-protection, although that’s part of it; the point is that congregating in noisy, crowded spaces or exhaling droplets into shared air puts others at risk. And that’s the kind of thing America’s right just hates, hates to hear,” “What the coronavirus has revealed is the power of America’s cult of selfishness. And this cult is killing us.”
Our choices aren’t just about us, they are directly linked to the experiences of others. We are individuals yes and we are also members of one another.
Freedom is not the right to do whatever one pleases, rather the freedom given to us by the Universe, by God, the gift of this life invites us to live fully in light of our shared, common life. It is no accident that the Constitution of the United States of America begins like this, “We the people…”
How can we end this era of sacralized selfishness? What might this look like for us as a community of compassion and justice? How can we more fully live into Paul’s words that “we are members one of another?”
The ancient words from St. Basil the Great offer us a glimpse, “When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”
As I close today, I will lead us into a brief meditation called The Breath of Life Is Not Mine Alone By Kristen L. Harper
“I do not wish to breathe another breath if it is not shared with others. The breath of life is not mine alone.
I brought myself to be with you, hoping that by inhaling the compassion, the courage, the hope found here, I can exhale the fear, the selfishness, the separateness I keep so close to my skin.
I cannot live another moment, at least not one of joy, unless you and I find our oneness somewhere among each other, somewhere between the noise, somewhere within the silence of the next breath… The breath of life is not mine alone.”
Beloved of God, do not be conformed to this world, it’s not all about you. May it be so. Amen.