The Importance of ‘And’Posted on: September 9, 2020, by : David
In a recent blog, progressive Christian teacher, author and social commentator Diana Butler Bass wrote about the importance of ‘and’. Her context was the nomination of Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate who, in the words of the US Religion News Service, is by birth ‘both Black and South Asian, both Christian and Hindu’. Butler Bass notes the contrast between the ‘bridge-building’ implications of the word ‘and’ and the divisive ‘wall-building’ language of the incumbent President: a candidate whose life embodies a bridge counterposed to a President who based his previous campaign on building a wall. This election is about choosing between bridges and walls. Do we want to span that which seems impossible to connect, or strengthen the fortifications that separate?
As the writings of Butler Bass often do, it prompted me to reflect on the context in which I live and work. When Australia began this journey through COVID-19 there was an affirmation that ‘we are all in this together.’ The National Cabinet was formed to manage a cohesive approach to tackling the virus and ‘bridge-building’ language was the vocabulary of the day. Over recent months, as the situation in Victoria has intensified, as border closures and politics have disrupted national solidarity, and as anti-everything protests have gained momentum, that cohesion has been challenged. The vocabulary has moved more towards the wall-building end of the scale.
My mind has been exercised around the question ‘How might we respond to this as people of faith?’ It is so easy to fall into the wall-building mode – either to take sides in an artificially polarised debate, or to batten down the hatches, retreat to the bunker and wait till the storm has passed.
The other context that is playing on my mind right now is the one in which I work – the Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania. Over recent years there has been a slow but accelerating shift in our movement (if that’s still what we are) towards the conservative end of the theological spectrum. Of course there has always been a mix of progressive and conservative congregations within our movement, a diversity that has been embraced as a strength as we have lived out of the ‘and’ vocabulary, building bridges between people of diverse opinions on the basis that each congregation is free to hold to its own values and perspectives. Recently the language and culture has shifted, boundaries have been defined, and lines are being drawn to designate who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. It looks and feels much more like wall-building than bridge-building. Specific examples of this shift have been the debate over marriage equality, the regulation of ministry accreditation, the erosion of congregational autonomy, the development of a set of ‘ministry attributes’ that are focussed more on ‘right’ practice than formation and character, and the trend toward a corporate governance model at the expense of flexibility and diversity.
Whether in civil society or in church circles, this trend away from ‘and’, away from building bridges to building walls, is concerning. And it’s inconsistent with the core values of the Christian faith. As Stephen Patterson argues in his book The Forgotten Creed, the very earliest church creed was possibly a baptismal liturgy included in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: ‘in Christ you are Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female: you are all one in the Spirit.’ [Gal 3:28]
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in this increasingly divisive and polarised world, people of faith could model a different way, the way of ‘and’, a way of acceptance and inclusion, affirming that (in the words of Butler Bass), We are all children of God. You and your neighbor and immigrants and believers of other faiths and Democrats and Republicans… and … and … and … We are all children of God. Who knows, this small, modest word ‘and’ just may enable the creation of a world of human dignity and equality for all – where walls are torn down and bridges built in their stead.
That’s what I’ve been thinking about!