by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Professor of English
A Southern friend of mine once explained to me a common misunderstanding of forms of address in the South. “Y’all,” she said, “is singular.” If you’re speaking to a group you say “All y’all.” Illogical as this may seem to a strict grammarian, I find something both endearing and provocative in that curious construction. Even in addressing an individual, it calls attention to the fact that each of us is one among others. In a culture where individual rights, individual choices, individual preferences, differences, and quirks are all given incessant attention — a culture dominated by radical individualism — there is something to be gained from any reminder that we are not entirely separable from one another.
Jesus’ “you” is often collective. He addresses the disciples most often as a group, as well as the crowds, the Pharisees and leaders, even the demons, whose name is “legion” or “many.” In the rich farewell discourses of John’s gospel, he speaks his most intimate parting words to a gathering: “These things I command you so that you will love one another.” Not, that is to say, so that you, Peter or Andrew, will be a more loving person, but so that you all, together, will become a more loving and beloved community.
Yes, Jesus does single out individuals on occasion, but more often, he addresses his human companions in community as a community. He not only calls us to himself, he calls us to each other.
There’s precedent for this. In the very first story we have about God’s work in the world, God says, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make him a companion.” Or, to go even further back, the God of Genesis speaks of God’s self as “we.” (“Let us make humans in our own image.”) To recognize God as Trinity is to recognize that community, togetherness, sharing, conversation, perichoresis, that wonderful mingling of the three Persons in heavenly dance, is the very basis of life itself — like entwining strands of DNA or molecules bound in dynamic structures.
So you would think that living in community would come as naturally to us as breathing. But middle-class Americans who inhabit commercial mass culture have lost some of the basic skills and attitudes historically cultivated in tribes and villages where communal life is more necessary and immediate. Mobile, multitasking, immersed in consumer choices and encased free-standing suburban dwellings, each of us with individual agendas on our Day-Timers or Palm Pilots, we often don’t do community very well. Some of us have extended families who gather for the holidays; some have block parties on July 4th; some of us meet in affinity groups and Bible studies and prayer groups. But we inhabit a culture where public transportation falters because we’re all driving alone in our cars; where competition between individuals is still the dominant mode in public education; where working together, cooperatively, or holding things in common are still in many respects oddly countercultural activities.
We live in a culture of products made by hands we never see, some by means of exploitative and unfair labor practices, by environmentally destructive farming methods, by strip mining or use of chemicals pollutants. We live in a culture where process is obscured by marketing, so that our attention is diverted quite successfully from the real costs of what we consume and use — the costs to our brothers and sisters whose labors are so often unfairly compensated. It is a culture whose pathologies and pain remain hidden to the privileged, masked by sanguine descriptions of economic “health.”
To be sure, many of us do try to live generously and use resources responsibly. Web sites and nonprofit organizations abound that teach and encourage us to widen the frame and connect the dots when we consider our “personal” choices — to stay aware of how our choices affect others and how to make choices that contribute to the good of the whole. (A recent issue of Christian Century has a feature article about a Chicago priest who is organizing church members to support hotel workers attempting to get fairer wages. Such things happen without much fanfare in more places than most of us know.)
And we do manage to come together in remarkable ways in times of disaster, though not actually as well as in cultures more locally organized. (It is sobering that a Category 4 hurricane in Cuba several years ago killed no one, largely because local citizen groups who knew one another had plans in place for evacuation and care. Doctors knew which people required which medications. Communities knew which elders and children needed special attention.) From the New Orleans area we also hear many stories of kindness, solidarity, and mutual aid. Still that event has exposed some troubling shortcomings in our capacities as large communities to think together about the common good.
We all heard various affirmations after 9/11 like “united we stand.” But we weren’t united then, and we aren’t now. That event deepened American divisions in dramatic and lasting ways. Nor is the church particularly united as a human institution — insofar as it is “in” the world, it is subject to all the divisive forces that assail any other political institution.
But as the church we are not just a human institution. We are united by something more lasting and unassailable than blood kinship. As the church we are specifically and peculiarly called to be a “body,” which is very different from being an institution, or even a family. The anatomical metaphor actually makes a shocking claim about what it means to be the Body of Christ. The systems of the body are intricately, stunningly interdependent; they include remarkable provision for compensation if one organ or nerve path is damaged. They are constantly being renewed by nourishment; some organs sacrifice to others if nourishment is scarce; but if one part is wounded, the whole body is affected. The body is about 70 percent water. The system relies on fluidity and flexibility, adaptiveness, exercise and habit. Much of it works without conscious control, and in fact relies on spontaneous, involuntary, surprising responsiveness to the unexpected. The body is mysterious. Ask any doctor or nurse who has witnessed inexplicable recoveries, or tried to account for dramatic psychosomatic manifestations. Or even witnessed a birth.
We’re made of the same stuff. As Walt Whitman put it, “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” We are nourished by the same food. We breathe the same air, we walk the same earth, we are vulnerable to the same pollutants. We are held in the same generous light.
Consider Paul’s words in I Corinthians 10:16-17, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” A key word I want to lift up in that passage from Corinthians is “participation.” One of the definitions you’ll find of this word in the Oxford English Dictionary is “to possess or enjoy in common with others.” So participation is not simply a matter of being a cog in a large machine, dutifully doing your bit, like the Charlie Chaplin character in “Modern Times” who spends his day at a conveyor belt tightening screws on machine parts. Participation means something much more organic than “doing our bit” — something much closer to being part of one another.
What if we really got this — that you’re part of me, that I’m part of you, that your good is my good, that my good is your good, that I can’t completely turn away from your troubles telling myself “That’s her problem,” because ultimately your problems are also mine. The psychologists among you might suggest that this point of view promotes a pathological lack of appropriate boundaries. Obviously I’m not suggesting that. But I do think the ways in which we are deeply, truly, vitally interdependent need reexamination and reinforcement in the face of a normative individualism that deludes us into thinking we can insulate ourselves from each other’s sorrows or joys.
We sing hymns that remind us of this truth: “We are one in the Spirit, we are One in the Lord. . . “ But really grasping that kind of oneness is hard. We are one in the Spirit is a declaration of fact. Whether you acknowledge it or not. Whether you like it or not. Whether you live it out or not. And what does this radical claim imply? Several things:
1. That we are engaged in a conspiracy. To “conspire” means to breathe together. We inhale and exhale the very breath of life as one body. Some among us are the lungs — some really maintain the inhale — the contemplatives, those who have and take the time for the deep spiritual practice of receiving the Holy Spirit in the silence and fullness of deep, sustained prayer. They serve the rest of us as lungs. Some of us do the exhale — breathing life into the various life-sustaining activities that contribute to general well-being — healing, teaching, protecting, learning, connecting.
2. One in Spirit means that to live according to our calling, we need to be attentive to, and in fact take personal responsibility for, the systems we inhabit. To be aware of economic systems, policy-making, and labor practices necessarily changes the way we come to think about “individual” decisions — what to buy, eat, wear, vote for, participate in. Easy as it is to assume that our personal choices are our personal business, we are called to stay mindful of the ways our business is others’ business, and to think more in terms of stewardship than of ownership — to internalize the truth of the claim that “what is not shared is wasted.”
3. It means that if my privilege is dependent on your forced or underpaid labor, if my food is produced under conditions that expose you to dangerous pesticides or unfair labor practices, if my wide range of consumer choices comes at the cost of your small country’s economy, if my silk blouse cost you crippling hours and childhood spent in a sweatshop, we’re both living in a state of disease. (Let me recommend to you Ursula LeGuin’s remarkable little story, a fable, called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It is a story about a community that lives in conditions of complete abundance and comfort. The only catch is that when they come of age, the members of the community, one by one, have to visit a child held in captivity and squalor, whose misery is the condition of their pleasure and privilege. Some accept that condition. Others cannot, and walk away, to take on the responsibility of changing that equation.)
One of the most remarkable passages in Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical Life of an American Slave is where he points out how slavery damages slave owners. Amazingly, considering the abuses he has suffered, he is capable of feeling pity for those whose privilege and power require that they expend their spiritual energies sustaining their own strenuous denial of the injustices they perpetuate. His insight has its contemporary applications. Thoughtless participation in systemic injustice damages those who “benefit” as well as those who more obviously suffer the injustices.
Hard as it is to recognize ourselves as responsible parties to unjust systems we didn’t invent and don’t directly control, I have come to believe that until we do, we will continue to forestall a crucial stage of our growth as the Body of Christ on Earth. Christians who avoid that responsibility by keeping “religion” and “politics” in separate, hermetically sealed categories, or who focus their moral concerns largely on “individual” choices diminish our life together as one body.
Learning to be that body, to claim that radical metaphor of common life, common health, and common need for healing, presents a new challenge to the church in each generation. In our generation loving our neighbor has to involve a hard, clear look at global stewardship issues — care of the Earth’s resources, restorative justice for the poor who suffer from unjust economic policies and institutionalized racism, peacemaking that requires subordination of nationalistic self-interest to global welfare.
In practical terms (thinking how to “act locally” while we “think globally”), this means that my consumer practices — which companies I buy from, whose business practices I choose to support, which media I pay for and listen to — matter morally and ethically every bit as much as intimate decisions about my sexuality, my conduct in personal relationships, and whether I cheat, lie, or shoplift.
So let me leave you with some phrases to take with you this week as you go about your business, which is our business: We are members — not just of the Church as an institution but, as Paul puts it, “of one another.” You have a claim on me, and I on you, and the workers in sweatshops and strawberry fields on all of us. We are called, sometimes in dramatic, usually in rather ordinary ways, to love one another, and even, if necessary, to “lay down our lives for our friends.” We are chosen — not as individuals singled out for special reward, but as children called by the same Father and gathered together so that not one might be lost. What fruit we bear belongs to us all. You’re all called — all y’all — to the banquet where there’s more than enough for everyone.