I recently watched the French film L’Equipier. It tells the story of a young man who, in 1963, arrives on the small island of Ouessant, off the coast of Brittany, a province in western France. He is newly hired by the Maritime Commission to work on a lighthouse offshore. It is staffed in 24/7 rotation by a small team of light keepers, all locals. They had expected the vacancy – a scarce job that they almost felt personal ownership of – to go to one of their own instead of this stranger, this interloper. Not surprisingly, the newcomer has now entered mostly hostile territory. The other light keepers want to write and sign a letter of protest to the Commission. But one of the locals isn’t sure he wants to sign. He has gotten to know and like the outsider. An argument ensues and one of them yells at the holdout: “Are you a Breton, or not?”
So, yet another way to divide people I hadn’t heard of: Bretons vs. outsiders. There is some cultural uniqueness in Brittany, including a nearly extinct Celtic-like Breton language. But the terrible irony about differences is that, at bottom, we treat them all the same. Just pick something, anything, where you and I are not alike, and erect a barrier that separates.
And there are so many options to choose from: foreign or native; white or colored; poor or rich; educated or unschooled; female or male; straight or gay; plain or attractive; old or young; smart or dumb; healthy or sickly; proletariat or upper class; right-wing or left-wing; slave or free; even, per Dr. Seuss, butter-side up or butter-side down.
And that was just a beginning – without even trying very hard.
In English and American prep schools the upper classmen used to physically haze new incoming students. These days the cliques are more varied and align by money, savvy, brains and beauty. Bullying is the result. And if we cannot find a real separator, we will invent one. A tragic recent example is the Rwandan genocide, where that country’s Belgian colonizers largely invented the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi as a control measure.
Fortunately there is the Christian church, where:
In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.
Except that Christianity doesn’t always bear this out. The Church has been both persecuted and persecutor. And carved up, first between East and West, then between Catholic and Protestant. But the divisions are hardly that clean and precise. Wikipedia shows branch upon branch and tells me there are now some 41,000 Christian denominations divided by beliefs and culture. One of them, presumably, being the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The remnant, the un-Babylon. Yet another way to differentiate us from them.
But if you join Adventism have you finally left separations behind? Hardly. We have Historic Adventists and Progressive Adventists. Black and White Conferences in the USA. Adventists who believe Ellen White is nearly infallible. Adventists who find her beyond embarrassing. Members for and against women’s ordination. Those who believe human perfection is possible and will hasten the Second Coming – and those who are sure it cannot be attained this side of heaven. No, we are not exempt. The urge to differentiate almost seems built into the human DNA.
There is a tendency to either trash the church or endow it with infallibility. But we don’t stop being people by joining some organization. Even an ideal model of the Christian Church – whatever that might be – still gets populated with people. Thus it can only be as good as how transformed we become from whatever transformative power the Gospel possesses.
This is what must be squarely faced. We haven’t been erecting all of these barriers because of what our religion teaches us, but in spite of it. The hymn still has it right – in Christ there is no East or West. It is we who have erected these in-crowd/out-crowd walls. How do we do it and how can it be corrected?
A beginning is to recognize we have played a subtle shell game with differences. Christianity doesn’t deny all differentiation. There is truth and error. There are those saved and those lost. But the crucial difference is that God defines those differences, not us. God will ultimately pass judgment, not us. Churches necessarily define limits of membership and thus have to make analogous decisions at times about in and out. But I think we use such validity as moral cover to make our own differentiations that have much more to do with us than them.
Like Adam and Eve after eating from the forbidden tree, we recognize our moral nakedness – and are ashamed. Add to that the necessary consequence of being finite humans and we also are incompetent in many things. The result is both innocent mistakes and moral failures. We are embarrassed. One way to deal with this is to own up to it all. But there is a “fig leaf” available and very tempting. We can deflect attention from our own unworthiness by calling attention to the failures of others. We can accentuate some characteristic of ours that is different from our soon-to-be victims. Are you a Breton, or not? This approach attracts allies who have their own shame to cover up. Together we then use whatever options are available to make our distinctives attractive and deprecate the flaws we have hidden so expertly from ourselves. Religion then, being a powerfully persuasive force in society, becomes a useful tool to employ in that effort.
A clear reading and understanding of Christ’s call to us ought to cut through all this deceit. We can apply that balm of Gilead by continually remembering some of the most central principles of Christianity. We are not worthy in ourselves. We have screwed up royally but need not manufacture our own pathetic cover-ups. God has redeemed us because we were so valuable that His Son came to Earth to die on a cross and provide a fit garment of righteousness – God’s righteousness. Let’s skip the digression of how it all works and why it is effective. That in itself can be an intellectual fig leaf; at least if it replaces the straightforward fact of our need and God’s answer. We need to first gratefully take the proffered solution to our miserable and unsolvable dilemma. After this, what else do we really need? Does it matter if you are handsome, wealthy, speak English or have a PhD? There is a very good reason why Paul wrote in Philippians 3:8, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.”
I think there is only one practical solution for the deep, endemic problem of differentiating. We must remind ourselves, again and again, of the surpassing value of being lifted up by Christ in that salvation reality. It is available to all – white or black, liberal or conservative, elite or untouchable. After that, everything else is comparatively superficial. Some differences, like poverty and ill health, we must seek to remedy. Some we can appreciate for their added richness in diversity. But none should divide us.