I truly understand that God shows no partiality.
– Acts 10: 34
Every Christmas, the dream of “Peace on Earth” is on the mind of many people. In our time, the way forward to this peace involves the current public debate around the rights of women, homosexuals and other marginalized human beings in our own society, and in societies around the world. This debate needs a way forward beyond the stalemate of differing viewpoints, all of which individually may be quite well articulated, but seem to lead in circles to no resolution.
I propose that the way forward out of this impasse is a new context for the questions. This new context looks not to the future, but to the past. This is one reason why an evolutionary approach can be so helpful. An historic overview of the development of human society as we know it today reveals for us an important pattern. We are able see how the human community continually has grown in its understanding of itself, revealing a significant insight for the way forward in our own time of struggle.
This historic pattern gives witness to the way individual and human consciousness has grown in its ability to accept “the other” – the one who was not, in the beginning, part of “my little family band,” and then later of “my tribe,” and still later, of “my state” and “my nation.” Today, viewing images of our fragile, blue Earth home from space, we now are being called to view our human community as members of “my planet.”
In the same way, we in the past have taken giant leaps for humankind in beginning to recognize as human beings of equal stature those who do not have “my skin color,” or “my social standing,” or “my economic status,” or “my place of origin.”
In the Middle Ages in Europe, human persons were labeled “demonic” for being naturally predisposed to left-handedness. Today left-handed people still find few items manufactured in a dominantly right-handed Western culture with their needs in mind, but we certainly have at least moved away from using this preference as a quality for judging one’s full and equal humanity.
Perhaps in our time, now completing our first decade into the “new millennium,” we are being challenged to move our questions of humanness to deeper, less physically obvious levels: to questions of equality of personhood and capacities apart from sex (male or female), and to emotional and psychological freedom of expression, engagement and fulfillment despite sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transgendered). We perhaps also are asked to embrace as equals those whose interior faith life, their source of hope and solace in times of joy and pain, is structured on a different story and different practices than our own.
Despite the contentiousness – and at times violence – of the current debate, I am willing to put my faith in the historic process. Viewed on the large scale, the movement toward greater inclusiveness is the pattern, and its strength and power will overcome our collective biases. The process begins and unfolds, however, in each individual.
As a Christian, a member of the community often most vocal in the current debate, I find an example of this process and a reason for optimism in a story from the very early days of the Christian community’s formation. The pattern for inclusion presents itself in the biblical story (Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 10 & 11) wherein the apostle, Peter, the first leader of the Christian Church, experiences a transformative dream. His reflection upon and subsequent interpretation of the dream lead Peter to accept the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and his family into the Christian community, saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Subsequently, in and through Peter’s leadership, his individual transformation shaped a collective transformation on the part of the Christian community: the Gentiles were accepted into the Church with full equality.
Building upon this example, we can draw guidance, inspiration and hope from the witness of similar growthful, transformative moments in the life of the Church – each a follow-up to Peter’s dream. As with the case of Peter and Cornelius, we see how the Church has in each case overturned its support of long-held traditions – whether it was racism, slavery or imperialism – to welcome new persons into the embrace of the community with full and equal rights. It did so simply because certain individuals within it found themselves caught up in a process through which they themselves finally recognized that it had now become the right – the moral – thing to do.
The process and pattern of inclusion might also be seen as a continued fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer and hope, “That they may be one” (John 17:11), to which he witnessed in his own continual efforts to include the oppressed, the rejected and marginalized in his society. Jesus left this world with the comment to his followers that we can accomplish even “greater works” than his (John 14:12).
As I complete edits on this post, I am in India, where I have been studying the personal transformation and leadership of Gandhi into a person who recognized the oness of all humanity. Gandhi struggled and died for the vision of a united India. He spoke out against the caste system, accepted “untouchables” into his home, and respected persons of all religions.
The process of inclusion toward the oneness and equality for which Jesus prayed and for which Gandhi died has been a slow journey for humanity, but we are still on the journey, and it will have its fulfillment.
Gandhi, M.K. (1927). An autobiography or the story of my experiments with truth. (Mahadev Desai, Trans.) Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan Publishing House [Reprint edition, 2007].