Native Son was a terrific book by Richard Wright that does an excellent job of artfully illustrating the ways that all humans are connected. One common criticism of this book is that it tackles racism by using, as its case study, a murderer and rapist. However, that is an unfair criticism of the book. There are plenty of books that combat racism by giving examples of exemplary people of color; that’s not what this book is trying to do. The goal of this book is to illustrate how everyone unwittingly contributes to the violence and hate for which the main character was condemned. The author does this deliberately by using a main character that is so repellingly ‘other’ to most law-abiding readers that we won’t be distracted by the character’s best qualities. Any good qualities that the character might have had are irrelevant to our shared humanity. In that way, this author has set out to accomplish a remarkable feat, and he has succeeded.
I recently had a conversation in which an associate told me about her ‘christian healthcare club,’ which she described as a way of sharing risk only with her christian friends who she “…knows will take care of themselves.” (It struck me as bizarre that she took it as a premise that christians are healthier than non-christians, but I’ve since learned that there are a lot of publications in christian periodicals about christian-funded research that shows that they are.) I told her that I hoped her christian friends wouldn’t let her down, but something about that conversation continued to bother me many months later. I was able to process part of it when I wrote my post on Fowler’s Stages of Faith, but this book helped to put it further into context.
The problem with the christians-only healthcare club is that it is based on the premise that we can shut out the suffering of others. She is trying to cordon-off her wallet from others’ ailments. She doesn’t want her premiums to go up because (as she sees it) they don’t have the light of truth to guide them on the path to greater health. So, by joining a christians-only healthcare club, she can meet the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to be insured, while not sharing risk with those who she perceives as ‘other.’
Here’s the problem: if we exclude people who are ‘other’ from our healthcare plans, then they have to go somewhere else. As that happens, those ‘somewhere elses’ become increasingly expensive, and soon we have a lot of unhealthy and uninsured people who are feeling disenfranchised. If we are lucky, then the government will step in and provide coverage for those individuals, but then it hits us in our tax budget. If we still insist on trying to shut out the suffering of others, then we might be grateful for partisan gerrymandering that enables the votes of the ‘other’ to count less than ours, so that their voices matter less, and then we can insist that those people don’t get government-sponsored healthcare coverage, further disenfranchising them. Of course, the next step is that disenfranchised people, people who don’t have a voice or a stake in our society, become increasingly angry, increasingly vocal, and ultimately (as we saw in the French revolution), violent. In that case, instead of spending that money on sharing in a risk pool with the ‘other’ or on contributing to a public solution to our healthcare crisis, we will be spending that money on steel bars for our windows, security systems for our houses, guns for our ‘self defense,’ and armed guards for our schools. And all of this because we couldn’t see the ways that we are all connected.
My associate can shut her door to the suffering of others, but then it will come in through her window. She can shut her window, but then it will rise up through the floor like an overflowing septic tank.
I think this is what Jesus was trying to tell us when he said that we should care for the orphan and the widow and that we should take care of the ‘other’ (as in the story of the Samaritan). I think most of us misunderstand it. The most common interpretation of those teachings is that caring for others should be voluntary, rather than a tax obligation. (This is the most common reply that my christian friends give me when I point to Jesus’ teachings as the reason why I vote with the Democrats on things like welfare: it should be voluntary. I can’t find where Jesus said that it in the New Testament. But, frankly, we all know it’s a cop out. These are people who just don’t want to be connected to the ‘other’ in any way.)
But, that’s the wrong interpretation of what Jesus was trying to say. He wasn’t saying ‘hey, it would be really nice if we were all one,’ he was saying that we are one. It is fact. It is a law as immutable as gravity. We might try to live as though we were not one, but if we do we will be ignoring the proverbial lighthouse and breaking ourselves against the rocky shore of our shared humanity.
We are one with the christians who sit next to us on the pews. We are one with the people in our community who mow their lawns on Sundays. We are one with the homeless in our city. We are one with the homeless on the other side of the world. We are one with the Muslims, the Jews, the Hindus, and the Buddhists. We are one with the atheists and agnostics. We are one even with the racists and the sexists. We are one.
Until we can realize that truth, that we are one, then we will continue to be unwitting creators of all the violent forces that we fear.