I read half of 1 Thessalonians this morning. Not a Christmas text, but the New Testament as a whole grows out of Christmas and Easter, so that’s enough justification. (Morning Edition just ended, and now I’m listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge—definitely Christmas enough for whatever I’m thinking.)
What struck me in Paul’s writing was a fairly simple truth: He keeps referring to how what happens to the Thessalonians affects him, and how what happens to him affects them. They are bound together in a way that defies the individual orientation of contemporary North America and Europe.
This basic thought—that we are bound together and that none of us decides for himself or herself without reference to others—has been abused often in our history. Social pressures to enforce conformity are common in every society. Sometimes those pressures are used abusively; sometimes they are redemptive. In either case, we Americans and Canadians rebel against the idea that anyone’s right to full individual freedom should be restricted in any way.
We acknowledge that such freedom does not include the right to cry “Fire!” in a crowded movie theatre, but that’s about as far as we’ll go. Our contemporary conviction is that I, and only I, can decide what is right and wrong.
But we remain bound together, regardless of that conviction; the choices that we make and that which we experience affects not only the individual, but everyone of us. We are bound together. We are not autonomous individuals.
The desire for unfettered autonomy shows its weakness in the recent shooting of school children in Connecticut, and in the resulting discussion about restricting access to guns. The problem is not that two opposing sides have strong views and cannot find common ground. The problem rather is the way that we carry on the conversation.
Those who favour gun control in some form (a view that makes sense to me) think that those who oppose any regulations are Neanderthals, almost lunatic in their devotion to gun rights. Those who oppose gun control (a view that I don’t fully understand) think that those who favour regulation want to enslave them—that they are radical activists who care nothing for individual freedom or the Constitution of the United States of America. Such name-calling does no good on either side.
It seems to me that both sides are driven by the sense that “I am the only one who is able to say what is true”—radical individualism in the pursuit of truth. One has only to peruse the comments following any story on CBC or CNN or FoxNews or NPR to see how convinced each writer is that he/she has the truth and that those who disagree are perverse, even evil.
We need a different model. We are bound together in all that we think and do. If that is so, then it is unlikely that any individual is simply right, and those who disagree are simply wrong. Advocates of gun control have a point. Advocates of Second Amendment Rights have a point. Each person in the conversation can only benefit by understanding those with whom they disagree.
One can make the same point about our national conversations about abortion, and about same sex unions, and about the fiscal cliff, and about all the other elements of national issues. What we have now is a practical libertarian commitment on all sides, combined with a willingness to use the power of the federal government on all sides.
That last thought is tentative in my mind: I am trying to figure out how to express the commitment to individualism that I see in our country combined with a winner take all attitude in the political arena. That combination forces us into a situation in which “might makes right”, and in which the way we are bound together is ultimately mutually destructive. The gingham dog and the calico cat on a national stage.
In place of such mutual destruction, at least Christians can model the way that we are bound together in a positive life-affirming way. We can seek to hear those with whom disagree, based on a conviction that they also have truth we need to hear. We can continue to speak the truth we have respectfully, refusing to be simply cowed or over-awed, knowing that the other also needs our truth. Together we can invite all those around us to discover the reality of the baby who bore several names, including prominently, “Prince of Peace”.