We’re All in this Together
If you take time to watch the news, you may be convinced that we are a doomed people. We started this year still trying to recover from an economic crisis around the world caused by a mindset the favored the quick path the wealth over the long path to sustainability. We witnessed the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere rocked by a devastating earthquake. We have witnessed ethnic slaughters in Kirgizstan. We have seen oil gushing from the bottom of our beloved Gulf of Mexico, devastating the environment and the way of life of countless people. We have heard of wars, and threats of wars, in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula. Yes, it would seem that we are a doomed people.
I first began to write this sermon in March. The year was only a quarter over, yet it seemed like the fires were already spreading. It always seems like that though, if it isn’t one group of people hurting, it is another. I began to wonder about what these disasters say about us as a people. Are we bent towards destruction, can we truly not live in peace with one another and with our world?
When I had first heard about the devastating earthquake in Haiti I was saddened, but not surprised. I had first learned about Haiti when I was in middle school, my social studies teacher told us a story about a professor of his that had been sent to a Haitian prison for making fun of the country’s leader. It was part of a lesson on Habeas Corpus, our teacher tried to show us what can happen to a person if they are not protected by having the opportunity to go to trial. The story he told us stuck in my head though, I wondered how a nation could be so impoverished, so desperate, that they would suffer a dictator the likes of Bébé Doc.
The earthquake in Haiti could not have been prevented; we do not yet know how to stop earthquakes. What we do know however is how to be safe in an earthquake. Reinforcing concrete with steal is a good first step, but in Haiti steel was so hard to come by it was worth more than gold. While the natural disaster could not have been prevented, the human tragedy of a nation devastated and countless killed or wounded could have been averted. We will never live in a world where there is not destruction, but why can’t we live in a world where destruction is not magnified by greed.
When I first began to plan this sermon I thought that the most tragic part of this entire affair was the way the Haitian people were blamed for what happened to them. Shortly after the earthquake several prominent men who claim to speak for the religious community in this nation made the claim that the earthquake had been so devastating because of a pact the Haitian people made over a century ago with demons. It is the year 2010 and people are blaming this earthquake on God getting back at people for making a pact with demons. I think this above all illustrates that our society is perfectly ready to blame tragedy on God’s justice being carried out, but we are not yet willing to look at what ordinary people did to magnify this disaster.
It is what some people I know would call a doctrine of retribution. If you read from the Old Testament you will see this idea of retribution being played out time and time again. If the people suffer disaster it is because they had sinned against God. This idea that bad things happen because we deserve them, because we have sinned against God, should not have followed us into the modern age, it comes from a time when we did not yet understand that not everything revolves around us. We are not engaged in wars because god wants to punish us, we do not suffer floods, hurricanes, or earthquakes because we have sinned. We suffer all these things because we are alive, they are all part of our existence and strike the righteous and the wicked alike.
Jesus tried to tell us that God’s retribution is not behind every devastation we face. He told a story that was probably based on some event that had really happened and had raised concern amongst Jesus’ followers. A tower fell in Jerusalem, killing eighteen people. Jesus asks the rhetorical question as to whether the eighteen that had died had been the worst in all Jerusalem. The answer is clearly no. These people died, not because they had been good or bad, but because that is what happens when there is an accident.
We still have a concept of retribution though. This idea that ancient people had, that people who were killed or maimed deserved their fate because of their sins, is still present in our communities. How often do we blame people for their conditions, think if they would just change this or that everything would get better. Well the world doesn’t work like that.
I think it would almost be better if we knew that God had sent destruction to those who deserved it. Sure we might face a little wrath for all that we have done, but we’re generally good people aren’t we. Maybe we’ll stub our toe, but we aren’t going to be the ones falling off the cliff… we haven’t been too bad. And if bad things did indeed happen because God was making them happen, we could erase all blame we must take. Exploiting the Haitian economy through unfair loans: no that wasn’t the reason they couldn’t afford steel to reinforce their buildings so a earthquake wouldn’t shatter them to pieces, it was because the Haitian people had acted so sinfully before God the only logical way for God to deal with the problem was to devastate them even further.
There is a man who works at my school, he cleans up the place during the year and gets t ready for people to come back in the fall. We were told a story during our orientation about how this man cleans all the light fixtures in the building every year before the semester begins because he sees God’s work being done there and he wants the place to shine. This man came here from Haiti; he lost many members of his family in the earthquake. I can’t imagine what he went through, nor can I imagine how his faith could have survived. All I could imagine when I heard what had happened to his family was of him cleaning those light fixtures, creating a place that shined with people doing the work of God. Tell me that he and his family deserved what happened.
These supposedly religious voices claiming that the Haitian people were to blame for what had happened to them had spoken before. When Katrina hit New Orleans, they claimed it had happened because the people in that city had lived a sinful lifestyle. It had nothing to do with the fact that the city had been built below sea level in a place where hurricanes traditionally traveled and that the wetlands that would have historically protected the city have been disappearing, it was because the people there were sinners. When the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon these voices did not keep silent, they blamed the growing socially progressive policies of our nation. It is so easy to blame people for what has happened to them. It is voices like this that distract us, pull us away from asking the really tough questions. When bad things happen and we blame it on God, we take away any responsibility we may have had as a people. We take away the responsibility we have as a people of God to care for and protect other peoples of God.
In an attitude of full disclosure, today’s reading from Galatians is one of my favorites. There are a lot of things in the bible I could really do without; to name a few I could do without the rule that I am not to wear clothing made a combination of wool and linen, I don’t really think I need that rule, I could probably survive quite well without most of the Book of Deuteronomy in fact. I could even live with cutting out huge chunks of the New Testament letters, I find they tell me little of how I should be living and way too much about how early Christian communities tried to regulate themselves. But if there is one thing I would keep above anything else, it is this passage from Galatians.
Through Christ we are all one, isn’t that the summation of everything else. Everything we really need to know about how to live a good Christian life really comes through right there. There is no rich or poor, no American and no Haitian, no victim and no victor, for we are all one. If we are to truly live as one in Christ, we should all suffer as one, we should all celebrate as one, we should not let another fall into poverty and destitution, because when one falls, we all fall. When one suffers, we all suffer.
I know many people that think our nation gives out too much in foreign aid. I try to remind them that our nation gives out the least amount of foreign aid per capita than any other developed nation, but it still seems that they think we should focus on fixing our own problems before working out the problems of another. I have met people that are more than willing to donate their time and money to causes at home, but ask them to support a stranger in another land, and it suddenly becomes someone else’s responsibility.
We have fallen into the myth that national boundaries, boarders, lines on a map, are what dictate who our neighbors are. We forget that God recognizes no national boundaries, no class distinctions, nothing we build up to separate us from one another. The needs of those who are hurt, those who are dying, those who live wondering if tomorrow will come, whether they be around the corner or around the globe, are our responsibility. We are all one in Christ Jesus, in that nothing can separate us. Our job is to support all of God’s children, because by doing so we are also supporting ourselves.
We are created Imago Die, in the image of God. God created humanity in the image of God. It doesn’t matter who we are, if we are man or woman, if we are Jew or Gentile, if we are slaves or if we are free, we are all made in the image of God. We all reflect a little bit of God. If nothing else, that should be why we care for one another, because each one of us is a little sampling of the divine.
So next time there is a devastation, next time tragedy strikes, listen. Listen to the voices that come from those who claim they are delivering the words of God. Are those voices helping to life people up, to support those who have been devastated by destruction, or are they working to tear people apart, separate us from one another. Are they trying to remind us that we all need to work together because we are all one in Christ Jesus, or are they repeating the same old refrain, the people deserve what they get.
Tragedies like the ones we see around us all the time do not need to spell doom for our existence. Tragedies may show how devastating we humans can really be to each other, but they can also show how wonderful we can come together. I just wish that sometime we would come together to help before so many need to lose their lives just to satisfy the short term advancement of others.