In the beginning, writes the author of Genesis, when God created the heavens and the earth God saw that everything that God had made was good, the sea and the sky, the sun and the moon, the vegetation and the animals. Then into this mix God placed humankind, male and female, created in God’s own image, to multiply and fill the earth and responsibly manage the rest of creation. So began God’s great gamble. In creation God took the huge risk that humans could live together and care for one another and in so doing provide for the rest of creation an ethos of stability and security in which all might flourish.
However we know what happened. Refusing to live within the boundaries God had created for them, Adam and Eve broke faith with God and each other and started down a path of fear, competition, envy, and alienation that would lead to murder in their own family within the next generation.
This story metaphorically sets the stage for an understanding of why we all have such a hard time getting along. From the very beginning of time humans have looked at their neighbor, or even brother or sister, and not seen in that person a reflection of God and of ourselves but of “the other,” someone threatening with a different way of being, a different skin color, a different way of worshiping and a different way of understanding God. German philosopher Hegel wrote about the idea of “the other” when he said, “Each consciousness pursues the death of the other. “ In other words, in seeing a separateness between you and another, a feeling of alienation is created. The Biblical creation story, however, continues to put before us the challenge of responding to the risk God took and working to break through that sense of alienation to live in harmony with one another and the earth.
I’d like to tell you my own story of meeting and opening myself to “the other” as an example of how God, even today, continues to risk the peace and harmony of creation by making it our responsibility to imagine and live into a different way of being; to make it our responsibility to grow out beyond the barriers that we humans have created for ourselves.
I grew up as a good, compliant middle class white girl here in Evanston in an all white neighborhood. My family was very involved in our Presbyterian church. It was the center of our social and religious life. Roman Catholics were “the other” in my childhood experience. “What religion are you?” Catholics and Protestants would ask one another, not comprehending that both were Christians. Then in junior high I began to go to school with African Americans. Sheila sat behind me in my 8th grade homeroom, and one time she took a risk and asked me if my mother would allow me to play at her house. My mother said yes but Sheila never invited me, nor did I invite her to my house. We were classmates but we were also strangers. Then in high school I became good friends with two Jewish girls. But they didn’t come from religious families, and my understanding of the world that came from my very narrow experience of life remained unchallenged.
In college I became involved with, and eventually worked for, an evangelical Christian organization where I struggled with their belief that Jesus was the only way. I quickly found out I was not an evangelist and left the organization but not before I had the chance to spend an amazing weekend with a black family in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles just two years after the riots there. I slept on their living room floor, ate at their kitchen table and worshiped at their church. That family and I took a risk that we could live together, if only for two days, with interest, respect, enthusiasm and joy. It was a transforming experience for me of “the other.”
The practice of my Christian faith continued to challenge me and lead me down new pathways where I encountered all sorts of different and wonderful people….working with battered women, offering pastoral care to those in need at my church and supporting women going through divorce. Eventually, going to seminary led me to face the fears I had of releasing myself from long held prejudices and beliefs. I clearly remember the day a lesbian classmate of mine preached in chapel and told the story of her struggle to accept her sexual identity and, at the same time, accept her sense that God had called her into ordained ministry. First she had rejected her sexuality, then the church, and finally she had come to understand, through Psalm 139, that God knew her intimately and loved her. “I praise you,” wrote the Psalmist, “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” Another wall with which I had divided people into them, and us, acceptable and unacceptable, fell at my feet.
Still in the back of my mind was the question, “Does God accept everyone? Does God hear the prayers of the Christian, the Jew, the Muslim, the Hindu or does God only pay attention to prayer in Jesus’ name?” With fear and trepidation I tried to tackle this problem head on. I read and prayed and thought and reasoned but it was through countless stories, over time, of the dreams and hopes, fears and joys of others that I felt my heart open to the message of God’s overwhelming love for everyone.
Eknath Easwaran, founder of the blue Mountain Center of Meditation in California, tells the story of how he came to the United Stated on the Fulbright exchange program, and all the talk among his fellow students was about how different everything was going to be; “you’d have thought I was going to Mars,” he writes. Some of the orientation programs he went to seemed to be intended to disorient him instead, because the emphasis was never on what Indians and Americans had in common but always on how they differed. To Easwaran this was absurd, because all those little differences were only on the surface, they were no more significant than differences in food or dress. “The mystic doesn’t deny these differences;” writes Easwaran, “All he or she says is, ‘So what?” Standing in Times Square the night he sailed into New York harbor, as his Indian colleagues stood around looking up at the tall buildings and neon lights Easwaran took great delight instead in looking around at the people; seeing how different they all looked, knowing how alike they all were on the inside. “The more you take the time to stop and look beneath the surface level of life,” he thought,” the more you will be able to see the unity of life.” Paul put it this way in the letter to the Galatians in the Christian Bible, “Because all of you are one in God, a person is no longer a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a male or a female.”
The message of all our scriptures, I believe, is that the concept of “the other” is a human construction we use to shut God and others out of our experiences. But this construct goes against God’s desire that we welcome, care for and love the other as we love ourselves. May we all show God that the risk that God took at the beginning of creation was worth it as we live together and care for one another with a respect that goes beyond tolerance to embrace.