The day after the mass murder at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in the early hours of June 12, Michael Gerson of The Washington Post wrote an editorial titled, “After Orlando, Divided We Mourn”. The first line of the piece was:
“One of the manifold tragedies of the Orlando mass murder is how difficult it is for us to experience it and mourn it together.”
Gerson goes on to point out that the killings touched on a multitude of issues which produce deep emotional responses and disagreements in our nation – Terrorism; Islam; Gay rights; Guns. And well before bodies had been identified and families notified, Gerson claims that many people and leaders had already determined that what happened did nothing but confirm their preexisting beliefs about those issues. Everyone, it seems, had “chosen different battlefields”, which makes learning and doing better going forward extremely difficult. Indeed. But why? Why are we seemingly much less able to come together now as a society? Gerson doesn’t delve into this, and as always with a social phenomena this large, there are a multitude of factors – too many to suitably identify and explain here. But I will suggest one that is deeply connected to faith and spirituality.
My sense is that part of what keeps us so divided now is our inability to balance the dynamic between two foundational biblical and spiritual principles – the importance of both the individual and the community. Perhaps one of the critical factors at the heart of what Gerson describes is that we are in a time when, as a whole, we are “off balance” spiritually, with an unhealthy emphasis on the individual. Perhaps we struggle as a society to come together because we have been, and continue to be encouraged to look at the world largely, and sometimes only, through our own individual lens. If we look at the tone and content of a great deal of current media programming, advertising and political messaging, it seems that a reasonable case can be made for this.
And while an emphasis on the individual, individual differences and individual freedoms is necessary in order to avoid the suppression of dissenting views and the oppression of minority populations by the majority, too much emphasis on them can lead to the splintering of society into nothing more than a collection of autonomous people sharing the same borders, or a collection of single identity based groups, whether that identity is rooted in color, ethnicity, religion or sexuality. It can lead to a spiritual, ethical and moral stance of “It’s about me” - the worldview that what’s good and true for me must be good and true for everyone. It can lead to verifiable facts being seen as irrelevant compared to individual feelings, what Stephen Colbert (the Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, not the Stephen Colbert of The Late Show) called “truthiness”. If it feels right and I believe it’s right, then it must be right for me and everyone else.
Not only is that an intellectually and emotionally immature mindset, it is an unfaithful and spiritually empty approach to living as one of God’s people. The faithful and spiritually mature person recognizes that they are as loved and valued by God as any other person, but never more than any other person. The faithful and spiritually mature person knows it is about them, but at the same time it's not about them. That is all another way of describing the spiritual virtue of humility.
And as one of the most faithful and spiritually mature people I know said not long ago, “Humility may be the most forgotten Christian virtue of all.”
If so, we really do need to start remembering.