Note from TBF:
This essay is a long one and it's worth the read. Rev. Mark calls into question some very basic assumptions and beliefs about who we are as individuals and as a community. I encourage you to read and ponder. PS don't let the word Hermeneutic throw you - it's just a method or theory of interpretation - so how do we interpret love!
"A hermeneutic of love, understanding what you experience in life through the constant filter of agape love, may seem like an overly-simplistic, pie in the sky idea, but I'm here to tell you, there is nothing simple about it. It takes hard work, dedication, and constant vigilance...." Rev. Mark
Essay by Rev. Mark Sandlin (revmarksandlin.com)
It seems to me that people who have a well developed and healthy spirituality will resist the concept of tribalism. While it is true that tribalism was once an evolutionary necessity for survival, I have to believe that in modern times we should recognize that it is actually quite ridiculous as it is so rooted in the illusion that some people are more valuable than others.
I guess that's more than ridiculous, it is down right dangerous.
It's not just dangerous, it is unnecessarily dangerous. You see, the origins of tribalism (and likewise the very closely related nationalism) are very real, and there was certainly a time when it was very necessary; but in the modern world belonging to a tribe is no longer an essential life ingredient for staying alive. As a matter of fact, in modern times, tribalism\nationalism frequently have the opposite impact on life. From gangs to hate crimes and even including politically motivated anti-Muslim movements, tribalism and nationalism are costing the world lives.
In my understanding of spirituality, there are few things (if any) more sacred than life itself.
Healthy spiritualism recognizes the connectedness of us all and it frequently comes with a set of standards, a set of measurements, by which we can assess if we are treating the world and others in a way that fully recognizes their value and our mutual connectedness in life.
The good news is, with the appropriate education, awareness, and tools, we are all more than capable of eliminating negative tribalism\nationalism identities in our lives and moving to what is a healthier modern outlook – a more global identity.
One of the things that can help us in trying to nurture a more global identity is a hermeneutic of love.
Now, if the concept of a “hermeneutic of love” seems a blurry to you, don't worry, we will get to that. First, however, let's do a bit of sociological reflection on the society we live in.
In many ways, the United States was founded on rugged individualism. One of the leading 19th century political scientist and historians, particularly when it comes to democracy in America, was a gentleman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville. One of his primary observations of America was the primacy of rugged individualism within our culture. He believed this individualism was both the U.S.'s greatest strength, as well as its greatest weakness. It was his belief that this rugged individualism would ultimately be the undoing of our culture and society, as well as our experiment in democratic governance.
Reading modern headlines, I can't help but wonder if he might just be exactly correct. Just one example would be Ken Cuccinelli, the Trump administration’s acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who reworded the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” saying: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.” His loveless rewording plants its feet solidly in the concept of rugged individualism, and intentionally distances itself from the original spirit of the poem which pointed to our collective responsibility toward caring for each other, particularly those who struggle.
Ultimately, society is made up of multiple communities. Communities aren't unlike tribes. They are a group of people who form a bond around a central idea. There was a time when that idea might have been simply to stay alive. Now that idea might be something as simple as believing a particular area is one of the best to live in. There are, of course, typically multiple ideas within any community which the the collective bond is formed around.
The point I'm getting to is that for most of humanity's long history, we have been a people of community. We not only are pulled towards it as a people, but we have a tendency to thrive in healthy communities. That is why I brought up America's malady of rugged individualism. It would seem that as a society, we are becoming increasing adverse to the idea of needing to be a part of a healthy community.
When Hillary Clinton released her book, It Takes a Village, she actually became a bit of a target for late night comedians, politicians, and pundits who made fun of the perspective suggested by the book's title. You also may remember that Barack Obama's suggestion that there are no self-made businesses or leaders did not go over very well and he was attacked for not valuing the individualistic nature of American capitalism.
Just from those examples you can begin to see that as a society those of us in the U.S. tend not to like hearing that we need the help and support of others in order to be successful. It would seem that we want to believe that we can solve our own problems without the assistance of others.
The rugged individualism that the nation was partly founded upon has come head to head with the long-time reality that humans are drawn to and need community.
The thing is, for a community to to be healthy, it needs compassion. If you wish for your community to be cohesive and durable, it frequently requires an awareness and placing of the needs and concerns of others ahead of our own. And I'm here to tell you, compassion is hard work, to some degree it requires the sacrifice of an individual’s wants and desires. Few of us revel in giving those up.
Of course, the problem then is that the rugged individualism so prevalent in our society runs counter to the compassion needed for a cohesive and durable community. As I just mentioned, it seems like we “tend not to like hearing that we need the help and support of others in order to be successful. It would seem that we want to believe that we can solve our own problems without the assistance of others.” To continue that thought, we also seem to have reversed that way of thinking so far that many of us expect others to also not want help from other people – even when they are struggling. I've even heard those who do ask for help being called “un-American.” Can you believe that? Sadly, so can I.
Not only that, but those who do expect for people in difficult places to stop asking for “handouts” tend to do so without regard to the systemic issues that can make it a nearly impossible task to do.
That kind of rugged individualism lays a fertile foundation for the growth of narcissism. Such an approach to life and community feeds the growing phenomenon of “us against them,” and increases the sense of isolation that many people experience today.
Whether the issue is health care, gun ownership, taxes, religious beliefs, military tactics, or changing cultural values, our growing narcissism and rugged individualism are ripping our society apart. That kind of narcissism feeds an anger and sense of disenfranchisement among many of us, and in turn, it allows compassion to be painted as an act of weakness – the opposite of rugged individualism. The reality is that communities can still be healthy even with the presence of rugged individualism. The problem is that the only way that can happen is with the presence of compassion.
Without compassion, without the recognition of other people's basic human rights and dignity, you get folks who will fight to protect what they perceive to be their own personal rights, without any regard to the impact, the cost, that doing so will have on others. That? That is a formula for anarchy.
What we need is to develop a hermeneutic of love. In her book entitled Borne Forward Ceaselessly Into Love: A Theory of the Hermeneutics of Love Exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr., Jennifer Selig uses the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to show what a hermeneutic of love looks like in practice and to describe the theory of a hermeneutic of love. This is her loose definition of a hermeneutic of love, “a way of interpreting experiences and people… with love, through love, and for love.” She goes on to talk about how King interprets with, through, and for love utilizing the definition of agape love as used by the Greeks. King actually talked about that form of love in his sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies.”
He said: “The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word agape. And agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agape is something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him, because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.”
The reality is God doesn't need to be in the picture to make it work. As one of my friend's bumpersticker says, “People can be good without God.” Agape love can be entirely about a humanistic outlook on life. A valuing of all people, a recognition of the need for basic human dignity and rights.
A hermeneutic of love, understanding what you experience in life through the constant filter of agape love, may seem like an overly-simplistic, pie in the sky idea, but I'm here to tell you, there is nothing simple about it. It takes hard work, dedication, and constant vigilance, but I hope that our earlier consideration of the difficulty of having only rugged individualism within communities points to why it is so important that we try.
The good news is that practicing a hermeneutic of love necessarily open us up to having a more global identity as we recognize the basic human dignity and rights of people around the world.
And if there's one thing the world needs right now – well, in my opinion – it's exactly that.