Monday, February 18, 2008

Come Together

I have always held a keen interest in American politics, particularly the presidential race that takes place every 4 years. Usually on those November nights, the first week of the month, I’ll make sure that I’m in front of a TV, ready for a few hours of watching the results pour in. And so it is that the 2008 race is kicking into high gear, and the contests for the Republican and Democratic nominations are in full swing. This year it seems to be particularly attention-grabbing on the Democratic side, with Hillary Clinton striving to become the first woman president in American history, and Barack Obama looking to be the first African-American president. There is particularly a lot of excitement over the latter senator’s campaign, and the issue that is inspiring people to support his candidacy is that of unity. For Obama is not only reaching out to the Democratic Party faithful, but also to independent voters. Taking it one step further, he is even appealing to some Republicans. Those who even mildly follow American politics knows that the country seems to have been deeply divided politically for years. And so, it is quite intriguing that Obama is strongly emphasizing bringing the country together. Apparently it is a message that voters want to hear, as was proven in Obama’s surprise victory over Clinton, first in the Iowa caucuses, and in several subsequent contests. It was on the night of January 3rd that the Illinois senator was delivering his victory speech to a throng of supporters in Des Moines. The following are three excerpts from the speech:

“We are choosing hope over fear. We’re choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.”

“This was the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long – when we rallied people of all parties and ages to a common cause.”

“Together, ordinary people can do extra-ordinary things; because we are not a collection of Red States and Blue States, we are the United States of America.[1]”

Obama speaks of something that I’ve been thinking about for several months, that being unity. This has been something that has come to the forefront at several different times in my life.

During my teenage years I was part of the leadership team of my youth group at an evangelical Christian church in rural southern Ontario. We would have discussions about the importance of unity within the youth group, how we could become a closer group where cliques wouldn’t separate some people from others. Speaking of the church in general, on Sunday mornings we would often sing songs with the theme of unity. “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,” and “Bind us together with chords that cannot be broken” were the lyrics of two such songs. Indeed the New Testament speaks of the importance of Christian unity. There are references to the body of Christ, how every Christian is part of this body. Jesus himself is said to have prayed, “that they may be one as we are one. (John 17:11)[2]” Going back to music for a minute, several months ago I was re-introduced to a song we used to sing during chapel services at the Bible college I attended. It was called “Break Dividing Walls,” and the phrase repeated a few times: “We will break dividing walls/We will break dividing walls/We will break dividing walls/In the name of Your Son.” I liked the song for its emphasis on Christian unity. No matter if a person attended a Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, or any other Christian church, all of us had something in common – our faith in Jesus as the source of our salvation.

Now, several years after first hearing that song, I strongly believe that it is time to take the message of unity much farther. There is a passage in the New Testament that says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) I believe that unity goes much farther than even this. I agree with Howard Thurman when he writes, “It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem.[3]”

I believe that every person who has ever lived and every person that is currently walking the earth has something in common. I believe that everyone has access to the divine, and even more, that the divine is within all of us regardless of age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or economic status. I believe the experience of the divine, or God, is open and available to all. As I was growing up I would hear stories from the Old Testament about what the Jewish people thought they must do to be acceptable to God. These rules seemed unnecessary and even peculiar to me back then from my Christian perspective. It also seemed incredible to me that Catholics had to confess their sins to a priest. Now I am coming to believe that regardless of what religious beliefs one holds, the experience of the divine is available to all. I am coming to believe that the divine lives within each of us. As Jesus was able to proclaim that he and the Father are one, I think that we can make the same statement. The following Scripture passages that I used to find comforting are even clearer to me now:

"Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” (Psalm 139:7-8)

"For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

The reason that there is no place where we can go where God is not present, the reason that nothing can separate us from the love of God is because God is in each one of us. You and I are a grand mix of divinity and humanity, and there is no need for separation. We could no more be separate from the divine than we could decide that we wanted to change our blood type. The problem, I believe, is a lack of awareness and cultivation. It is obvious by turning on the evening news, opening up a newspaper, or by walking the city streets, that his world is full of brokenness and woundedness. Perhaps the key problem, though, is a lack of awareness, even forgetfulness. We have forgotten that the divine lives within us, coursing through our veins. The Catholic writer Henri Nouwen writes the following:

"A split between divinity and humanity has taken place in you. With your divinely endowed center you know God’s will, God’s way, God’s love. But your humanity is cut off from that. Your many human needs for affection, attention, and consolation are living apart from your divine sacred space. Your call is to let these two parts of yourself come together again.[4]”

I think that a lot of us learn from a very early age that there is a separation between ourselves and God, or that you need to perform tasks in order to be acceptable to God. Instead of possessing the powerful knowledge that God lives within us and that we live within God, regardless of anything, many grow up with the belief that God is naturally against us. Instead of taking joy in our connection with the divine, we grow up striving to impress Him. Some people grow up in households where near perfection is equated with a high level of personal value. An “A” should have been an “A+,” a double that a child hits during a baseball game should have been a triple. Our relationship with God takes on a similar striving quality. However, I believe that the truth is that God is as present and available within those of us who are seemingly the poorest, plainest-looking and athletically challenged as in the richest, prettiest, or fastest person.

Where does this leave Jesus? As I’ve mentioned, I don’t believe that Old Testament laws must be obeyed in order to please God, and I don’t believe that I must confess to a priest in order to gain approval from God. Now I am coming to believe that people do not need to go through Jesus in order to approach God. Rather than being someone who makes us acceptable to God, I believe that in Jesus we see someone who was powerfully aware of the divine in Him. We can look to Jesus as an example of humanity’s oneness with God. This brings me to the final point that I want to address concerning unity.

Most people are taught from a very young age that God is a supernatural person, separate from themselves, and that there are things one must do or things which one must believe in order to be closer or more acceptable to this God. I am growing to believe that there is no such separation between God and humanity. For me, this has meant over the course of the last few years that I have also said goodbye to the notion of a supernatural person in the sky who watches over the world and my life and has a specific, detailed plan for the development of each. This language is no longer helpful to me when I think about God. Coming to this belief has certainly not been easy, but it is one of the realizations that I have come upon on my own journey. To many this means that I have rejected God. I strongly say that this is not true. I very much believe in God, it’s just that my beliefs about the nature of God have changed.

I believe that we are one with the divine. As Nouwen writes, there need not be a split between divinity and humanity. In Jesus we see this unity, and as Jesus was able to say, “I and the Father are one,” we can also speak such words. For me, the important thing is to come to an awareness of this unity. We do not need to plead for it; we do not need to believe a certain religious doctrine. Rather, we must bring ourselves home and remember what we’ve forgotten. Now, this means having a whole new level of kindness toward ourselves, if we see ourselves as one with God, rather than being originally sinful. Perhaps this is one of the hardest things for us to do, to say goodbye to self-rejection. (As a side note, one of my thoughts recently has been that perhaps each of us are indeed unique expressions of the divine, and as we experience life, the divine experiences life. As we touch the world, as we touch life, the divine touches life.)

In conclusion, I will continue to watch with interest as Senator Obama keeps traveling across America with his message of unity, and more importantly, I will keep trying to learn about unity between all people, and between humanity and the divine.


[1] Barack Obama, Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Iowa Caucus Night, Des Moines, 3 January 2008.

[2] All Scripture verses are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Howard Thurman, The Creative Encounter (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1972).

[4] Henri J.M. Nouwen, “Cry Inward,” in The Inner Voice of Love (New York, NY: Image, 1996), 7.