The Sanctity of Life Together
“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates: ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.’” Matthew 11:16-17
Jesus apparently saw the first-century mid-eastern marketplace as a microcosm of the world ~ of the known world of his day and of the ever-changing world of our day. It was an open-air market ~ a place where the trade routes of life came together long enough for people to transact the business of life, a place where the community gathered on common ground to share news, to haggle over price and establish value, a place where children amused themselves with curiosity and playfulness.
The marketplace was a wonderful mixture of strangers and friends, of things that never changed and of things that were always new. It was a place to experience the otherness of life ~ to experience cultural diversity, to encounter ethnic variety, to contend with religious plurality. The marketplace was public space, and contrary to everything we’ve been told about the separation of the sacred and the secular ~ public space was, and is, and always will be, God’s space too!
One day Jesus entered that arena of public life with his disciples, and noticed some children trying to strike up a game with their friends who sat with sullen faces on the sidelines. “Let’s play wedding!” one of the shouted, and some of them began to dance around pretending to play a flute as they had seen their elders doing at wedding celebrations, but their playmates on the sidelines didn’t feel like playing wedding.
“Alright then,” another shouted ~ with what seems to me a brilliant proposition: “If you’re too sad to play wedding, we’ll play funeral instead!” So they went around wailing in procession as they had seen public mourners doing; but their friends didn’t feel like playing funeral either.
And then, before the watchful eye of the Lord, one young voice was shouted in frustration: “Hey! What does it take to get you involved? We piped to you and you did not dance, we wailed, and you did not mourn!”
Jesus paused for a moment and then said something like this: “Well, I couldn’t have said it better myself! For that is exactly how I feel about this generation.”
There is something dreadfully wrong with a social system or a world order in which so many are marginalized, forced to sit on the sidelines and be spectators to life when it is the very playfulness of God that lures us all into the game of life, to be creative participants in the exciting drama of being alive.
The television used to satisfy my latent interest in adventure. In college and seminary years I’d watch hospital dramas, crime mystery series, shows with inter-cultural, inter-racial, inter-national themes. And because they were vicariously satisfying I never stopped to understand the tragic way they rendered me a spectator to life in the real world.
But in a few short years I found myself as pastor of a church and mayor of a city, and life was filled with real-life hospital dramas, and fascinating justice dramas with police and with the court. There were school board meetings where the quality of public education was being debated, and planning and zoning boards where real estate dreams were presented, defended, and where property values were being determined and regulated.
And I no longer had need to view the world vicariously through the television as a spectator to life. I responded to the call from public space to get involved, to become a participant in the game of life, and I haven’t watched the television since.
Parker Palmer wrote a book titled The Company of Strangers in which he explains the value of public space, because he believes that healthy human development requires both private experiences of intimacy and public experiences of inter-relatedness. He believes that when we lose our sense of relatedness to those strangers with whom we must share the earth, we lose our sense of comfort and at-homeness in the world. (p.18)
Palmer reveals some of our most important developmental tasks take place in public space ~ tasks that cannot be achieved in private space.
For example, in private space we enjoy visions of reality, but they are only illusions, and possibly even self-delusions, until we find the courage to measure them by dialogue in public space with other individuals whose thoughts are different from our own. Only when our thoughts have been measured there do they begin to engage the nature of reality. Share your dreams, your visions with friends and they will always encourage you with their love. But defend your vision in the public square with those strangers whose values are different, whose life stories are different from your own, whose political passions are diametrically opposed to your own, and then at last what was once but inspiration in the mind becomes a foundation stone for public policy.
In private space we can always have life the way we want it, on our own terms. But in public space we learn that we cannot have life on our terms alone, that the lives of others are vitally
important and have valuable contributions to make in their own way. It is there where we develop skills of conflict resolution, perceptions of collective problem solving, and begin to appreciate the variety and diversity of God’s creative imagination. Public space is not the cloistered sanctuary of private space, but contending with strangers in public space authenticates the uniqueness of our contribution to the common life of all.
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk discovered that spiritual kinship in public space, and it changed his monastic vision forever. He was twenty-eight years of age when he felt the need to run away from life in the real world and find solace in spiritual disciplines and monastic rituals. Then one day (it was one of those days when God acts anonymously!) he left the cloister to see a physician and I’ll let him pick up the story from there.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton, pp 156-157)
“It was like waking from a dream of separateness…” That is the greatest challenge of our time ~ to awaken the people of this generation from their dream of separateness, and to involve them in the game of life. And contrary to the popular political narrative, this will not happen by silencing opposing voices, by promoting popular mantras that program society to think alike and act alike. It happens when the Lord of Life, under whose watchful eye, the awakening comes, encourages the unique contribution of each and every child of God.