I saw an article this morning about how many people in America believe that there is growing tension between classes, between the wealthy and the not so wealthy. In 2009, less than 50% of those surveyed saw class conflict as an issue. In the latest survey completed late in 2011, that percentage jumped to 66%. Among people ages 18 to 34, the percentage jumps even higher.
It is not really a surprising statistic, given the economic situation with which we have been struggling for the last few years. High unemployment, coupled with debate about whether the wealthy are paying an appropriate level of taxes, have surely served to underline what has been a growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country and a shrinkage of the middle class. Naturally, as people become more focused on economic distinctions, a sense of tension or conflict can easily emerge.
Reflecting on this put me in mind of a passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (3:27-28):
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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.
It is rather remarkable that in an age when societal and economic distinctions were far sharper than they are in our own time, and when the gap between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged was more like a chasm, Paul would be able to write these words. For him, one of the key transformations that is to happen to a person who embarks on the Christian journey, who is “clothed…with Christ”, is that one no longer sees distinctions among people. And, indeed, within the Christian community itself, distinctions should disappear all together. For, we “are one in Christ Jesus.”
Thomas Merton, whose spiritual journey as a monk has become an inspiration to millions, famously had an experience that manifested a version of the same sort of thing that St. Paul is speaking of on a visit to Louisville:
Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream — the dream of separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me is a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race — and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race! From Merton’s Private Journal, March 19, 1958
Merton’s realization of his love for all people, that none of them could be alien to him, and that there really was nothing that essentially separated him from the rest of humanity, reflects this same transformational dynamic that Paul points to in Galatians. Essentially it is seeing the world with the eyes of Christ, a profound experience of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self and realizing, at a deep level, the oneness of humanity.
And Merton’s experience is an expansion of St. Paul’s insight. Whereas Paul tends to focus on the way in which distinctions are overcome within the Christian community itself and the oneness that we experience “in Christ”, Merton’s experience makes clear that to see with the eyes of Christ is not simply to realize the unity of those who are in Christ but to also see the unity that transcends even the distinction of the baptized.
As we live in the midst of our own social tensions, I wonder what it would be like for us to take seriously the teaching of St. Paul and the experience of Thomas Merton. We have become a society that focuses on difference and division. And, there are some very good reasons why that has happened. In some respects, that focus is a by-product of pointing to genuine injustice. As we seek to face that injustice and to transform it, however, I believe we are called to do so from the perspective that we have as a result of our being “in Christ”. That is, we are called to remember and to see our essential unity.
This coming weekend, we will remember the life and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a great champion of the underprivileged, a courageous challenger of the world’s injustices. It seems clear to me that one of the things that motivated him was precisely this Christ-like seeing of the essential oneness of humanity. It was this, I think, that was so much a part of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. May we have this same courage and grace to fight injustice as we hold this vision of the oneness of the human family.