A World of Oneness
Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.
There is an incident recorded in three of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew and Mark, someone questions Jesus about which commandment in the tradition is the greatest. In Luke, the question concerns the attainment of eternal life. The questions may seem different, but they both point to understanding the way to healing, to salvation (salving meaning to make whole, to heal).
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ response begins with the Sh’ma—“Listen O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” (Mark 12:29, New Revised Standard Version, NRSV) Both Matthew and Luke omit this crucial introduction. Since both of those Gospels are based on Mark, they each may have assumed an audience that understood just how important the Sh’ma is. Here, Jesus is actually quoting Deuteronomy 6:4.
My NRSV Bible renders it as, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Rabbi Ted Falcon translates this text as: “The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One." I am beginning with these details because they help to define one of the paths we have taken that has made it difficult for us to understand and make use of compassion.
Today, the word “Lord” suggests unrelieved masculinity. It suggests subjection and coercive power. When the text was first written down some five hundred years before Jesus, it suggested sovereignty—an all encompassing Oneness—an idea that we have lost. For the translation in my Bible of Deuteronomy 6:4, we receive the idea that there is only one God. But (putting aside the problem of “Lord”) the rendering in Mark, and even more in Rabbi Ted Falcon’s translation, suggests the very important concept that there is absolutely nothing else but God: The Holy One of Being and we are all a part of that Oneness.
The concept of sovereignty as it has developed as something apart from us continues a kind of “we/they” mentality. The concept of Oneness overcomes, or at least has the potential to overcome, that division and move toward a new sensibility of being. We are all in this life together, and the gifts and blessings we have been given can be used to make Oneness real.
Compassion is chief among the gifts we have to make Oneness real. But blocking our access to compassion is the same unrelieved (by “unrelieved” I mean a masculinity devoid of any feminine sensibility, any feminine predisposition to an open heart that would have the potential to eclipse the raw desire for power) masculinity that became our sense of the meaning of Lord.
In our culture today, in almost every part of the world, the greatest fear of a man is to be thought of as weak. Stand up for yourself, people have said to us. Not being weak has come to mean living into the idea that men must be strong, must have power to control and coerce, must always be correct, wise and always leading toward more and more strength against the forces of evil. Compassion is a word that evokes a weakness, a giving in, a losing of some deeply important part of the self. In contrast, from a biblical point of view, the tradition suggests that compassion is the strongest sensibility known to humankind. It is similar to what happens in the ritual of marriage where two people give themselves to each other.
Beyond Us and Them
What we dislike in others is often something we need to heal in ourselves.
As Frederick Buechner has written, “By all the laws of both logic and simple arithmetic, to give yourself away in love to another would seem to mean that you end up with less of yourself left than you had to begin with. But the miracle is that just the reverse is true … to give yourself away in love to somebody else is to become for the first time yourself, fully. To live not just for yourself alone any more, but for another self to whom you swear to be true ... is in a new way to come fully alive.”
At some level of being, we all know this to be true. We believe it, and it conflicts with the cultural notion that power is everything. This is why I get a lump in my throat every time I read Luke’s version of the incident that concerns the path to salvation: In Luke, the questioner asks about the path to eternal life. “Eternal” of course is a word that points to something that we cannot really describe, but it certainly includes an ultimate sense of healing and the realization of true Oneness. Jesus answers with the commandment that follows the Sh’ma in Deuteronomy 6:4, and then says (quoting Leviticus 19:18) a second (commandment) is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Then from his questioner comes the crucial question: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
In answer to this question, Jesus tells the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. A man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Two people see him but pass by on the other side of the road illustrating in its most tragic sense, the “we/they” sensibility. A Samaritan comes by and seeing the man, attends to his wounds, takes him to an inn, gives the innkeeper money, and promises that when he returns he will pay the innkeeper whatever money is required for the man’s care. Then Jesus asks the one who has asked the question, "And who is my neighbor?" which one of these was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? The answer comes, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus concludes by saying, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus is encouraging us to live into a life that is framed by compassion, a strength that has the promise of helping to create a life where our self worth can be realized, and where in helping each other instead of hurting each other, we can be free of the currently honored thought that strength means power over other people. Becoming a compassionate city, as Seattle has recently pledged to do, becomes one of the most important challenges humanity can attempt because it could lead to a world of justice and peace—peace in the sense of finding imaginative and creative uses for conflict. What a world that would be!
Pastor Don Mackenzie wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. He retired in June of 2008 as Minister and Head of Staff of University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Princeton, New Jersey.
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