I Versus We

Some fifty years ago, The Episcopal Church, along with many other Christian denominations, went through a liturgical upgrade.  The Nicene Creed, which was first written in 325 during the Council of Nicea (and from which its name is derived), and which is said at most every worship service, was significantly revised.  The Creed was transformed from being an individual statement of faith –  “I believe”, to a communal proclamation – “we believe”;  which reflected the commitment that the church was indeed a community of faith; that members should work together; that parishioners are accountable to one another. 

This change from I to we didn’t sit well with everyone.  There was a woman, Dottie, in one congregation I served, who refused to adapt.  Every time the phrase “we believe” came up in the Nicene Creed (six times, including at the very beginning) she would loudly and defiantly say “I believe” a half a beat before the congregational chorus got there.  It threw everyone off; except Dottie. She soldiered on.  Invitations to get her to at least say her statement in concert with everyone else were rebuffed; appeals to the notion that we aspired to be a community of faith; that we were, in fact, a “we”, were met with louder defiance.

In the thirty years since I served that New Jersey congregation, I haven’t met anyone who has repeated Dottie’s weekly one-woman protest.  At least not in church.  But there is a growing number of groups and individuals –  those who champion individualism, who are showing up everywhere else.  In his book, The Upswing, sociologist Robert Putnam offers reams of evidence that America has moved from a “we” culture to an “I” culture.  That we live in a world in which a person’s individual rights are paramount and should not – and must not, be challenged or violated.

I hear this often in my conversations with people who are deeply committed to their right to purchase, carry, and display guns.  Staunch defenders of the second amendment, they see any attempt to reform gun laws as an assault on their individual freedom.  Yet I find that there is a glaring inconsistency in this position, because many in this same cohort are just as passionate about denying people on the other side of the political spectrum their individual right to consider having an abortion.  The insistence to protect the I culture on guns devolves into a we culture in their relentless commitment to protect what they refer to as the unborn.  We end up with a tribal bubble: don’t you dare tread on any of us inside, but we can tread heavily on those on the outside.

There is at least one other tribal bubble that is emerging – and that has similar inconsistencies.  There is growing cohort of Americans who resist claiming any religious identity.  That their spiritual orientation is deeply personal, and any theology, ideology or practice should not – and must not, be imposed.  As this anti-religious I culture continues to develop, within it there is a growing tendency to identify religious people as rigid and wrong.  Religious people are either shamed or deemed to be irrelevant.  Don’t tread on any of us inside, but we can make all sorts of judgments on those on the outside.

These bubbles are being fortified by no end of forces and voices.  There is an impulse, from both sides, to burst these bubbles – to vanquish the other side.  The destruction that would follow would be unimaginable.  Instead of bursting bubbles, they need to be brought together – into the mandorla

Into the intersection between two circles where common ground can be found.  Into a space where transformation can happen; and where new perspectives can emerge.  It takes courage to enter the mandorla space.  When I have proposed this to people —  in either of these two bubbles, the reaction from some is strikingly similar:  if I step into the mandorla and seek to listen and try to understand people in the other bubble, I will be betraying my values.  What is not said, but nevertheless implied, if I venture to understand the other bubble, I will be committing spiritual, intellectual and tribal treason. 

My response:  get over it. 

As we move deeper into the election season, and the tension continues to ratchet up and the polarization becomes even more intractable, we need engage the courage to build bridges, establish relationships, and dare to listen beneath tropes, memes and sound bytes.  To commit to building a we culture.  We cannot force people into the mandorla. That won’t work.  And yes, there are some people who are so embedded in their respective bubbles that they refuse to move.  The Dotties of the world will continue to speak out of turn.  We can work ourselves up in frustration over their intransigence.  Get over it.  They won’t change.  There is other work to do.  We can change – and often we need to force ourselves into that mandorla space.  It is hard.  We need help – from each other.  To move out from I into we.  And trust that our collective efforts can make a difference.

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