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One of my mentors once told me that the measure of a religion in a pluralistic society is the breadth and depth of benefits it brings to its non-adherents.
It’s a fascinating thought that has kept sparking new thoughts in my mind for many years.
I suppose the converse of the axiom would be something like this: in a pluralistic society, the disfavor felt toward a religion is proportional to the harm it brings its nonadherents.
As a Christian, I think of Jesus’ parable about the kingdom of God: it is like a mustard seed that grows into a sizable bush in which the birds of the air can nest. Although some have a rather sinister interpretation of the parable, my hunch is that Jesus is referring to Psalm 84, where the psalmist, no doubt inspired by sparrows and swallows nesting in the house of worship, finds the image fitting to his own soul finding rest in God’s presence.
Jesus is saying, I believe, that the reality he is conveying in word in deed – he called it the kingdom of God, but we might call it the love economy of God or the sacred ecosystem of God or the dance or song of God or the dream of God coming true – that reality brings vital and joyful benefits to its nonadherents.
Sadly, I too often see in my own religion tendencies towards self-protection and domination that bring fear, not hope, to nonadherents. And my guess is that others could see similar tendencies in their own faith communities.
In this election year, I suspect that many people will be thinking about personal interest only: what benefits will this or that candidate bring me and my family? Others will think exclusively about the interests of their own interest group – their ethnic, social, partisan, national, or religious in-group: what’s in it for us?
But my hope is that more and more of us, especially those inspired by faith, will be thinking about which candidate brings the most wins, the most benefits, the least harm, to everyone. One of Jesus’ early followers said it like this: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
This otherliness – to borrow a phrase from my friends at offthemap.com – reflects an expansion of primal selfishness to ethical neighborliness, and then from neighborliness to something even more radical … compassion and love to the non-neighbor – the other, the stranger, even the enemy.
For people inclined to follow this way of thinking, additional election season questions would be raised beyond the usual “What’s in it for me or us?” Those questions, I believe, are tremendously important for people of radical faith.