E pluribus unum: An inseparable bond

I’m writing this on the Feast of St. Barnabas, an early disciple who served the church as an exemplar of generosity. He was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, who sold his field and gave the money to the apostles, so that they could use it to feed the poor. Later, when Saul was knocked off his horse by Christ and decided to preach the Gospel rather than to persecute its followers, it was Barnabas who brought him into the Christian community and witnessed to the genuineness of his conversion experience. He seems to have cared a great deal about people, not only people on the margins, but also about enemies who were trying to make good.

We don’t talk about generosity nearly as much as we ought to; its pulpit-time tends to be confined to stewardship season. And yet, it is as foundational to a holy life as gratitude, from which it is inseparable. Generosity erases the distinction we too often make between rich and poor; anyone can give what they have — food, the work of their hands, the openness of their heart. It is a way to honor the presence of Christ in those we meet, whatever they may appear to be.

Marilynne Robinson suggests, in her wonderful new collection, When I was a Child I Read Books, that an ethic of generosity is essential to the healthy functioning of a democracy. The political system only works when we try to give one another what each person needs to thrive, whether that be excellent universities, safe streets, effective elementary schools, or an appropriate means to find work and to feed one’s family. We seem to be in danger of losing this health, as an epidemic of me-first behaviors and ideologies makes MyWealth more important than the commonwealth. Instead of seeking to prosper one another, we focus on what we, ourselves, can get.

At issue, I think, is a creeping conflation of business models with civic ones, of contracts with covenants. Each day, we deal in the world of contract: we offer others some thing — work, money, a product — in exchange for some other thing — money, work, a product. That’s how mercantile exchange works: if one party does not fulfill its terms, the entire deal is void.

But our planting fathers were Puritans, who lived in a world of Covenant, and covenants do not work that way. They are not simple exchanges, but holy promises that bind people together, come what may. I may not like my neighbor; I may loathe my political opponent’s ideas and methods, but when he is in need, I am obliged to help him. Exodus spells out, “When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.” (Ex 23:4-5)

John Calvin, whom we tend to perceive as austere and frightening, urged his congregation, “as every man knoweth the particular needs of his neighbors, so let him indevour to succor them, and consider where wante or neede is, and helpe to remedie it. If this be done, then shall beggerie be taken away as it ought to be, and they shall not neede to make a simple forbidding of it; saying, let not men beg any more; & in the meane season the poore be left destitute, to die for hunger & thirst.” (Robinson, 76) He did not believe that we were free to abandon one another, but that we had a holy obligation to offer assistance. Again, he writes,  “As God bestoweth his benfites upon us, let us beware that wee acknowledge it towards him, by doing good to our neighbors whome he offereth unto us, so as wee neither exempt ourselves from their want, nor seclude them from our abundance, but gently make them partakers with us, as folke that are linked togither in an inseparable bond.” (Cited in Robinson, 82-3, italics mine)

How would your life change, how would our national life change, if we were to see our neighbors as inseparable from us, their welfare from our own? What can you do to restore the generosity of our time?

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