The Bell Tolls for Life

The line, “…send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” are the closing words of a 400 year old poem by John Donne that begins with another familiar line, “No man is an island…” Written in a time of a deadly epidemic, it’s a bold statement that amidst uncountable deaths, one must remember that each person, whether great or small, is a member of the whole of humanity, so that each death diminishes ‘me’ because I am involved in humanity.

It’s all the more powerful because death, in European life of 1600, was common enough. What would make anyone’s death a matter of importance? Odds were against children living to maturity. Women dying in childbirth was expected. Wars were what kings fought because that’s what kings did. Punishment by torture and death went unquestioned. Long life was possible, but the exception. Donne himself died at the ripe old age of 59. With death so common, it’s remarkable that he could say with such poetic power that “Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.”

What’s more, under the mantle of a poem about death the subject is life. If each person’s death diminishes me, then each person’s life, and the quality of it is what gives value to the society in which we live. And not to society in the abstract, but to you and me in particular, because you and I are members of society, by which I mean the communities in which we live, and the structures by which they operate, at every level of formal and informal from local to national. Our individual well being depends on the well being of these communities. They don’t exist by themselves, but in relationship with each other and all of creation. It means my well being, and the well being of the communities in which I live, are dependent in part on the health and well being of creation, all of it. We are beings in an interdependent relationships with each other, with the social structures of our communities, and with all of creation. Our well being, and the potential well being of future generations, depends on the health of each element of those relationships.

It’s a lesson hard to comprehend for those who define themselves mostly through the lens of American individualism’s ideal of self reliance. They aren’t wrong to endorse the values of self reliance, but tend to be blind to the need for a strong social fabric woven of interdependent strands that provides the foundation on which self reliance can prosper.

I’m plowing my way through Rowan Williams’ “Christ, The Heart Of Creation.” For someone like me, it’s like hacking one’s way through a jungle of page long sentences with a dictionary and Google as my machetes. But Williams wrote a couple of relatively simple things that made me think of Donne’s poem. “We cannot make decisions as if our interests were capable of being isolated from that of others.”(203) “[Empathy] (my word) is a responsibility for liberating others into their responsibility; anything other than this would be a violation of the others’ dignity.” (204)

True as the first may be, it would lead to insanity were we to try to understand and integrate the interests of all others who may be affected by every decision we make. We have to operate by “habits of the heart” that guide us with general rules not requiring a lot of thought. Sadly, humanity’s most common rule has been: My people are the chosen people, others not my people may not be people at all, and are unwanted, untrustworthy competitors for the good things in life. It’s a rule that comes in many variations, and each of them leads toward some form of prejudice and bigotry. Ardent individualists are inclined to define my people as themselves. Anything that is a cost assessed on them to provide for the greater community is understood as unfair confiscation of what is rightfully their own to use as they please.

The rules have to change if we want to survive as a species, but the change doesn’t mean my interests have to be subordinated to the interests of others. Williams’ assertion that we each have a responsibility to work at liberating others into their responsibility is remarkably similar to longstanding counsel from management gurus who teach that the responsibility of leaders is to create the conditions in which others can be successful. Both are committed to respecting the dignity of others, and each understands that in so doing, one’s own best interests are also being served.

If we need different habits of the heart to guide us through the ordinary complexities of life, what are they, and on what authority do they stand? They are no more clearly summarized and presented as coming from God’s own words than in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew’s gospel, and its near cousin, the Sermon on the Plain recorded by Luke. My contemporary take on them follows. It may be that we find them difficult, but they are the foundations on which we are commanded to rebuild the internalized habits of the heart that serve as something like an autopilot keeping us reasonably sane, confident, and morally safe.

• Be humble in spirit and demeanor

• Mourn for this fallen world and your role in it

• Hunger and thirst for righteousness

• Be merciful

• Be pure in heart

• Be a peacemaker

• Be willing to be persecuted for righteousness sake

• Be a person of integrity

• Let your light so shine that others will give glory to God because of you

• Understand the spirit and depth of the Ten Commandments and not just their words

• Seek reconciliation with those whom you have injured

• Let your yes be yes and your no be no

• Confront violence in radically peaceful ways

• Love your enemies

• Pray for those who persecute you

• Don’t act too pious, especially in public

• Give anonymously and with generosity

• Pray with simple words

• Pray as I have taught you

• Serve God and not wealth or earthly riches

• Trust God and don’t worry so much about this life

• Don’t be so quick to judge others; you are not very qualified to do it anyway

• Respect and honor that which is holy

• Ask, knock and seek; God who loves you will answer

• Aim for the narrow doorway – the wide one leads to hell

• Beware of false prophets

• Build your life on the solid rock of faith in God through Christ

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