No man (or nation) is an island

By Tom Ehrich
Posted Oct 3, 2012

[Religion News Service] Manhattan was a traffic nightmare as the United Nations General Assembly was in session and security precautions ramped up.

Iran’s president gave his usual insulting address. Israel’s prime minister volleyed with dire warnings of Iran’s nuclear-weapons intentions. Not much was expected of a session that was more political podium than problem solving.

But the event did underscore a reality that Americans often overlook: Not everything is about us. The world doesn’t turn on a politician’s latest line of attack. The fine points of Obamacare or Mitt Romney’s 1040 or Paul Ryan’s budget? Meh.

On the one hand, this unconcern is nothing unusual; hometown affairs are always of far more interest to locals than to anyone else. I could go months without caring about Kate Middleton’s topless cavorting or political show trials in Beijing.

On the other hand, it is good to be reminded that we are one piece of a vast global mosaic. We connect with others but aren’t necessarily the center.

Rather than proceed as a nation-level version of the “narcissistic princess” — as one reviewer labeled tell-all author Monica Lewinsky — we should pay more attention to the connections among us.

It matters whether we show respect to other peoples. It matters whether we play fair when our interests converge. It matters whether we overcome our bullying instinct when our interests collide. It matters whether we preserve our own freedom by the sword or by affirming others’ rights to self-determination.

In our volatile, ambiguous and interconnected world, raw nationalism has become a danger to civilization. Literally so, as horrific weapons pass into highly unstable hands guided by the least enlightened of tribal and national instincts.

Learning to respect other peoples, and to imagine their needs as legitimate as our own, is a critical component of modern wisdom.

Religious fervor isn’t a new threat to the human condition — indeed, it might be the oldest threat — but lately religious fervor has morphed into a religious extremism that has sent violence hopscotching around the globe in search of soft targets.

If we can’t find common ground, we risk global annihilation.

Rather than press on toward destruction, it’s time we learned the ancient Stoic principle called “adiaphora,” or “things indifferent.” It states that some things matter more than others, and some things don’t matter much at all. To Christians, for example, the resurrection of Jesus does matter; what time the Sunday service is held doesn’t matter.

Adiaphora was presented to me as explaining Anglicanism’s preference for compromise, for the middle way, for loving persons more than right opinion. It explains the thought gap between fundamentalist and progressive Christianity, two sincere and well-grounded schools of faith that differ over absolutes and right opinion.

The challenge, of course, is to discern what matters and what doesn’t. Adiaphora’s answer is to say it’s all relative. What matters for you might not matter for me. When our interests collide, your being right or my being right won’t matter as much as our being one in God. We are likely to find more truth in forgiveness and forbearance than in consistency and self-crafted righteousness.

As soft and soupy as it might sound, humanity’s future is at stake. The time has come for earnest people to put down their doctrines and swords and to join hands.

— Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.