The Advantage is The Problem. Trying to get the advantage; positioning ourselves to have the advantage; living to achieve the advantage; maintaining the advantage; increasing the advantage; developing the advantage… We parlay the good into the better. Nothing is good enough for long. We work the angles; cover our bases; keep our eye on the ball; intent on winning the game, or the prize, or the war. Then, on to the next one.
It’s stupid. There is no end to it. We never run out of advantages to amass. And, what do we do with them? We try to turn them into even more advantages. And, if it begins to look as though we don’t have a chance. If it seems that we are going nowhere fast, spinning our wheels, losing ground, with no hope of gaining the advantage, we seethe, rage, and explode, or despair and disappear. Life is with the advantages, about the advantages. What would life be without them?
Jesus drops into this world with its focus on the advantages, and talks about “the kingdom of God” consisting simply of radical equality around the table and across the board. No advantage. That’s Jesus’ gospel. “Blessed are you poor,” says Jesus. “Blessed are you who have no advantage whatsoever,” says Jesus. “That’s the idea,” says Jesus. It makes no sense. Until you think about it.
In the kingdom of God there is complete equality. If God were running things there would be complete equality. Every mountain and hill would be made low, and every valley and plane would be lifted up. The lion would lie down with the lamb, and the bear would eat straw like the ox. The haves would not be set over against the have-nots. The rich would not get richer and the poor poorer. Everyone would work for the good of everyone else; they would serve the interest of others as well as their own. They would love one another. That is a wildly, radical, idea if there ever was one. Wow. How are you going to do that, practically speaking? How are you going to institute the kingdom of God? How are you going to live toward radical equality in this world?
The foundation of equality is engagement. There is no equality “in principle,” only “in practice.” We can say, “all men are created equal,” but, already, we have left out the women. And, if we leave out the women, you can bet we are also leaving out a good portion of the men. No one is equal who is not engaged, who is dismissed, who is excluded, who is uninvited, who is not welcome. If we are going to live toward radical equality in this world, we are going to have to make ourselves available for relationship with all people. And, we are going to have to recognize and exclude those who come to do harm and not good—who come seeking their advantage at the expense of our own, like the wedding guest who crashed the party. For the practice of radical equality to work, everyone has to come dressed for the occasion, and be ready to do the work of being equal.
The slackers and lay-abouts, the free-loaders and scam-artists, have always been the bane of the practice of radical equality. They were called “Christ hustlers” in the early days. They were drifters, transients, who lived on the benevolence of a local Christian community for as long as grace could tolerate them, and when they were kicked out, they would move on to the next Christian community. It’s the age-old refusal to dress for the occasion.
We are back to the advantages. There are those who are glad to take advantage of the kindness and generosity of their neighbors. There are those who are glad to be carried along on the shoulders of everyone else. The rules of engagement require us to do our part in tending the relationship of radical equality, around the table and across the board. Everyone is welcome in the work of engagement, and everyone has to do the work—has to pay the price—of being engaged.
The practice of radical equality means no one tries to take anything from anyone, or give anything to anyone. No giving. No taking. Just being. Just being together. When we practice just being together, something shifts. Then, there is no patronizing (giving) and no scheming (taking), but a genuine sharing and meeting of legitimate need.
For the practice of radical equality to work, we have to learn how to be a self in relation with other selves. We have to set limits, draw lines, establish boundaries, in light of the New England observation that “good fences make good neighbors,” and the Biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not remove thy neighbor’s landmark.” We have to know where we stop and others start. There is no radical equality without radical respect, and that means respect for differences, respect for privacy, respect for the person behind “the fence.”
Radical equality does not erase differences. We are different in an infinite, and increasing, number of ways. We live to be different! We live to expand our interests, and enthusiasms, and capabilities, NOT to reduce them to some lowest common denominator so that no one will feel “unequal,” or “excluded.” Equality is not identity! Oneness around the table and across the board has nothing to do with being alike in any significant way. We do not have to be like one another to be equal with one another, but we do have to be willing to live together in ways that do not permit the things that separate us to keep us apart.
We have different levels of income, and we will not allow that to keep us apart. We have different levels of education, and we will not allow that to keep us apart. We have different ideas about God, and the Bible, and Jesus, and all things religious, and we will not allow that to keep us apart. Some of us like NASCAR and some of us like silence; some of us like tour buses and cruise ships, and some of us like walking alone in the woods; some of us like Willie Nelson, and some of us like Johann Sebastian Bach. We have different tastes, and interests, and aptitudes, and temperament, and we will not allow what is different about us to keep us apart.
We can engage one another on levels that have nothing to do with any of the things that separate us! We do not have to look at each other and see differences! We do not have to listen to each other and hear differences! We do not have to react to one another based on our preferences and disinclinations! We do not have to withdraw from people who are not like us! Engagement is possible around the table and across the board.
Equality and oneness are not about erasing or reducing the distinctions and differences that exist among us, but about seeing through those things to the solid core that unites us all. At the level of the heart, there is not gay and straight, male and female, black and white, first world and third world, Israeli and Palestinian, Moslem and Christian, west and east… At the level of the heart all of our dichotomies are false dichotomies. All of our divisions are about the advantages, and the power, and protection, necessary to maintain the advantages. The work of radical equality is the work for rights and privileges not accorded us by the structures of inequality and injustice which support the good of the few at the expense of the many.
The work of radical equality means we consciously, deliberately, extend ourselves to one another, engage one another, commune with one another, past and in spite of all that separates us in order to honor and serve the Great Oneness out of which we come and in which we live. Radical equality implicates us in reducing the distance that separates us, and impels us to find ways of establishing connections with all people. We cannot withdraw to small (or large) camps of those like us, secluded by our wealth and walls, off limits to, and out of touch with, those who are so unlike us in every measurable way. The fact that we are equal requires us to extend ourselves to one another past all that separates us in order to look and see, listen and hear, and treat with compassion and gentleness, justice and kindness that which is seen and heard. Radical equality makes us one in spite of all that stands between us.
“Breaking down the dividing walls” (while respecting each other's landmark!) is what we must do best if we are to bring to life what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” Who do we associate with, and what do we think about those with whom we do not associate? Who is welcome in our company? Who is unwelcome? Who are we comfortable with? With whom are we uncomfortable? What are our “rules of engagement”? How do those rules need to be amended to include those people who are not “like us”? Radical equality depends upon our ability to extend ourselves to one another, and upon their ability to receive us. Upon their ability to extend themselves to us, and upon our ability to receive them. No giving. No taking. Just engagement.
Engagement trumps the advantages. We are here to be engaged, not to garner the advantages; not to gather the boon unto ourselves; but, to engage one another at the level of the heart and to help one another toward the true good of all. Disengaged, we care only about our own good, and the good of those “like us.” Engaged, we are one with all, and their good is our good. Moving from disengagement to engagement is the work of radical equality and the scope of the “life in Christ.” How do we do that, is the question. Practice and awareness, is the answer.
We live to be engaged with one another and all others out of our commitment to the practice of radical equality. We will break down the dividing walls. We will not withdraw into enclaves and encampments of people just like us. We will look and see, listen and hear, and treat with justice and compassion what is seen and heard. And, we will be alert to those who will not dress for the occasion, or come into relationship prepared to pay the price and do the work of radical equality around the table and across the board.