A child born deaf is a child born into a life of profound isolation. We say that the other senses are heightened when one is lost, and perhaps that is true. But speech and hearing are our default mechanisms for exchanging ideas, conducting business, building relationships, expressing feelings. Language allows us to approach one another, even to enter into another person’s world. Every sort of social exchange that you and I do through conversation is impossible for the deaf.
But the deaf have sign language! True enough. Sign languages let the deaf communicate with all the richness of spoken language. Do you sign? I don’t. Most of my hearing friends don’t sign. ASL is a bridge between the hearing and the deaf, but there doesn’t seem to be much traffic on that bridge. Unless you know a deaf person, there isn’t much incentive to learn ASL. As a result, we who hear know very little about the ordinary lives of the deaf.
I’ve been having a conversation with Bonnie, a blogger who writes at Intellectuelle and Off the Top, about how little cross-pollenization there is in the Christian blogosphere. Reformed bloggers mostly talk to other reformed bloggers. Protestant bloggers rarely dialogue with Catholic bloggers. The emerging church bloggers are not of this earth. And so on. Birds of a feather…
Of course, we see this same segregation in society at large. Most people on the secular left have never met an evangelical Christian. Most Christians don’t know any Muslims. Liberals avoid Conservatives. Anglos don’t associate with Hispanics. Israel calls Hezbollah collect and Hezbollah won’t take the call. We’re all profoundly isolated by a host of cultural, racial, religious and political bridges — not barriers, but bridges that we simply refuse to cross.
Within Christianity, at least in theory, there is a fundamental unity that overcomes these differences. Christianity brought both Jews and Gentiles together at the foot of the cross. The Apostle Paul wrote about this in Galatians 3:26-28:
So you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have been made like him. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians — you are one in Christ Jesus. —NLT
Yet, in truth, we are divided, even within Christianity. We are divided over our interpretations of Scripture — divided by both doctrine and practice. The umbrella of Christianity covers those who hold a thoroughly literal view of Scripture and those for whom it is a useful set of metaphors. And every position in between.
Paul claims that under Christ, in this baptism in which our old selves have died, we have all “been made like Christ.” The Greek actually says we have “dressed ourselves in Christ,” as if we have burned our former wardrobe — our identity, our politics, our presuppositions and biases, our worldview — and clothed ourselves in the heart, mind and spirit of Jesus Christ himself.
Paul states this as an accomplished fact. But note that he says we have been united with Christ, not with each other. Like children in any family, we can share the same name but still be at each other’s throats. As an adult, I love my brother and sister dearly. But while we were growing up, I often made their lives miserable.
It’s difficult to cross the bridges that separate us. Too often we find we have this perverse desire to blow them up, instead. The Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other in Iraq. The Democrats are cleansing the party of moderates like Joe Lieberman. If the Republicans lose the mid-term elections, there will be civil war between values conservatives and country club conservatives.
There was a time when the American deaf were forbidden to use sign language. Lip reading, powerful hearing aids and speech therapy were thought to be the best ways to make the deaf just like everyone else. Only, they weren’t like everyone else.
Sign language made it possible for the deaf to build their own community. Ironically, sign language also isolated the deaf even more from mainstream society.
Sometimes the very things that draw us more tightly together also alienate us from the larger world. The anti-war Democrats have made their big tent much smaller. Whether their circus has become too small to attract a crowd remains to be seen.
When we Christians shrink the big tent of Christ’s love, we have to consider whether we are alienating the very people for whom he died. The fragmentation of Christianity and the often bitter arguments between Christian sects and factions suggests that many of us are no longer wearing Christ, but our own egos, instead.
Photo credit: Old Clark Bridge demolition, Alton, Illinois