A Common Humanity — Or A Different Species?

Palestinian suicide bombers blowing up Jewish shoppers, Sunni insurgents killing Shia police, Christian fundamentalists murdering abortion doctors, Hindu mobs attaching worshippers at Muslim shrines . . . .   So much of the intolerance and hatred in the world seems to spring from religious differences.

And yet religions give us the largest possible overview of mankind.  They focus on our relationship with the god who created us, or the ultimate reality that lies behind all appearances.  They ask of us to think about our lives from the perspective of eternity.

A story today in The New York Times tells about the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, where members of different religions come together to prepare free meals that are available to all.  Somehow, they leave behind their antagonisms, work together and eat together in a remarkable enterprise, going back to the sixteenth century, that serves up to 80,000 people a day.

Many Hindus at the shrine’s kitchen are able to suspend awareness of the rigid differences of their caste system.  They prepare food, clean floors, and join in with others with whom social interaction is normally proscribed.

According to The Times: “Ashok Kumar, a Hindu who used to be a bookbinder, has been coming to the kitchen for the past five years — all day, almost every day — to work as a volunteer. ‘It is my service,’ he explained, after reluctantly taking a very brief break from his syncopated tray sorting.

“’I feel happy here,’ he said when asked why he had given up his old life.  Indians of all faiths come here to find a measure of peace largely unavailable in the cacophony of the nation’s 1.2 billion people.”  (See, “A Sikh Temple Where All May Eat, and Pitch In.”)

The achievement is extraordinary but the idea is quite simple:  this “service” gives them the chance of feel their connection with others.  The basic function of feeding links them together in a common human activity based in a universal need.  Religion can bring people together in this way.

On the other hand, it can also divide.  It can split the human species into those believers who have truth, who have the proper genes, who obey the correct laws or subscribe to the right doctrine — and those apostates who do not deserve to live.  The others, losing their humanity, no longer matter.  Their death is no loss.

It’s not about God so much as it is about being human.  The ability to feel one’s common humanity is not exclusive to religion.  And, of course, hatred and contempt to not require sectarian differences and religious conflict to thrive.

But the sense of belonging to a common species is one of the crucial ideas at the heart of religion.  It is what we celebrate together, when we do.  And what we suffer from, when we don’t.