“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.” ~ Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
“For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” ~ Romans 12: 4-5
“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.” ~ Jesus
Years ago, I saw a Centrum Vitamin commercial which helped me conceive of what it looked like for humanity to be one. Seriously. The commercial used what is called a video mosaic where many small images are arranged in a grid to create a larger picture. In this commercial, videos of people doing all sorts of everyday things like arranging flowers, jogging, eating, hugging, etc were placed in a grid to create a larger image of a woman running.
It sounds odd to say that a commercial for vitamins helped me understand the oneness of humanity. But this visualization did make it much easier to conceive of what has long been a rather esoteric idea. That humanity is one – a body made of many humans.
The bible teaches that we are one body with many parts and various spiritual teachers have long taught that we are one. Even in Genesis, when God made Adam, it ought to be read as God making a man called Adam as well as him making mankind – Adam being not just a name, but the hebrew word for mankind.
It seems to me that at the moment, with so many of us not living according to our true identity as image bearers, we make a rather fuzzy, headache inducing image. We’re like a TV getting a bad signal. If (when?) the day comes that each of us recovers our true identity, we will create a coherent image of humanity living together and reflecting God’s image both individually and as a whole..
Another way to think of it is to consider a human body. At the time Paul wrote his words about us being like a body with many parts, it was not yet understood that a body is made up of cells. Thus we get the rather clumsy analogy of hands and feet. But if we take that same idea – that we are one body with many parts – and apply our modern knowledge of the body, we get a better idea of the truth which Paul was trying to explain. Instead of being a foot or a hand, we are like cells in body.
There are many, many kinds of cells in our body. A body where each of the cells are functioning properly is a healthy, long lived body. But a body where there are a lot of sick, malformed or malfunctioning cells is in poor health and will likely have a shortened life span.
This analogy illustrates the futility of trying to deny that we are all one. There is a tendency for us to think that so long as I am doing OK, I don’t need to concern myself too much with whether other people are OK. What difference does it make to me if a bunch of little kids are in slavery on the other side of the world? It sucks to be them right? However, we’d do well to remember that at the point of death, nearly all of the cells in a person’s body are working just fine. Until they all end up dead because of those that aren’t.
So, if we are all connected and the well being of people I don’t even know is intimately tied to my own survival, what does that actually mean for each of us? Well, I would say that the first thing it means is that we each have an obligation to make sure our own picture is clear and our own cell is working properly, so to speak. If our identity is false and distorted, then we are part of what is keeping humanity from creating a clear image of God. If we are harboring disease, cancers and dysfunction in our own little cell, we are putting the survival of the whole body at risk.
The second thing is that we can bring this wisdom to the rest of the body. We can be teaching people, regardless of the circumstances they are in and the sin they are engaged in, of their true identity as image bearers. This is a very healing message that people need to know. Who among us isn’t trying to figure out who they are? Well, we have the answer. Our true identity is love. The more we orient ourselves to love, the clearer the image becomes and the healthier the body is.
We can also be more aware of the connection we have with every other person and behave accordingly. None of us can do everything, but we can all do something. We can take seriously God’s priorities – he made the body, he knows how it works and can be healed. If he says that the medicine we need is to prioritize the needs of the poor, outcast and undesirable, to love our enemies and not resist them, to die to everything that isn’t him, then we need to trust that this is the temporarily painful cure.
Seeing the ways that humanity is one can be overwhelming and frankly discouraging. Along with allowing us to see just how connected we all are, our modern world is also allowing us to see the problems and suffering of humanity all at once. Even if I devote myself to serving and healing people in really radical ways, I’m just one person out of many billions. It’s easy to lose heart and hope.
But small doses of medicine can cure a disease that would otherwise kill an entire body. All the white blood cells in our body probably make up a few cups of material. Heck, Jesus left behind a couple dozen devoted followers. And it changed the world.
When a picture on a TV is fuzzy, it’s because each little pixel is fuzzy and distorted. As it becomes clearer, it’s like each pixel gets clearer and more precise and pulls the surrounding pixels along with it into alignment.
We should not underestimate the effect we can have just doing our little part. Or of allowing God to do his work in us. Yes, the job of healing humanity is bigger than each of us. But that’s true of us as individuals as well. After all, the salvation of each human comes through Jesus. It’s his work which has had and continues to have such a strong effect on humanity. And as it is true for each human, it is true for humanity as a whole.