It’s not about you
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)
My wife, Amy, and I were driving southbound on Interstate 25 recently when a figure ran across the road, right at the edge of one of the overpasses near downtown Pueblo. Though my first instinct was to slam on the brakes, I slowed down enough to notice it was a police officer whose car was parked on the other side of the highway.
At first, we assumed he was in pursuit of a bad guy, but then Amy notice a little boy, no more than four years old, standing on the outside of the guardrail of the bridge. The point on the overpass where he was had to be at least thirty feet above ground; more than enough to inflict serious – if not fatal – damage if he fell.
The boy wandered along the four-inch ledge, which was the only thing between him and possible death, all the while apparently oblivious to the danger he was in. My first thought was, my God, this kid is going to die.
The officer who ran out into the highway traffic, however, was set on a different outcome to the story. Without regard for his own safety, he sprinted across the lanes of oncoming traffic toward the child, leaning over the guardrail and scooping the boy up tightly in his arms.
I didn’t notice any mention of the officer’s act of bravery in the paper or on the news in the coming days, and of course, that’s not why he did what he did. But for all of the bad press – some well-deserved – that officers of the law get, this guy on this particular day put the life of someone else before his own and did something truly heroic.
So what does this have to do with religion or faith? After all, I have no idea if the officer was a Christian, Pagan, Atheist or whatever. For me, the lesson is that, although organized religion often sets out to impart moral lessons to the greater culture, sometimes there are acts of humanity all around us that could teach religion a thing or two about better living into their claimed missions.
It’s no headline-worthy news these days that many institutions of faith are struggling to keep their doors open. Though at one time, churches, mosques or synagogues may have been the social hubs of their communities, a more distributed, mobile and, frankly, preoccupied American culture finds their sense of community elsewhere, more often than not.
In response, some faith communities have resorted to trying harder to reflect the culture around them, installing coffee houses in their buildings, adding more entertaining activities to their roster of programs, and sometimes even telling people what they want to hear, whether it’s theologically well-founded or not.
Enter phenomena like the best-selling book, The Secret, gospel distortions focusing on prosperity and other “God wants you to be rich” theologies. Implicitly, and in some cases, explicitly, the message becomes, “yes, it really is all about you.”
The problem is, it’s not all about you.
We live in a consumer-driven economy that relies on excess spending on things we can’t afford, let alone need, to fuel the fiscal engine. And now more than ever, targeted media marketing can tell you exactly what you want to hear, and practically custom-design products and services that will not only free you of a few bucks, but will also help confirm the sneaking suspicion that you are, in fact, at the center of the universe.
At its best, faith communities work against such fallacies, helping people get over themselves, deconstructing the narcissism that causes us too often to turn in on our own world rather than noticing that there’s a whole planet of other people out there.
Every major world religion has stories in its history of its leaders getting beyond the trappings of “self” to a more enlightened, liberated and compassionate worldview. Unfortunately sometimes we within the institutions of religion grasp desperately at the next new thing to try and maintain the legacies we’ve inherited from previous generations.
One of my favorite sayings is that true faith means planting trees under whose shade you’ll never sit. But that’s an uncomfortable, sometimes difficult place to be. It’s counter-cultural to work without expectation of reward in kind, and to labor harder for the welfare of others than for our own comfort.
For that one officer in a moment of pure instinct, I saw through a window to the best of what humanity can be. Now, if we can only get the rest of our faith communities to see through that same window, we might actually change the world in ways far greater than we imagine when worried so much about our own survival.