Alabama governor’s “brothers and sisters”

Alabama governor’s “brothers and sisters” January 19, 2011

Making headlines today were the comments of new Alabama governor Robert Bentley, to the effect that anyone who has not accepted Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior is not his brother or sister.  The comment raised the ire of non-Christians and elicited a statement from the Anti-Defamation League.  The governor quickly apologized for the comments, indicating that he believes he is a public servant to all the citizens of the state.

The story called to my mind the words of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago when he became the Catholic archbishop of that city in 1982.  “I am Joseph, your brother.”  The words recalled the story of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers and who later ascended to the right-hand of the Pharaoh of Egypt and saved his brothers from starvation.  The reference is rich, both historically and symbolically.

There is a terrible history of Christian persecution of our “elder brothers” in faith, and recent advances have paved the way for a robust, developing theological conversation.  It is very unfortunate that Governor Bentley made the comment that he did, for it reflects a weak understanding of Christian faith.

A striking contrast is provided by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, in an interview he gave just yesterday.

all of us must acknowledge we have a common predecessor so no one can say — our texts say this — he is superior to another, because we have a common origin. In this sense, the whole of humanity is brotherhood.

It is possible to recognize that past hurts need not define relations between members of a family, even if that family is broad enough to encompass all of humanity.  Jesus himself looked beyond the usual assumptions about family: “my mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).  To be fair to Governor Bentley, he later indicated that he wants to be a brother to everyone.  One can hope that, like Jesus, he might see the shared work of building a good world–rather than a confessional litmus test–as the way to go about it.

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