Following our recent, raucous national election and similar developments worldwide, I decided to look at the issue of harmony and how it is handled under Confucian, Asian cultures versus mostly Christian, western cultures. As a caveat here, this is a Cliff-notes kind of gloss and generalization of two very complex and distinct cultures. With that in mind, we may learn something in comparing the two.

Confucius advocated a love of learning that would bring a lifetime of joy, community engagement and harmonious existence aimed to create social harmony. In this worldview, harmony and ethics engaged in concentric circles of family, community, nation and the world. Social harmony was to be sought and cultivated at every level, between the ruler and ministers of the government, between parent and child, among siblings, between husband and wife and among friends. Confucianism also sought harmony between human society and the natural world.

These lofty goals were aimed at illuminating the truth of shared humanity and our interdependence. Harmony between human society and the natural world reflected a harmony in society and vice versa. Humans had stewardship over the environment and their relationships with a primary goal to get along together. One Confucian text states, “In achieving moderation and harmony, Heaven and Earth maintain their appropriate positions and the myriad things flourish.” I hear a brief echo of Thomas Aquinas.

Moving to the western view of harmony, we find a bifurcation in Christian belief and practice from the onset. One, very large, group of Christians believes that the goal of Christian faith and belief is for the individual to be “saved” and go to heaven. In this individualistic form, the Golden Rule of treating others the way you would like to be treated is secondary to going to heaven. The intense focus on individual salvation then sets up a tension between the group of those who have been “saved” and everyone else. Often, judgment and condemnation of the unsaved is delivered as a way of inviting the unsaved, “If you [the doomed] want to go to heaven, then get on the bus.” Social harmony is rendered nearly impossible. Harmony within the household, community or nation is only possible as long as everyone agrees that going to heaven is the main objective.

In his book, “The Home That We Build Together”, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[1] states: “Multiculturalism has run its course and has not led to integration but segregation. It has allowed groups to live separately with no incentive to integrate……Culture is fragmenting into non-communicating systems of belief in which civil discourse ends and reasoned argument becomes impossible.” We see this fragmentation every day in the news. Headlines this week talked about less polarization and divisiveness about matters of race but a lot of polarization about place. Where we live says a lot about what news channels we watch, what political party we vote and what kind of Christianity works to support our cultural beliefs.

The other half of the Christian bifurcation is not as neatly described. Generally, this subgroup attempts to follow and imitate the actions of Jesus in their daily life. Concerns about heaven and the afterlife may vary, but they are secondary to an authentic life patterned after Jesus of Nazareth. In these communities, the Jesus who ate with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors is to be followed. The Jesus who forgave those who performed unspeakable acts of violence on him is the example to be followed. The Jesus who fed others, healed them, told them of their past troubles with no hint of judgment – that Jesus is the one to follow. The Jesus who held up the hated Samaritan as an example of virtue and goodness is the one we should strive to follow.

This other half of Christian belief is not as popular because what believers get in exchange for their faith is not a ticket to heaven or anywhere. Mostly, these believers get a ticket to a more difficult life that is more authentic, more alive, more in touch with others and a life of caring for the future and the fate of future generations. Christianity says very little about harmony with the natural environment, but the practice of following the Jesus described above leads to social harmony as well as harmony with the environment.

Christianity does bring a concept of forgiveness of others as a reflection or imitation of God’s forgiveness of us. Connecting individual action to a sense of gratitude for what God has forgiven us can promote social harmony. Jesus urges us to forgive without limit those who have wronged us. Confucius advocated forgiveness, love and benevolence because such actions would remove resentment of others and build self-respect. There are differences between Christian and Confucian forgiveness, but in both cases, social harmony ensues.

Obviously, the genie of social disharmony and disunity is out of the bottle in the west and the east. If we cannot get along together and if we continue to abuse our planet then we will need what the Zulus of Africa call “ubuntu” a philosophy of forgiveness and reconciliation based on a shared vision of humanity.

[1] Sacks is a British, Orthodox Rabbi who died this week. A quote of his that I love is, “Rights depend upon law, and responsibilities on culture”

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