Helping others in times of need is not the province of any one religion. The stress on mutual aid is so strong in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, however, that community is central to their self-understanding. We define ourselves in community. Jews, Christians and Muslims share similar language and concepts and forms of community because they all trace their lineage to Abraham, the father of the community of faith. We share much in common, and particularly we share a stress on helping others. We see this kind of solidarity in the early church in the book of Acts. What hurts you hurts me. To live in community is the given reality. Anything less is considered a failure of faithfulness.
In latter-day Christianity, Protestantism tended to focus on the individual to such a degree that we got the American myth of the “rugged individual,” the self-made man who rose through his own effort without aid from a nurturing community. This was the social counterpart of stressing individual belief as the core of faithfulness. Yet even with this stress on the individual, the goal and the vision of community may and does come through.
Community does not mean survival of the fittest in a dog-eat-dog world. The great masters in our traditions – Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and compatriots – all held that we must be in community, and that we discover who we are in community.
In order for community to be possible at all, we must attain a level of civility. Extremists of all sorts – as we see in newspapers lately – destroy this ideal, but it remains an ideal that people of faith seek. Most of us desire to enact the ideal of community out of love; we do not want to destroy it with hatred.
Civility is born when we observe our ideals with others: when we treat our neighbor as we wish to be treated, when we avoid judging others based on hearsay, when we condone no gossip, no killing, no stealing, no adultery. Following these injunctions forms a solid working community. These are not isolated rules for an individual; they form the very logic of common life. We go against them at peril to our common life with others. Too often people fail to see that they are destructive of community. Over a lifetime you discover that they are unmistakably valid. They are the foundations upon which faith can build.
We are called to assist one another, to give charity where and when it is needed without any sense of superiority or paternalism. Philanthropy is among the noble ideals of our faiths. Each great tradition says that aiding our neighbor’s wellbeing is the yardstick for measuring our own right behavior. We increase our own depth of humanity when we treat others humanely in justice and mercy. We are invited to live with compassion, which means we enter into the suffering of others and, without making that suffering our burden, nonetheless make it our concern.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the idea of “the hierarchy of needs.” We cannot pay attention to higher matters, which Maslow called self-actualization, if basic needs of food and clothing and shelter are not covered. Communities of faith are called to address all levels of human need. These are days of great stress for those whose lives have been altered or threatened negatively by economic woes. This is not a time to abandon others; it is a time to reach out and to embrace others who are in strife. What better vehicles for such outreach than churches and synagogues and mosques committed to building up community?
PUBLISHED 17 OCTOBER 2008