And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples and said, “Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” – Matthew 12:49-50
And he answered them, saying, “Who is my mother or my brethren?” And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, “Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.” – Mark 3:33-35
Shortly after his inauguration as governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley spoke at “a service honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at King’s first church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.” During his speech, he remarked: “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” Some folks immediately pounced on his comment as evidence of an exclusionary mentality that has no place in American politics. Given the context, of course, it was just the opposite. In the first place, I assume that no one would fault Bentley – who later apologized for his remark – or anyone else for saying, “Anybody here not born of the same parents as me, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister.” That statement of biological fact reminds us that throughout most of human history the terms brother and sister were emphatically exclusionary.
When Bentley went on to say “I want to be your brother,” he expressed a sentiment that would make no sense in terms of the original, biological significance of the term. But his statement was exactly in line with the words of Jesus, words that would have been as authentically shocking to his audience in his day as Bentley critics claim his ought to be for us today. We may take it for granted that physical biology is not necessarily the true criterion of kinship. But Bentley’s critics apparently want us to forget that the broader, metaphorical meaning of the term transcends biology altogether in order to assert an understanding of human community based on the commitment to a certain way of life, a moral and ethical, rather than physical, bond.
For Christian people, Christ particularly and exclusively exemplifies the incarnate perfection of that commitment. The kinship relationship is therefore a relationship that arises in and through Christ. Because Christ offers that relationship to all, kinship loses the exclusionary implications inherent in any understanding based on physical biology. Anyone willing to accept and follow the way of life Christ exemplifies becomes his kin, and the kin of all others willing to do the same.
The people who want to foment false controversy and divisiveness do so by taking advantage of the fact that, though Christ’s offer is not exclusionary, the community it makes possible is not all-inclusive. The kinship community exists only for those who accept as good the way of living marked out by Christ. It is, in this sense, a community based upon moral and spiritual consent, not biological determinism.
Far from being un-American, the American nation was born from the similar premise that true human community arises from the willing and mutual acceptance of a common standard for good. It is the basis for the practical principle of America’s liberty, that all government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed (not from elitist claims based on biological heritage or materially demonstrable superior abilities). Before elite intellectuals assaulted America’s common sense with their self-serving sophistry, we had no trouble with the fact that our nation is first and foremost a moral community, i.e., one in which our unity derives from our embrace of a common standard of what is right. Consider in this light the familiar words of the popular song:
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
The crown is a symbol of sovereignty. Today’s politicos glibly blather on as if the political community can operate without moral standards, which is to say without reference to good and bad. True to the understanding of the founders, however, this national hymn prays for a community among people of goodwill, in which good people can join forces to choose from the good representatives who wield sovereign power in their name and on their behalf. The commitment to act for good, by righteous laws and judgments, is the bond that substantiates their sovereign unity, the crown of brotherhood that makes many people into one free and sovereign nation.
Is this an exclusionary understanding of community? Yes, indeed. It excludes those who contemn morality to pursue money power at the expense of right. It excludes those who disregard the instinctive worth of others in order to use or discard them without regard for their God-ordained worth. It excludes those who believe that superior intelligence, wealth or raw power makes them the natural masters of the unendowed masses, the natural princes of the earth. But to any willing to do justice, and love mercy and walk humbly in the light of the endowment of right the Creator has willed to all humanity, it constitutes a homeland of the heart that confirms the conscience God has put in every heart, even when some exclude themselves by denying it.