“Equality-Before-God” — A true prayer to be answer for men and women

Henry Bugbee
Readings: Genesis 1: 24-31

Henry Bugbee in The Inward Morning, University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 71-72:

"For a moment just now I could remember some times at sea: especially the grey Christmas day of 1944 on our little ship, as thirty-five of us sailed on alone over the endless swells. The land of Manus Island in the Admiralties lay behind us by some days of open sea. The Philippines lay ahead, but far beyond our seeing, like whatever was in store for us there, or from there on. All that we knew of our position was like the ship’s position approximately fixed on the chart. It was something else again to be there looking out over the grey sea under the grey sky, steering a course that took its direction more from the world of the chart than from the world we beheld. It was Christmas in the wilderness.

As the day drew to a close nearly everyone not on watch was sitting about on deck up forward of the pilot house. The sound of the engines was muted up there, and the wash of the seas under the bows made it seem quite still. Only the faintest tinge of colour crept into the sky as the sun set. The men who talked were talking very low. Someone in a steady, quiet voice began to sing, and there were soon others singing with him. In the closing light of that day, riding to the endless swells, they sang the song of men in our position. And it was Christmas in the wilderness."



This week I was joined by Betty, a student at a local school, for a week's worth of work experience. We did a fair mix of all the things one does as a minister of religion including a visit to a church member, Jonathan, who is currently unwell at home. Now Betty is fifteen and I’m forty-nine. Jonathan is ninety, whilst his carer is in her mid-twenties. The question that emerged during our time together — given our very real differences — was what might be the common link between us? This address comes out of my own reflections on this question made whilst continuing to read Henry Bugbee's Inward Morning.

In a church community like this — which in the first instance inherits a religious vocabulary to speak of these things — we will be tempted to begin, as does Henry Bugbee, by speaking of “equality before God”, a concept which finds it’s first expression among us in the book of Genesis in it’s mythical account of the sixth day of creation in which the author suggests we are made in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). We should also point to Jesus’ teaching that, although the greatest commandment is to love and worship God, equally great is the command to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31). We might also cite St Paul’s memorable verse found in Galatians in which he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28-29).

But this grand insight does not play out easily. We all know only too well that there exist countless examples where whatever what we might mean by “equality before God” seems to be utterly non-existent. We need only think of the horrific, anger-making examples epitomised by what seems to be the revelation of yet more child abuse here in the UK or of the violence and brutality currently being metered out in Iraq, Syria, Israel-Palestine, the Central African Republic and the Ukraine. The idea of equality before God seems to be at best a mere fantasy, at worst, the most deluded piece of self-deception.

As Henry Bugbee says, in a gentler and more reflective key, “In all those respects in which we may be legitimately compared with one another it is reasonable to point out that we may differ” (Inward Morning p. 66 — henceforth IM). He goes on to say:

"In a perfectly intelligible sense we may be said to differ with respects to endowments, skills, giftedness, and our degree of cultivation and accomplishment. One of us knows a great deal more than another of us in a quite testable way. It is obvious that opportunities of all sorts are unequally distributed. Men [and women] are of unequal stature according to many ways in which the measure of stature might be taken. And so on. Some [people] ‘go far’, others ‘go nowhere.’ Some are born with a silver spoon in their mouths; others find themselves holding the dirty end of the stick. Some are called upon to bear adversities which seem out of all proportion with what we would consider their just deserts; others seem to slip smoothly along on a sea oiled by good breaks. Men [and women] have been taxed beyond the bearing point by what they have construed as the injustice of it all" (IM pp. 66-67),

In the hierarchical, monotheistic scheme of things, God is, of course, the one who tops out this list of beings who range from the most unfortunate and badly endowed to the most fortunate and fully endowed. Such a God, we might say, has the mother of all silver spoons in its mouth and with it has come all-power, all-sight and seeing, all-knowledge and knowing. If this is the case, in what meaningful, morally good sense, can we continue to speak of us being equal before God? After all, every thing is unequal before such a God.

Of course, a certain way of thinking about a monotheistic God allows some people to agree with this inequality and to go on to say — to our horror — that human suffering and inequality is a sign that the sufferer is experiencing some kind of just deserts, they were experiencing what “they had coming to them.” In this community we cannot follow this route. Perhaps, therefore, it would be better if we were just to let all this “equality before God” stuff go and frankly admit to ourselves that we cannot really “concern ourselves over apparent injustices because really there is no injustice in the universe” (IM p. 67). But this seems to be going too far in the other direction.

We are forced to ask ourselves whether or not we are really prepared to let go of the inspiring vision of collective human flourishing that is gestured towards in the phrase “equality before God”? But, do we not feel deep in our bones that there is something profoundly true about this vision? In my own life, in religion as well as politics, I find I am completely committed to living a life that acts out of the faith that there does exist something we have called “Equality-Before-God” (as one single, hyphenated, word). But, please note carefully what I have just said. I said I have faith that something called “Equality-Before-God” exists; I did not say “God exists.” It may seem odd but one can believe in the former without, necessarily, believing in the latter. In fact this must be the case otherwise the religious ideal could not be understood and taken up in a non-religious way by secular culture. Today I will leave this thought freely floating in the air and simply move straight on to say that, given the marked differences that exist between men and women that I've already mentioned, what might it mean to say “Equality-Before-God” exists?

It strikes me that Henry Bugbee is right in saying that it is something to do with the fact that, even with all our differences, and though we might try many things, “we can live the life of only one person” (IM p. 68). Betty can only live Betty’s life, I can only live my life, Jonathan can only live his life, Jonathan's carer can only live hers and you can only live yours. Nowhere in the world is this any different and, although it is right to remind ourselves “never to say never,” it seems that, for the kinds of beings we are, this has never been any different nor ever will be any different.

Notice now something else, namely, that we do not (cannot) choose the primordial things that make us the one person we are (namely, where, when and by whom one is brought into the world and raised). As wise old Omar Khayyam said in one of his ruba'i (XXIX in Fitzgerald’s 1st Edition):

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

We are thrown willy-nilly into the world and this thrownness (Geworfenheit) gifts us with all kinds of unassailable differences that makes us who we are in a radical and irrevocable way “with respect to endowments, skills, giftedness, and our degree of cultivation and accomplishment.” As Bugbee notices, “We vary indefinitely with respect to the resources which one or another of us may have at [their] disposal.” But, he goes on to say,

". . . we are radically equal to each other, and to ourselves (from time to time), in that the demand to act devolves upon us, such as we are, and it is never in essence repetitious, or normal, or abnormal, however much we remain constant amidst constants of our situation and resemble, or differ from, other persons. The disclosure of our radical equality seems native to the simplicity and innocence which there may be in us. Sometimes in the moment of our settling into sleep, with what gentleness this becomes clear. Here all of us are, together and alone. In the solitude of each one of us, it is we who are blessed. As Meister Eckhart says, all paths are even; though it may seldom seem so” (IM p. 71).

Immediately following these words Bugbee goes on to tell the story about being at sea on Christmas Day 1944 that you heard earlier. Following Pearl Harbour Bugbee became Captain of a minesweeper and during this time he experienced and survived both typhoons and kamikaze attacks. His story is about being part of a group of people thrown together by circumstances into a particular position on a particular place on the globe on a particular day. In that position we can see clearly that although they cannot call (all) the moves —not the circumstances that made them the one kind of person they were,  not those of the sea, the sun, the wind, currents or the arrival of enemy ships, submarines or planes or the sudden encounter with a mine — they are, however, all called upon in the position they find themselves to act in this or that way. All of them on that boat were, undoubtedly, with respects to endowments, skills, giftedness, and their degree of cultivation and accomplishment, radically unequal in so many ways but they were radically equal in that they all had no choice but to act as they were in that situation. In this, Bugbee (via Meister Eckhart) suggests, they were all sailing on an even path across the sea.

Now stop for a moment and think of our planet earth spinning through the darkness of space. Is she not just like Bugbee’s ship crossing the Pacific and are not the earth’s inhabitants not like it’s crew? That crew, Betty, me, Jonathan, you, the whole of humanity are, undoubtedly, with respects to endowments, skills, giftedness, and their degree of cultivation and accomplishment, radically unequal in so many ways. But in one vital way we are radically equal, namely that none of us have any choice choice but to act as we are in the actual situations we find ourselves — together in existence. As Edward F. Mooney suggests, what we share is presence to particulars — not generalities (in Wilderness and the Heart, University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 205). At this deep, primordial level is it not easier to begin to feel that we are all “Equal-Before-God”?

I realise many people will think that this is close to being a completely empty concept — merely a statement of how things are naturally and that, therefore, it hardly offers a person any real, lasting comfort, moral direction and meaning to life. Well, it is true it doesn’t offer the kind of lasting comfort, moral direction and meaning to life that belief in the conventional God of monotheism might but, to my mind and heart, it most certainly does offer these things if in a radically different key. Bugbee, illustrates something of this in a powerful and moving example in which he draws upon his wartime naval experience:

"I think of the suicide planes which I witnessed; oh! they still call out to me, and what I make of them, of the lives perishing in the flames, is still unfinished business which I feel I shall have to take upon myself until my dying day. What, what, indeed can I make of them? Oh, I must be answer for these men. Men I never knew. Living men. How can I find answer except as I can articulate a true prayer? Is it not true that we were not enemies? And who will believe this, how can it be believed?" (pp 225-226).

It can only be believed — that we are not enemies, none of us, and that we must love one another — if in some way we are truly all "Equal-Before-God". Bugbee seems to see that this equality only becomes true in the lived prayer, when we pray, let the prayer change us and we become the prayer itself. As I often say at the end of our own prayers, and have said again today, though we may often doubt our prayers change anything we must never doubt that prayers change people, and people change things.

The prayers of countless people who have gone before me, such as Bugbee, have changed me such that even on the darkest of days, when the news from home and around the world is as distressing as it can be, at the moment of settling into sleep, with what gentleness the truth of our “Equality-Before-God” becomes clear to me and I feel, deep in my bones, that this is a truth native to the simplicity and innocence which is in every human being.

It is to this task we are called — that through true prayer we must be answer to this world. Our true prayer is articulated in our willingness to be living embodiments of a truth that still trembles at the heart of the words which say “before God all are equal.”