Article taken from “The Reflector” a publication of the IL/WI District of the Church of the Brethren August 2017 Volume 14, Issue 7.
I enjoy reading, especially a novel in which the author delves into a variety of subjects relevant to our human condition. George Saunders does this spectacularly in Lincoln and the Bardo. He is also, in my view, a master at character development. These two literary accomplishments alone put the book high on my list of good reads. However, one particular scene in Saunders’ novel sheds brilliant light on a matter that has been coursing through my mind most recently, which can be articulated best with a question: In all of our human diversity, what will open the door for us to exist in harmony while still holding on to and utilizing our unique identities?
To understand the scene, I’ll lead up to it with a general overview of Saunders’ work of historical/fiction. President Lincoln’s son, Willie, dies, at which point he finds himself in the bardo, which, according to Tibetan tradition, is an intermediate state or gap experienced between death and next rebirth. In this place, Willie meets a diverse cast of people, or more technically, corpses. Their identities consist of a closeted gay man who had committed suicide; a printer who married a much younger woman simply to care for her and be her friend whose death occurred from a ceiling beam falling on him; a loud, raucous, and foul-mouthed couple addicted to alcohol and users of opium; a contingent of black people constantly harangued by a Lieutenant Stone; a young mulatto girl who had been repeatedly raped; a minister who was given a vision of his eternal destiny which was less than attractive; an unmarried woman with deficiencies of the mind; a man who had been molested when he was just a boy by another man; a boilermaker who became ill, couldn’t work, and died before he could inform his wife of who owed them money, leaving his family in a financially challenged position; and many others with unique and unusual characteristics.
President Lincoln visits the cemetery to view and talk to the corpse of his son Willie. The other beings in the bardo have never witnessed such visitations and become quite enamored by this display of affection. The scene I reference above is when Lincoln decides in his mind that he will not visit the cemetery again, that he can hold Willie in his heart rather than in his sight and arms. The bardo inhabitants want the visits to continue desiring the goodness they experience in the affectionate moments between father and deceased son. Without concern about the identity of each other, they join together to enter President Lincoln in an ethereal effort to change his mind so that he will make future visits.
The unique identities of the bardo inhabitants became secondary, but not relinquished, at this point. The primary focus became the effort to change Lincoln’s mind. Each inhabitant put aside any concern about the others identity in order to embark on fulfilling a single purpose.
Our vast and unique identities in the church cannot be denied. Because the unique identity of the other is emphatically different than our own, it can become the primary focus of our attention. The result is holding the other at arms-length, becoming comfortable with avoiding the other.
Jesus’ command is that we love one another. It becomes nearly impossible to abide by this command when we avoid the other. Lincoln in the Bardo offers a solution. Allow identity to become secondary and then permit a single, purposeful, relational effort,
which we can work on together from each of our unique identities, to become primary.
In a world hungry for strong relationships among a diversity of identity, may we make secondary our identities while confidently affirming and utilizing them to rally around the single purpose Christ gives us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded.”