Brotherhood in the Balance

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

"Crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea" proclaims an American patriotic song, yet how widespread is support for this idea today? People ask how brotherhood agrees with survival of the fittest, particularly in international affairs. Isnít it a form of weakness or naivete which would make supporters ripe for conquest by predatory and aggressive powers? Although the ideas of Jesus and other teachers on universal love, returning good for evil, and looking equally on the just and unjust have wide appeal, they are generally dismissed as too idealistic, if not wrongheaded, to put into practice.

Itís easy to overlook how many features of modern life can be traced directly to the idea that every human being, simply by virtue of being human, has an innate and inalienable worth that demands from us a respect for their dignity, and that this consideration should be reflected now in earthly life, not deferred to some hypothetical future state. This position can rest on any number of grounds: a single divine source or parent of all peoples; a universe whose parts are all equally permeated by spirit; or the physical kinship of a species which evolved forth together on our globe sharing the same DNA structure, the same needs and potentials. Its concrete results include ending slavery throughout much of the world, more equal treatment of women, wider recognition that all children deserve certain basic opportunities, and discrediting the claims of ruling classes or races to be innately "superior" people whose elevated status is divinely sanctioned. These changes have in common the viewing of every human being ó men, women, and children, rich and poor, weak and strong, of high or low status or caste ó as inherently worthy.

But brotherhood remains a controversial idea, and many forces work against its expression in human life. Intolerance and conflict are encouraged by political and religious leaders who appeal to our fears and egoism. Prominent economic players rationalize their pursuit of unlimited self-interest at whatever cost to others as natural and good. And while many religions promote love of others as central, it is too often pushed into the background by theology, evangelical ambitions, or concerns with individual salvation.

Because trying to realize equality involves continuing departures from tradition, we find ourselves forced again and again to confront new situations and ideas that make us uncomfortable, perhaps even angry. At times such reactions are rooted in a threat we feel when other classes or groups ask for more equality of opportunity or standing, or when other spiritual and cultural traditions demand greater parity with our own. Some of those in danger of losing privileges or long-held customs mount aggressive campaigns to prevent or overturn particular changes, exploiting the fanaticism and lack of judgment of parties on both sides of the issues. But do we really wish to return to conditions of earlier decades, let alone centuries, once we remove the rosy patina from our view of the past, particularly for the great mass of people?

Of one thing we can be sure: if enough people fail to actively support the equal intrinsic worth of every person regardless of race, gender, class, or ethnic and religious heritage, the byproducts of brotherhood that so many of us cherish, yet often take for granted, will erode and disappear. The ideal of respect and toleration for all could once again be considered misguided or even pernicious. Itís no accident that the motto of the French Revolution was "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"; nor that Enlightenment thinkers on which the American and French Revolutions were based are subject to continual attack today by those who would retain or return to traditional mindsets and distinctions.

Great spiritual teachers have assured us repeatedly that the solution to most of mankindís problems lies in "loving one another" regardless of differences. It takes strength and self-discipline to act from a conviction of our common humanity. There is still a very long way to go before brotherhood is a practical reality in human life, but it is something each of us can undertake in our own way, step by step, if we wish to. We have opportunities every day to encourage mutual respect, to react with kindness and patience, and to have the strength to resist impulses of hostility and exclusivity. This simple and practical approach can help bring brotherhood not just from sea to shining sea of one or another nation, but into the hearts and lives of human beings throughout the world.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)

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