There are a few moments in life that belong to a community of people, though they are organized around the passages in the life of one individual. Among these are graduation, marriage, and death. People usually mark these passages with community events.
I recently attended one of these events, a memorial for someone who had died. The strange thing about the event was that it didn't remind me of the dead person at all.
The person being memorialized was a Christian, but she had many non-Christian friends. I was among them. She knew I wasn't a Christian, but never even brought up the subject of our difference of opinion on matters of religion. It wasn't important to her. She accepted me as much as anyone else. It didn't ever seem to occur to her to preach to me about my lack of Christian salvation. What mattered to her was the kind of person I was, and whether I showed respect to the people that she cared about.
The event organized by the dead woman's family in memory of her was in stark contrast to her open, tolerant character. There were a few short mentions of the woman's actual life, but most of the event was taken up with sermons, prayers and hymns declaring the superiority of Christians over all other people, and warning that non-Christians are doomed to suffer nasty punishments for eternity. The woman's friends and family were told that the dead woman had lived a long time because she had feared God, and that God will cut short the life of anyone who fails to worship him. The group was told that they should not ask questions about the dead woman's life, but should merely accept the mission of Jesus Christ. Anyone who decides not to be a Christian, we were told, is a fool.
As I sat and listened over and over to angry, stern warnings about religious impurity, the thought that came to me over and over again was that the dead woman never would have spoken to me in that way. I don't know what kinds of messages the dead woman had listened to in her church when she was alive. I never went to her church, after all, until her memorial. I do know that when she wasn't in church, she didn't live according to the harsh judgments that her church proclaimed as the foundation of righteousness.
Why is it that, when it came time for her to be remembered, this woman's life was defined by the one hour she spent in church every week, instead of the 167 hours every week she spent outside of church? Why, with so many of the woman's non-Christian friends present at the memorial event, would the woman's next of kin decide to subject them to a religious sermon preaching conversion to Christianity?
It struck me that the memorial was not really designed to remember the dead woman at all. Rather, it was a ceremony through which her church claimed her memory as its property, to be used like a holy relic, as a tool for the promotion of its beliefs and demands. Through the memorial, they transformed my dead friend from the tolerant individual living in a multicultural society that she was, into just another faceless Christian soldier, marching off into religious warfare against all infidels. Conveniently for the church, she was no longer able to speak for herself.
This rude and shameless claiming of the dead does not only offer a lesson for Christians and for other religious people. Non-religious people too, can learn from this negative example.
Events at which communities mark the passage of people through significant stages of life ought to, on the one hand, celebrate the unique character of the individuals going through the passage and, on the other hand, mark that individual's place in the community. Neither of these functions are adequately performed when an individual's character is obscured in order to promote the agenda of one group within the community.
Many people still cherish the idea they live within homogeneous communities in which everyone comes from a similar cultural background that informed a single shared set of beliefs and values. However, in all but the most extreme situations, this cultural homogeneity does not exist. Our communities are heterogeneous.
Non-religious people might be tempted to reject the relevance of community, choosing to emphasize the value of the individual. Individualism matters, as a manifestation of liberty. However, even free people have to live. In a world of six billion human beings, there aren't enough resources for everyone to be a lone wolf. We need communities, and the communities in which we live are even less likely to be completely non-religious than they are to be completely of one religion.
Given that cultural heterogeneity is likely to continue, it should be the goal of religious and non-religious people alike to find ways to establish community rituals that avoid the presumption of any single cultural background. It is fine to establish or join smaller organizations that reflect our particular values. However, when it is time to come together with the rest of our communities, to celebrate the life of one of our neighbors, we need to find ways to mark the occasions in ways that value the shared human significance of the transition, without promoting the interests of some community members above others.
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