Religio and the breach

There is a breach in our society. A breach is a breaking, a gap, a hole, a divide in something that was once whole. I’m not sure how whole we’ve ever been as the human race, but the breach is on full display these days in inhumane violence in schools, malls, universities, and the streets. These acts of violence should cause us to tremble in the face of terror rather than numb us into doing nothing. Our hearts should be hurting and our souls aching. 

There have to be multifaceted solutions to the pandemic of violence. One step or approach will not do. A part of the solution, I believe, is religio. Religio is the Latin word for religion. It is a part of Duke University’s motto—eruditio et religio. This is what Duke Chapel embodies, promotes, represents, and moderates on campus—religio at the center and heart of the university, architecturally and figuratively.  

Even if you’re not a religious person in the traditional sense, remember that the etymological roots of religio mean “to bind” or “to tie together.” This is what religious practice should be all about—binding us to God and to one other. Again, even if you’re not into “God-talk,” the idea of being bound together can be a constructive aspiration in the face of a devastating social breach. Religio, therefore, is both theological and sociological. 

In discussing religio, I want to acknowledge how often it—religious people, religious institutions—has not bound people together or bound people to God, but rather has divided and created a breach in human society. It has created chasms. It has hurt. It has burned people, literally. But it’s also true—and this is what gets lost in a lot of noise sometimes—that religio has spurred social justice movements and lots of good throughout history as well. It has been a balm, and not just a bomb. 

So this essay is an invitation to reclaim religio as a resource to repair the breach, to work toward becoming more bound to one another as human beings, to embrace our mutuality, to affirm the dignity of all people, to stop the hate, the violence, the vicious vitriol against one another.  

Religio can be viewed as a blessing because as the South African bishop Desmond Tutu once wrote, “we were made for togetherness.” The writer and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor concurs implicitly when she writes: “When my religion tries to come between me and my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor. That self-canceling feature of my religion is one of the things I like best about it. Jesus never commanded me to love my religion.”  

These theologians are pointing us to a truth I know from the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, but it is contained in other faiths as well: We are all dust, humus, “from the earth,” and to dust we will return. This is grounds for acknowledging our common humanity and respecting all people. It is a reason to resist the violence that acts as if we are domineering lords in control over each other’s lives. 

Violence is forming a breach in the heart of America. Try religio to repair it. Religio is actually about the bond of love that ties us all together in the harmony of hope. It may be a healing source for this wounded world.

The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.


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