If there were a cure for aging, I’m pretty sure plenty of us would be interested. I recently listened to a talk by Aubrey de Grey. His subject was the possibility of undoing the aging process.
Dr. De Grey first defines aging as the accumulation of damage to tissue and cells that we all suffer as we grow older. At first, this damage doesn’t affect us adversely; but as the years pass, the damage begins to overwhelm us, eventually leading to pathology. When the pathologies become overwhelming, they eventually lead to death. Aubrey de Grey is interested in restoring the structure of human tissue and organs to their original state before they suffered damage.
The same week that I listened to Aubrey De Grey, I read an article by David Brooks in the New York Times. His article, “Why Partyism is Wrong,” addresses a growing divide that is unfolding in the United States: that Americans are building community and social identity around political labels and parties. The word that Cass Sunstein coined is “partyism.” In the U.S., classifying people according to their political party is becoming paramount. We are now treating each other as though being a Republican or Democrat is the ultimate label constituting the criterion by which we identify a person’s essential worth.
I can remember a time when both political parties had statesmen and stateswomen who understood that working across the aisle and compromising were essential to the fabric of American democracy. Much of what I see in state legislatures and in the halls of congress has more to do with tribalism than democracy. It seems that partyism is real.
This raises a question in my thinking: if medical science could find a cure for aging that was both affordable and accessible, how much better-off would our world be? Would we both live longer and fight more? It seems obvious that living longer is no guarantee that we will live well or wiser.
Just as important, where does the kind of partyism that people like David Brooks and Cass Sunstein describe come from? I also read the 23rd chapter of Matthew, which involves Jesus’s sharp critique of the Pharisees, who loved to dump heavy burdens on the shoulders of others without offering to lend a hand to lighten someone else’s load. At the heart of the Pharisees’ motive is self-aggrandizement: establishing one’s superiority over others: “They do all of their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:5–6).
In an essay entitled, “If I had Only One Sermon to Preach,” G. K. Chesterton wrote, “all evil began with some attempt at superiority.” What Chesterton meant is straightforward: when I work at asserting my superiority over others, I dehumanize them. If I presume that my party is inherently better, I run the risk of looking down on others, as seeing the other party as containing inferior people.
Why is partyism wrong? It damages our togetherness—the possibility of cooperating, of finding solutions together. It damages a sense of our common humanity. It undermines the prospects for communion—where we listen to one another because we treasure one another as people and treasure our very togetherness.
Partyism degrades Americans into adversaries. When our adversity becomes militant, we become enemies. We always look at each other with suspicion. We presume that the other person will be wrong. Instead of listening, we will pound our own chests, asserting our superiority over others. This leads to militant competitiveness within the party as well. An air of hostility poisons the climate.
When Aubrey De Grey recognized aging as the accumulation of damage to the tissue and cells of the human body, he made it easy to recognize an analogy. The body politic—the community—suffers from an accumulation of damage as well. The more we disrespect one another, the more we beat one another up—with words, if not fists—the more we damage our togetherness.
This is one of the matters Matthew, in writing his Gospel, sought to reverse. The way of reversal includes Jesus’s Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. Five were foolish, and five were wise. The wise took responsibility for the event that brought about the celebration of communion through marriage. They prepared. They were ready to participate in the essential event that brought two people together and united them. The five foolish bridesmaids failed to do so. And when it was time to begin, they were caught unprepared. The consequence was that they were unable to participate and left out in the cold.
Partyism ages communities. Over time, the venom of hatred accumulates and damages the ligaments that hold us together. The damage eventually overwhelms us, leading to pathologies that destroy peace and productivity. To reverse that aging process of the community, we need a way out.
Matthew’s Gospel opens up the way. One of the things that Matthew shows us is that it is inherently good to take responsibility for the essential opportunities for togetherness leading to communion. It is good to do what it takes to recognize the importance of our common humanity and our connections. It is essential that we take responsibility for bringing people together. So doing, we position ourselves to begin to undo the accumulation of damage by which we needlessly alienate ourselves from one another.
Our communities can enjoy the resurrection of our togetherness.