When Jesus died on Mount Calvary, the soldiers stripped off His garment and cast lots for it. Because it was a seamless cloth, they determined that it should not be torn and divided. As with the story of the Messiah’s birth when the baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes, we use the image of a seamless garment to illustrate how we, as a Christian society, ought to be clothed, i.e., instead of tearing and dividing, we are to be one, much as it is stated in our nation’s motto “E pluribus unum.”
Cardinal Joseph Bernardine of Chicago, who died in 1996, was architect of the “Seamless Garment Ethic” of the 1980s, a time when government leaders in Washington, D.C. often looked to American bishops for moral authority and guidance. Though the influence and leadership of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has waned drastically since then, a remnant of their impact still exists. Bernardine and his colleagues hoped and prayed that our society—from courtrooms to classrooms, judicial and legislative chambers to Christian and non-Christian churches, Wall Street to Main Street, pregnancy clinics to hospice houses—would value and teach the seamless garment philosophy as they address aspects of earthly existence. This understanding helps us reverence the dignity of life and a consistent ethic from womb to tomb, cradle to grave, and conception to natural death.
If the seamless garment notion cloaked our diverse, multi-cultural society, it would broaden our scope and behavior. For example, we would realize that the right to life is not limited to pre-natal existence in the womb but inculcates all life issues: child-care and healthcare, euthanasia and the death penalty, immigration and racism, unjust aggression and war, as well as a host of socio-political issues connected to life’s dignity. A seamless justice would, likewise, seek unity in our diversity, especially across divisional lines of color, wealth, power, creed, religion, social mores, and other demarcations that often glare at us. The seamless garment would help us weave a fabric of understanding so that we could co-exist better in ways that establish common ground and unity, recognizing that all life-issues are intertwined.
Kansas City’s history includes a sad chapter of redlining, a form of socio-economic and racial division that, we might say, tears the fabric of society. Even our diocese, probably unknowingly, participated by the way it grouped parishes. For example, an eastern deanery was clustered together along a north-south seam on Troost Avenue from about 10th Street (former Saint Joseph Church, now Saint Monica) to about 90th (old Saint Augustine), while the neighboring western deanery goes from the Plaza (Visitation) to Martin City (Saint Thomas More) along the State Line. It would seem more seamless and broad-thinking if we reached east and west rather than dividing along the narrow north-south seam.
I don’t know if our city or nation—or even some of our families—are suited well to wear Christ’s seamless garment but I do believe that some of us, through religious, educational, legal, or political channels, can influence increasingly more people to suit up, i.e., try on the sacred garment, see how it fits, wear it around for a while, stretch in new directions, and move toward a more unified attitude that honors God and more willfully respects people who’re different from us or who operate out of mindsets that counter ours. If so, there might be less tearing and dividing. Wrapped in the seamless cloak, we will be clothed in Christ’s undying presence and in majesty.