It was a delightful morning. My friend Chareane had graciously agreed to be the supporting speaker and do the opening and closing words and the meditation. Chareane is my personal inspirational hero. After raising kids, she's taken up accordian, mastered ceramics, and learned salsa. Although I knew she'd do a fine job, she completely rocked a reading of Maya Angelo and quotes from Malcolm X and the bible. When I expressed my admiration, she said she'd been taking a class on "the teacher as performer". Wow. What a life-long learner she is.
Friend, fiddler and vocalist Willeke Frankzerda had been the musical guest at my last sermon two years ago, where she brought the congregation to tears. At 13, her voice and artistry has blossomed even more. She has a pure and beautiful voice and presence. It was an amazing performance, and even more remarkable since she had returned only hours before from traveling in Idaho and California at fiddle camps.
Here's the sermon if you'd like to read it. Wish I could include the video of Chareane and Willeke. I am truly blessed to have such talented friends.
THE PEOPLE THAT SCARE US: MOVING BEYOND TOLERANCE
Jana Svoboda; Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis, July 10th, 2011
Opening Words: (read by Chareane Wimbley-Gouveia.): "We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity." — Malcolm X
Opening Song: “Soul Meets Body”, by Death Cab for Cutie, performed (vocals and violin) by Willeke Idzerda
(Audience participation music: “Hail to the Chief “ as introit to UU ATTACK AD)
(with movie-trailer voice-over voice)
“Unitarianism: Is it a cult?
YAHOO says yes. At least that was the best answer, chosen out of many, to one man’s concern about his children’s exposure to UU beliefs. “Pagans can worship next to Christians who can worship next to wiccans who can worship next to atheists or whatever.”
Do we really want our children exposed to “whatever” worship?
Not scared yet? Try this on for size: Unitarians, who gave up the Ten Commandments for the Seven Strongly Held Suggestions, think YOUR CHILDREN should THINK FOR THEMSELVES. Don’t believe it? It’s right there, Number 4 in their little pocket brochure:
“A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Free? Then what is that basket they send around during the service?
But wait—there’s more. And don’t just take it from me—here’s a response from a SELF-PROFESSED Unitarian:
“We take ‘The inherent worth and dignity of every person" seriously. That means even if he is black, white, brown, red or yellow; even if he is poor, or gay, even if she is a lesbian or homeless, or she used to be a man, or he stammers because he has an IQ of 140 trapped in an 80-year old body that suffered some strokes, or her legs don't work. ‘
Got it? ANYBODY can attend. These people have NO STANDARDS WHATSOEVER as to who can sit in the pew and worship. Mixing it up right there with YOUR CHILDREN.
Another cultist gave this response, which I’d say speaks for itself:
“Ours is one of the most difficult religions to put into practice. We are charged to seek the truth, not just sit passively and accept blindly that one small group has a corner on the truth because they say so.”
What kind of UNI-VARIBLE is that?
And how about THIS?
Number 6 in the UU agenda: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. If you thought the GAY AGENDA was scary—well, there’s a word for No. 6.
“WHATEVER” WORSHIP. NO STANDARDS. “DIFFICULT”.
Is THIS what we want for our impressionable youth?
UU: Mixing it up in pews in YOUR town.”
That ad was a farce. You knew that, right? But if you watched any television during the fall, it may have sounded familiar—because it was based on the political ads from recent elections.
Welcome and thank you for joining us on this beautiful summer day in your individual searches for truth and meaning—one of the seven principles serving as the foundation for the UU faith. Though plain and straightforward in language, these tenets are anything but easy in practice. Today’s sermon is about three other UU prinicples: The inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. In other words, getting rid of the concept of the “other” and getting to WE.
Who could argue ?
Frankly, plenty of people.
The history of Unitarianism is one of being the Other, in Europe during a conservative Christian time. Many of the founders were put to death as heretics because of the threatening ideas they espoused, such as thinking for oneself, without relying on an external, appointed spiritual authority. As recently as 2008, Unitarians in Knoxville were murdered by a man who stated he had targeted t the church because of its liberal beliefs.
So Unitarians should know something about being an “other.”
But we’re human, and humans when scared start to batten down into either/or thinking. We go to that “You’re with us, or you’re against us” place. We slip into our reptilian brains, especially if we think our piece of the pie is up for grabs and we may not be the only one in line.
Last year, I had a terrible dream. There had been a murder in an area I was vacationing, and when I came back from hiking to the home where I was staying, the door was ajar. The house was ok, but as I went to secure the back door, the murderer came in, and made clear his intent to harm me. At some point I remembered what I did for a living, and started talking him down, buying time. I'll spare you the long winded details, but what was interesting to me in the dream was that as we talked, and I listened to him with genuine curiosity and compassion, he grew smaller and smaller, and I realized I didn't need to fear him at all.
Jung says dreams come to us in service of of Psyche, as letters from the unconscious. My webmaster pal Hal might say some dreams come in reaction to the pastrami we had for dinner. This particular dream may have been symptomatic of too much CNN. But since I'd seen Don Quixote in Ashland the previous weekend-- well, I saw a different possibility. It seemed a representation of how our fears can become gigantic, hold us hostage. How they can cause us much more trouble than they are actually capable of inflicting, with our help. And about how when we face them, with curiosity and compassion, they shrink and lose their power.
Even those who consider themselves exceptionally open-minded can get drawn into “other-ism”. It only takes a name drop. Michelle Bachman. Sarah Palin. Newt. O’Reilly. As Anne Lamott put it, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
That’s not how I want to be. I don’t like it. I can fall into it, but I don’t like it.
When my oldest daughter was quite a bit younger, she would skip into rants about people who she found difficult, intolerant, un-justice-fiable. I would get after her for her tone, her intolerance.
This week we talked about that. She’s dating a Muslim, and it led to a conversation about learning about the Other. She said, “You know how you always said to me, don’t speak hatefully, even in jest, because it puts more hate out there in the world? “
“ Did I ever tell you how when Leigh and I moved in together, and both our boyfriends moved to Japan that same month, so we fake-hated Japan because it was an outlet? And it was all a big joke, until one day I was at Safeway and this Asian woman walked by and I automatically went UGH and sneered? And I was like WOAH! What the HELL?”
“And yeah, I thought you were full of BS growing up. But that moment I got it. I really got it. And now I try to practice that. It isn’t just that we should speak well because we don’t want to offend others, but because it really does shape the way we view the world, and I think this is a very important piece of the puzzle.”
She’s right. The software—speech—informs the hardware—thinking. The more that we accept that Other-ism is a reasonable way to think, or just practice it thoughtlessly, the more it ingrains and shapes us.
And there are so many ways to be an other. Even though we are so genetically similar that the concept of race no longer makes any biological sense (that’s a whole other sermon, but ask me for references), there are millions of ways to be different. Even “identical” twins show subtle variations in their genes due to minor, spontaneous mutations occurring during gestation.
That’s in our genetic interest, because these differences will sometimes be adaptable to environmental and socio-political differences occurring at the time. So the anxious person, hyper-alert to tiny details in their environment, will anticipate and avoid threats their fearless brethren will not-- and the fearless will leave the safety of home to seek food and opportunity when home cannot provide them. Sometimes these variations are boons for a few generations and then become hindrances. Long ago, a few African children’s blood developed a strange sickle shape to some blood cells, providing protection from a plague that would have killed them before reproductive age. That’s not as handy when life spans double, other options for Malaria protections are found, and the blood change results in a post-reproductive but early death.
Other-ness covers all sorts of variables. Hair color-- did you know that only 1-2% of the world’s population is red-headed? Skin color. Politics. Religion. Philosophies. Class values and differences, socio-economic circumstance. Gender, including all the blends within. Learning ability. Education. Sexuality. Age. Physical challenges and variants. And it’s not only the underdogs that get “othered”. As a clumsy, bookwormish nerd kid whose family never owned a new car or went to Disneyland, I was skeptical and frankly prejudiced against jocks and rich people.
That’s a telling point, because prejudice tells us much more about ourselves than those we believe to be the other. It’s often our shadow stuff emerging. For those of you unfamiliar, therapist and philosopher Carl Jung spoke of our Shadow as being all the parts of ourselves or our conceptions we felt were unacceptable or disallowed. And we either fear is part of us, or wish we could have a little part of. A poster boy of shadow stuff was Ted Haggard, former prayer partner to Bush/leader of the Evangelical Association of the US and a ringleader in the anti-gay rights movement last decade. He was busted in 2006 by a gay man, whom he’d paid for sex for several years. Although he was declared “completely heterosexual” after some initial therapy, he’s recently come out as bisexual. If he’d been able to admit it initially, Colorado might have not passed its anti-gay initiatives.
Think of it like this: you are in a body of water, brushing your arm along the surface, when your elbow hits an icecube and breaks. Why? It’s because you’ve bumped up against something big, deep and dangerous in yourself you’ve not dealt with. When we have an iceberg reaction to the other—there is work we need to do. And our personal work becomes community work. Because it ripples out. The collective conscious needs to be: CONSCIOUS. Of what we are putting out there. And how it effects the world we claim to want to live in.
How do we mend our separations? By remembering that we are all, as some author put it, looking at the same world through separate, tiny little lenses—and thinking we have the same view. To enlarge the view, stretch your vision. We’re scared of what we don’t know. And when we align ourselves only with like minds, we reinforce the belief we are the norm. Research on dealing with fear tells us the best way to reduce fear is through exposure. Kierkegaard put it this way—to grow, move toward what makes you anxious. Expand, don’t contract.
Which leads to this challenge, offered by Omega Institute founder Elizabeth Lesser: TAKE THE OTHER TO LUNCH.
(The following are direct excepts from the talk, available here: http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_lesser_take_the_other_to_lunch.html)
She goes on to say: “I’m deeply disturbed by the ways in which all of our cultures are demonizing the other—by the voice we are giving to the most divisive among us.”
“Listen to these titles of some of the best selling books from both sides of the political divide here in the US: Liberalism is a Mental Disorder. Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. Patriotics and Pinhead. Arguing with Idiots. ….They’re supposedly tongue in cheek, but they’re actually dangerous.”
“Now here’s a title that may sound familiar, but whose author may surprise you: 'Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice'. Who wrote that? That was Adolph Hitler’s first title for Mein Kamph, My Struggle, the book that launched the Nazi Party.”
“The worst eras in human history, whether in Cambodia or Germany or Rwanda, they start like this, with negative otherizing, and then they morph, into violent extremism.”
So who is the other?
Lesser says: “Anyone whose lifestyle frightens you or whose point of view makes smoke come out of your ears”.
Take someone to lunch. Get to know one person from a group you may have negatively stereotyped. Let them know what you’re up to. Use her guidelines: Don’t persuade, defend or interrupt. Be curious, be conversational, be real, and listen.
I’d add: make it your goal not to “tolerate” them, but to KNOW THEM. To understand them.
Try her three questions: “ Share some of your life experiences with me. What issues deeply concern you? And what have you always wanted to ask someone from the other side?”
We are ALL somebody else’s OTHER. Lesser quotes the wise words of Mother Theresa: “The problem of the world is we draw the circle of our family too small.”
I hope you take this challenge very, very personally. And as Gandhi says, become part of the change you wish to see in the world. I look forward to hearing your stories.
Music: Mother Nature’s Son, John Lennon/ Paul McCartney, performed (violin, vocals) by Wileke Frankzerda.
Meditation: We The People, by Maya Angelo, read by Chareane Wimbley- Gouviea
Closing Words, from the Book of Hebrews: Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.