Micro-aggressions in the Mosaic
Rev. Douglas Taylor
January 19, 2014
It was roughly mid-way through my seminary years that my soul caught fire with the life and writings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I had learned about him and had heard his words before, in school and in church, but this was my first encounter of reading more than a quote or hearing about what he had said and done. His use of language stirred my heart and the content of his writings struck my conscience.
I was working on an assignment to build a modern lectionary – what are the contemporary writings that would fit as Unitarian Universalist scripture. I am not the first to suggest that the writings of Dr. King could serve as scripture for modern liberal religion. I don’t mean scripture as ‘divine word of God, inerrant and perfect, the root of all sound creed and belief.’ Instead I mean scripture as ‘life-giving writings that wrestle with the deep questions of truth and meaning.’ I imagine the writings of King could fit alongside the letters of Paul, the prose of Lao Tzu, or the words of the Hebrew prophets
Obviously I am thinking about many of his speeches, the “I have a Dream” speech in particular as we just heard. But the work I really dug into for that assignment in seminary was his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” It was written in 1963 while King was imprisoned for civil disobedience. He outlines the method and reasoning for non-violent direct action. It is a response to a public letter of concern and caution from eight white southern clergy. They cautioned King to wait, to give more time for the political system to respond. King replied:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” … We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
I MUST … confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
This then is my focus for today. Each year it is my commitment to bring a resonant message on the Sunday closest to the national celebration of Dr. King. I have preached about The Dream, about racism or Beloved Community; I have preached about democracy or the kindred values between King’s message and Unitarian Universalism. Today I focus on racism, but something far more insidious than blatant racism and outright bigotry. Today I ask you to focus with me on the impact of lukewarm acceptance, the difficulties of shallow understanding from people of good will.
We in this congregation, I know this to be true, are people of good will. I am a person of good will. So what I am poking at today is for my ears and the ears of all of us: a sermon for people of good will. And what King offered in that letter over 50 years ago is that being a person of good will is important but not sufficient.
It also is good and worth noting that we are a people of tolerance and plurality. As a faith tradition Unitarian Universalism recognizes the mosaic of multiculturalism. We honor our differences, for that is where the richness of interaction and engagement resides. We know that welcoming differences can often be messy. Misunderstandings can occur, often do occur. We bump up against each other with our differing opinions, expressions, experiences. The Beloved Community is not a perfect paradise. There are cracks and chips in the mosaic most of the time.
This word in the title of my sermon “Microaggressions in the Mosaic” refers to the cracks and chips in the mosaic. It was a new term to me a few summers ago and it kept popping up in my awareness as a way to talk about this: microaggressions. I avoided it for a while because it has the feel of a pop-psychology buzzword. But today I want to throw it under a microscope for a few minutes to see if there really is anything to this word.
The term “microaggression” was coined back in the 70’s by psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce. The term has come back into use through the work of a Columbia professor named Derald Sue. Sue defines microaggressions as small indignities. Of course as a collage professor what he really defines it as is, “brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
This seems almost like a new dressing on the same old experience of racial slurs and insults. The unique piece is that microaggressions are often unintentional and seemingly insignificant. We’re talking about throw-away phrases rather than ‘hate-speech.’
In an article from Psychology Today, Derald Sue writes,
The most detrimental forms of microaggressions are usually delivered by well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in harmful conduct toward a socially devalued group. These everyday occurrences may on the surface appear quite harmless, trivial, or be described as “small slights,” but research indicates they have a powerful impact upon the psychological well-being of marginalized groups and affect their standard of living by creating inequities in health care, education, and employment.
Professor Sue was looking at a pattern of experience in his research and naming it. Here are some examples of the experiences Sue was seeing. When a white woman clutches her purse as a Black man approaches, it sends the message: You and your group are criminals. When an Asian American, born and raised in the United States, is complimented for speaking “good English,” (or perhaps for speaking English well,) the message is intended as a compliment but it also says: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.
Of course the targets of microaggressions are not just people of color. Sue’s research began with the experiences of people of color, but he soon saw that this was a universal experience for anyone of a minority identity: women, LGBTQ persons, religious minorities, people with disabilities and so on. When a female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse, the message may not have been intentional but it is there: Women are less capable than men. Or consider the example of a gay couple asked “Which of you is the husband and which is the wife?” Certainly there are gay couples who consider their relationship in that way, but the message is: a same-sex relationship is abnormal and you can pretend to fit if you try. Or the way people raise their voice when speaking to a blind person. The subtle message is that a person with a disability is somehow inferior in all aspects of physical and mental functioning.
One website I stumbled upon shows examples of Racial Microaggressions by having people write down common statements they hear. A young woman of Asian descent holds a sign saying “No, where are really from?” A Black teen holds a sign that reads “You don’t act like a normal black person, ya know.”
Some of these examples may be about thoughtlessness more than good intentions. And they are small and easy to brush off, but they add up. Part of what we can notice is what I spoke about this fall in my Forgiveness sermon: Our intention behind our words and the impact of our words do not always line up, but both are true. Even when we are thoughtful and have the intention of complimenting or connecting with someone, our impact may be otherwise.
Many years back, before I moved to Binghamton, I was officiating a memorial service for a Japanese American WW II veteran. The deceased had not been a member of the congregation and I did not know him before being asked to do the service. During the service an older man spoke at the open remembrances time, he was a neighbor and friend of the deceased if I remember right. It was clear this neighbor and friend thought very highly of the deceased and the man was choked up at times while sharing. He concluded his remarks with, what I am sure he believed was, a sincere complement. He said his friend was a ‘credit to his race.’
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” (MLK) The problem with calling someone a ‘credit to his race’ is in the way people of a minority identity group are often called upon to represent all people of that minority identity group. Perhaps you are thinking, ‘That’s not so bad.’ And if that is what you’re thinking, you’re right – it’s not so bad …which is my point. These microaggressions are small and trivial. Each alone is hardly worth mentioning. It is the daily accumulation that weighs people down. Sue’s research shows how the daily accumulation of these ‘small slights’ weigh on a person.
During that memorial service I responded to this comment about race with what I hope was both compassion and truth. I waited until the open remembrance time was complete and I closed it saying something like this, “One of the people sharing offered the compliment that this man was a credit to his race. I am sometimes not exactly sure what that means, but I will take it a step more to suggest he was a credit to humanity.”
I hemmed and hawed about saying anything during the service. My goal was not to chastise the speaker because what he offered was offered as a sign of respect and with the intent to honor. But neither could I just let it go. I wanted a balance and I am not sure that I got it or that it was even possible; which brings me to another point well worth mentioning.
We don’t need to speak perfectly. I know – this whole sermon so far has been all about how we must be careful with our words. I will shift that slightly and say: we can be more aware of our words. But part of being in a diverse and dynamic community is that we will experience it as messy, we will bump into each other, we will say things that have an impact that does not match our intention.
So here is the next big piece to add to the conversation: how to move forward when a person of good will, a friend, says something that sounds like a microaggression. There is a fabulous video from 5 or 6 years ago by Jay Smooth called “How to tell someone they sound racist.” The basic premise is to avoid the ‘what they are’ conversation and focus on the ‘what they said or did’ conversation. If you say to someone “You are a racist,” then the conversation gets warped into an argument about the motives and intention of that person. But if you say instead, “What you just said sounds racist,” then the conversation says in the realm of the event in question and the impact of the action.
I have had this kind of conversation with people. I’ve been on both sides of this conversation at different times – recently. If someone says to me, “Douglas, you are a racist,” I am not open to that conversation because I know I am not a racist. Yes, I participate in this racist society and I benefit from white privilege, but I will contend that that is not the same thing as being a racist. I am aware that some people hold the definition that any white person in American is ipso facto racist. There are religious definitions that say any human being is ipso facto a sinner. I disagree with this ‘depravity-based dogma’ whether it is religious dogma or social dogma. I agree with Jay Smooth on this – avoid the ‘what you are’ conversation in favor of the ‘what you said or did’ conversation.
When someone says to me, “Douglas, that thing you just said sounded racist,” I am open to listening to that because I care about how I sound – it matters to me that my words be inclusive of the differences in our community and in the Beloved Community we are striving to build.
I’m not looking at the skinheads and neo-Nazis as the great hindrance in our work to build the Beloved Community, to face racism in our society, to deal with differences with dignity. The hindrance is all too often the simple, thoughtless things you and I say to each other across our differences.
And consider: if these small microaggressions can wear people down, the opposite of that is likely true as well: micro-blessings that can build us up. Let us commit to building up the world we long to have, let us offer little actions, small kindnesses borne of simple awareness for each other. But mostly let us not remain silent in the face of even these small microaggressions, these little slights that are not in line with how we long to be with each other. Dr. King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Let us learn to speak up with compassion.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 15, 2013
“And a light shines out in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.” (John 1:5) No amount of darkness have ever yet extinguished a single light (a paraphrase of St. Francis of Assisi.) Every year on Christmas Eve I read the passage from the gospel of Luke that describes the birth of Jesus with the angels and the shepherds and song of peace on earth, good will to all. My favorite line, a line that always stands out in my mind causing me to reflect, is when the angels tell the shepherds to not be afraid.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.” -Luke 2:8-10 (NRSV)
In the King James Version the angel says “Fear Not!” So blunt, so succinct. Fear Not! Fear is one of those strong basic emotions we all feel, it catches us at times and throws us off center. I am not at my best when I am caught up by fear. It is almost a meditative balm to hear those words each winter: Fear not! At this cold and dark time of the year when the world and my spirit turn introspective, the worm of fear is more present – at least it is for me. What are you afraid of?
I remember a ‘getting to know you exercise around this point from years back. It was my first September in this congregation, back in 2003. The Board of Trustees held a retreat, a ‘deep chair meeting’ it was called. As the opening activity we broke into triads to talk together about the question: “Do you live your life based more out of faith or out of fear?” It is possible I am misremembering the question because it seems like an obviously loaded question with only one correct answer: faith, not fear, is how I live.
But notice the irony of my situation. I was new to the community and here I was meeting with the leaders of the congregation for the first time as the minister. What fears might have an effect on my life? How about: the fear of the Board leadership seeing me as fearful. I don’t remember what I said during that exercise over ten years ago. I suspect I claimed faith over fear. But I also suspect I took the risk to wade into an exploration of where fear lived in me as well. What are you afraid of?
In that nativity scene, the fearful response of the shepherds is understandable and reasonable. The story says angels appeared suddenly, God’s full glory was shining all around. The shepherds were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? Fear and being afraid comes up often enough in the Bible, it is not just this regular nativity passage. Much of the time the Bible refers to fear as one of our strong emotions as human beings along with love or jealousy, grief or anger. Sometimes people are afraid.
Another major use of the word in scripture is linked to the fear of God, an odd use in my experience of life and faith. But it is there, many times! The faithful are exhorted to fear God. The more complex interpretations of those passages talk about the fear as being linked to awe. And this is a fascinating experience to explore but I’ll save it for another day.
More often, in scripture, the word fear comes up in a third way, not as the simple observation fear as part of the normal range of human emotion, and not as a complex response to the raw experience of God. The passages most people focus on are this third type of scripture passages that say ‘do not be afraid, God is with you.’ “Fear not” is considered by some to be the number one command spoken in the Bible in part because it comes up so often.
In Genesis God says to Abraham, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield.” (Gen 15:1) To Isaac he says “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you.” (Gen 26:24) And he says much the same to Jacob a few chapters later (Gen 28:15), and again to Moses (Ex 33:14). All the major prophets hear this exhortation in one form or another (Isaiah 41:14, Jeremiah 1:8, and for Elijah in 2 Kings 1:15.) And many of us are familiar with David’s statement along these lines in the 23rd Psalm, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” And there is the iconic Christian image of Jesus calming the storm. (Mat 8:26) Jesus is asleep in the boat with the disciples when a storm rises; the disciples wake him and he says, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?”
That last one is a bit of a spin on the usual formula. “Fear not, I am with you,” turns into “Fear not, have faith.” Fear is often contrasted with faith. People say the opposite of faith is not disbelief but fear. Do not be afraid, only have faith. The piece in all this scripture that leaves me unsettled is the way fear can be seen exclusively as a religious response to life, or more pointedly – as an unreligious response.
Yet fear is a natural and common experience in our lives. Anyone with a basic range of emotions will experience fear. The concept found in these various scripture passages that fear is something that can be faced with the strength and aid of God is a great concept. The layer of interpretation implying that fear is a faithless response, that fear is proof of a lack of faith, that if only you had more faith you would not be afraid – that is going too far and does not fit my experience of life.
We all experience fear. What are you afraid of? My critique of the dominant scriptural perspective is that is seems to say ‘don’t have fear.’ To exhort: “Fear not!” is to say, ‘get rid of that fear, have none of it.’ My experience is that we all have fear and the better message would be ‘overcome fear.’
One of these most well known quotes on the topic of fear is from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” And many remember and take strength in the equally famous quote from his spouse Eleanor Roosevelt. It is less pithy but more helpful:
You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson has written something similar: “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.”
In the epic fantasy saga, “Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin, the one that has been turned into the TV show “Game of Thrones,” there is a character named Arya Stark who learns the mantra “Fear cuts deeper than swords” from her ‘dance’ instructor.
In the epic science fiction saga Dune by Frank Herbert, the Bene Gesserit use the Litany Against Fear. There is a prominent scene early in the first book when Paul Atreides uses the litany.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
All of these examples from contemporary literature say that fear is a reality we all face. These perspectives help deepen what scripture offers about fear. The true goal is not to achieve a state of fearlessness, to have no fear. The goal is to overcome the fear, to be in control of the fear rather than allow the fear to be in control of you.
Being afraid is not a choice, what we do with it is. There is a biochemical experience that our bodies have for fear. The main component in this is the amygdale, a highly connected neuron bundle in our brains.
The amygdale also connects to parts of the brain responsible for physical activity (the autonomic system). Thus when we experience what we think is a threat, several things occur. The first thing that happens is our attention is drawn to the object; we become hyper-focused on what we believe to be a threat. In tat moment of focusing, we briefly freeze as our blood flow increases, our heart pounds, and our body tenses. We become pale as a ghost in these moments as the blood drains from our faces and into our muscles, readying them for a defensive movement.
We might feel our mouths turn dry as our digestive system shuts down to conserve energy. Furthermore, a rush of hormones enters our bloodstream, heightening our sensitivity to the world around us. All of this happens in milliseconds as the brain searches our memories in order to recognize the object or experience before us. (Redeeming Fear by Jason Whitehead, p46)
But while there are automatic reactions that happen, we can still choose to respond differently. For example, I am afraid of bugs. I do not like them but have developed a measured response over the years. I can walk around outside just fine with all manner of bugs around me. The second I sense one on me I sort of freak out. I can see a bug crawling around uninvited in my house and most of the time I do not immediately squash them. I am training myself to help them out of the house. I have grown quite deft at the cup-and-paper-scoop.
There was one morning maybe two or three years back, I came downstairs to see a huge spider near the front door. We occasionally have wolf spiders in the basement that can be quite large. This one was about 3 or 4 inches across. This spider lived through those next few moments mostly because I had not yet had any coffee. I can attest to the hyper-focus amygdale response. I stared at that huge spider as I inched past it, never letting it out of my sight.
I know spiders are technically not bugs, they eat bugs. I am grateful for spiders, I really am. But that thing was big. I did not kill it. But neither did I have the wherewithal to get close enough to help it back outside. So I called my son Keenan to take care of it. He’s a good boy.
What are you afraid of? Public speaking, car accidents, enclosed spaces, dogs? Fear is natural and common. The iconic adventure movie from the 80’s Indiana Jones was made that much better when we knew the title character was afraid of snakes. It made the character more human.
But it seems to me there must be another level of fear in this conversation. The bible passages that speak of knowing God is our strength and aid are surely referring to something deeper than a fear of snakes. The immediate, emotional reaction to circumstances is one form of fear. But when we are asked “Do you live your life based more out of faith or out of fear?” we are not considering my reaction to bugs. There is a big-picture, long-term attitude of fear we are capable of as well.
Wendell Berry says,
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
Do you do that? Do you wake at night worrying, fearful of the trouble in the world? I do. I wake at night concerned for ‘what my life and my children’s lives may be.’ I worry some nights about the world my children are growing up in. It is not exactly a fear for my children’s safety or personal welfare. It is more a fear about the world and what’s gone wrong. Dealing with greed and injustice, heartbreak and cruelty is hard enough for me personally. Helping my children learn to deal with it too is that much harder.
And as an outgrowth of that, my concern grows beyond myself and my children to include all people around me that I care about. I want to make the world a better place for everyone I care about, and I also want to strengthen everyone I care about to be better able to get through the hard times.
What am I afraid of? Yes I’m afraid of bugs, but that’s not something that rules my life or constricts my capacity to live freely and fully. I’ll tell you the fear that occasionally creeps into my heart. I am afraid that all my efforts to preach inspiring sermons and create helpful programs and foster a warm and healing community of faith will be irrelevant and meaninglessness in the face of ongoing environmental degradation, societal bigotry, global terrorism, and just the basic apathy of our times. In naming this fear I see its companion of faith that what we are doing does make a difference. These fears live in me but they do not control me. I have a counter-faith that holds these fears.
What are you afraid of? And does it drive your life? Or can you face it and overcome it? Can you see the companion of faith that resides alongside it? Naming your fears and owning them is a big piece of overcoming them. How can you face it if you can’t name it? Then as Eleanor Roosevelt suggest, “Stop and look fear in the face.” As the Bene Gesserit litany offers: you can permit it to pass over you and through you but not hold you. In other words, simply facing it is most of the work of overcoming it. The rest is done by faith. Trust that you can get through it, that the fear will not determine your living.
And perhaps most helpful of all, at least what has proven most helpful for me, is to recognize fear as natural and normal and in its own way even helpful. Like the ebb and flow Meg Barnhouse wrote about in the reading we used this morning (A Time for Darkness.) “Maybe the ebb and flow of Spirit is a rhythm that is good to feel. Maybe in our growing into wholeness there is a time to feel dusty and dry, “Hard as iron” like the winter ground, and stony as winter water.”
Maybe fear is one part of the ebb and flow of life, and part of faith is trusting that the fear is not the whole picture. As poet Sarah Williams says in the last lines of her poem “The Old Astronomer,”
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light.
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
If you have been in the darkness so long – acknowledge your fears, shine your light upon them, don’t let them linger unnamed and free. Face them and let them pass through you. They won’t disappear or vanish, but they will fade and they will lose their power. Even the fear can be transformed into a messenger in the service of hope and Spirit, in the ebb and flow of life. And a light shines out in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. No amount of darkness has ever yet extinguished a single light.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Miserable Theology or Théologie Misérable
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 10, 2013
I Synopsis of our story
The book, Les Misérables is a French historical novel by Victor Hugo. Published in 1862, it is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. It is also considered one of the longest ever written; the novel is lovingly known by fans as “the brick.”
The book and the subsequent musical and film adaptations are known by the original French title. The title is not exactly a misnomer; it’s more that the phrase “les misérables” is not easily rendered into English. It could be The Miserable, The Wretched, The Poor, The Dispossessed, even The Outsiders: these are all suitable translation candidates, but in a way we need to include all of these concepts to get at the French concept contained in the title Les Misérables. All of the major characters, in one way or another, are outsiders, poor, miserable.
The story was turned into an award-winning musical. It premiered in 1985 in London and on Broadway in 1987. It is in the top five all time longest running Broadway shows, coming in fourth after Chicago and Cats and the other famous Victor Hugo story, Phantom of the Opera. SRO, a local community theater company will be performing this show during the last three weekends in January. I strongly encourage you to go.
Here is a quick synopsis of the major plotlines of the story. The story tracks the life of Jean Valjean, starting the completion of his 19 years of hard labor in prison. Valjean experiences hardship as an ex-convict, but by an act of compassion on the part of a bishop Valjean has an opportunity to start a new life.
Fast forward 8 years and Valjean is living under an assumed name in a small town where he has become a wealthy factory owner and the mayor of the town. We meet Fantine. She is a worker in one of Valjean’s factories. Fantine has an illegitimate child, Cosette, who lives in another town with an innkeeper. Fantine send all the money she can to the innkeeper to care for the child. Fantine’s circumstances go from difficult to worse when she losses her job at the factory and falls ill. The mayor, Jean Valjean, gets involved and does what he can to care for Fantine as she dies. Valjean promises her he will take care of her daughter Cosette as his own child. The iconic picture of the young waif that is all over Les Miz material is a drawing of young Cosette.
When Valjean reaches the child Cossette, we meet the innkeeper and his wife, the Thénardiers. They are a duplicitous couple who are treating Cosette as a servant while extorting money from Fantine. Valjean pays off the Thénardiers and he flees to Paris with Cosette to start a new life again.
Fast forward 9 years and Paris is in upheaval as young people ferment a rebellion against the French government. Cosette, now a young woman, falls in love with one of the young men involved in the uprising. She and Marius have only a few days together before rioting starts and the young people build barricades in the streets.
Meanwhile Valjean is ready to pull up roots and flee with Cosette again. You see all this while the police officer Javert, who had known Valjean from his time in prison, has been chasing Valjean to bring him in for breaking parole. The Thénardiers are after him too because they are greedy and angry after losing Cosette. And because this is not complicated enough, we add a love triangle for Cosette and Marius in the figure of Eponine, who is the daughter of the Thénardiers!
It all comes to a head at the June Rebellion. Valjean, rather than fleeing as he had planned, joins the uprising after he learns the Cosette is in love with one of the young men involved. Valjean has another confrontation with the policeman Javert, and he also manages to rescue Marius.
The story lifts up themes of redemption and forgiveness, with some strong subthemes of justice and grace. We could do a year of Sundays exploring the lessons of social justice and moral theology in Les Misérables. But we shall endeavor to confine ourselves to one hour today.
The story opens with Javert, the police officer, releasing Valjean on parole after serving nearly 20 years in prison with hard labor.
Prologue, parole song
This scenario is an oft-used literary example of the moral dilemma about the ends justifying the means, commonly called the Heinz Dilemma. Is it morally right for a man to steal an expensive drug that he can’t afford but that will save the life of his dying wife? Are there circumstances under which stealing or other crimes are morally justifiable? Are there absolutes worth defending? Where is the line when considering relative morality? Does society share in the culpability of the crime? This line of questioning is a standard use of Les Misérables for an ethics class.
In Les Misérables, Valjean experiences great difficulty after leaving prison. The 19 years of hard labor was perhaps not the worst part. Valjean is plagued by the ex-con label. He can’t get decent work, he is kicked out of inns, nobody trusts him, and he has to report in to every police station regularly. His whole life is defined by being a convict. We who watch this story know it is unfair, unjust. Valjean is understandably bitter and resentful.
The turning point for him – and this all happens still in the prologue of the show – is when a bishop shows him kindness, takes him in and feeds him. Valjean accepts the hospitality but later at night steals as much of the church silver as he can find and runs. He is picked up by police and taken back to the bishop. And here is the twist. The bishop lies to the police and tells them that the silver was a gift he had given to the ex-con. This is what the bishop then says to Valjean after the policemen have left.
Prologue, Valjean forgiven
Prologue, What have I done
II Reflection on Redemption and Transformation
Is there another way to go? This moment in the story is not the climax, it is the starting point. Les Misérables is not a story leading up to that epiphany moment for the character. It starts there for Valjean and then shows the progress forward from that moment. Towards the end of the novel, Hugo explains the work’s overarching structure:
The book … from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … is a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, …from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God.
For Valjean it begins when he sees there is another way to go. We all have the capacity to change. The theological argument of this story is that human beings are capable of rising up out of whatever wretchedness in which they may find themselves. And for Victor Hugo the theology was deeply entwined with the critique of dehumanizing aspects of society. It was the law of society that stripped Valjean of his dignity and sense of worth. It was an individual who saw through the labels and the pain to the human soul still struggling within. The bishop did not say to Valjean: ‘yes this is all their fault, look what they have done to you.’ He said, ‘you can change – you can become an honest man.’ We Unitarian Universalists can be too quick to look for the light, seeing guilty feelings as a problem rather than sinful or hurtful behaviors as the problem. The bishop acknowledges Valjean’s sins and crimes, and then opens up a way for Valjean to change.
But, the bishop did not simply offer Valjean mercy and forgiveness. He also offered him the means by which he could make a new life for himself, to redeem himself, to remake himself into the noble and honorable person he had been. In the New Testament there are two versions of the Beatitudes. Matthew (5:3) says “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But Luke (6:20) says more simply “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” There is a spiritual component for Valjean, he was poor in spirit. But the bishop knew it was not enough to forgive him and say ‘go sin no more.’ He also gave Valjean resources so that he could change.
Hugo’s theology of human nature mirrors mine: we all have an inherently good nature that can be soil, broken, shattered, damaged, and ignored. But it can never be utterly destroyed. Every human has the capacity to rise up and be transformed. Hugo’s sense of ethics also parallels my own: people are more important than rules; corruption and greed are realities we must navigate with compassionate action on our part.
Valjean had nearly lost his soul, his sense of worthiness as a person. Later in the story – when he has moved on to the small town and become the mayor and a successful factory owner – he faces a test. He learns that the courts believe they have captured Jean Valjean. The real Valjean has a choice to make now that he has an active conscience again; it is a difficult and bitter choice.
Who Am I
III Reflection on Justice and Grace
Valjean is a man of high principles, a deeply moral and thoughtful man who is committed to living his life with integrity. The same could be said, word for word, for Valjean’s nemesis Javert: high principles, deeply moral, thoughtful, committed to living with integrity.
Many people say the major theme of Les Misérables is the question of grace vs. justice. This is not entirely accurate. I think the nuance I am poking at is about grace. I think the greater theme is closer to the question of redemptive or restorative justice vs. retributive justice. Valjean’s experiences at the hands of the law are about retribution for his actions, not restoration. He does, as I said earlier, receive redemption, but not through the law. Valjean’s counter point in the story for this theme is the policeman Javert. Near the end of the story Valjean says to Javert “You have done your duty, nothing more.” There is likely a double meaning intended. Valjean is not holding a grudge; he understands it was Javert’s duty to pursue him. The other meaning is an accusation: you did nothing beyond the letter of the law.
It is mistake to assume Javert is the villain in this story. Javert is just as much one of Les Misérables as all the others. And at heart, he is a man committed to the principle of justice. Javert has many commendable qualities. He is tenacious, principled, loyal, and courageous. Unfortunately he is also stuck in an absolutist sense of right and wrong. He believes the law of France is aligned with the law of God. He believes a tiger can not change its stripes, that change is not possible, that the only solution to disorder is swift reordering. He believes this not because he is cruel or spiteful. He believes this because he wants to create a better world where good and honest people can thrive.
On My Own
IV Reflection on Love
Many people love this song and love the character Eponine. It seems everyone loves Eponine except Marius! In the grand themes of this story, Eponine’s misery of unrequited love seems small by comparison to Fantine’s life and death, Valjean’s efforts to live with integrity and compassion, and Javert’s inability to come to terms with the moral world of Valjean. But when Eponine’s song is seen not as the pining puppy love of a teenager, but as the deep lonely cry of her whole life, it makes greater sense in the broad themes of the story. Eponine is one of the truly noble characters in Hugo’s story.
The arc of the story is from injustice to justice, from wretchedness to wholeness, from hell to heaven, from abandonment to love. The questions the characters ask over and over are “What shall I do with my life?” “Who am I?” “Is there another way to go?” Victor Hugo’s story circles around again and again to a theology and an ethic of love. Even if you are among the wretched, Les Misérables, and our society does not value you or even see you, still you can rise above that, still God’s love can give you strength. And when you are caught in a dilemma, love can lead you through. Both theologically and sociologically, the solution for much of what is wrong in the world can be transformed by love.
In the preface of the book, Hugo wrote this about the purpose of his story Les Misérables:
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; … in other words, …so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
Society and civilization are not going to lift humanity up, indeed too often they do the opposite. But one individual who cares can make a difference. The closing theological statement of the story is sung on the deathbed of Jean Valjean: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Our final song is Jean Valjean’s famous aria “Bring Him Home” is sung after Valjean learns his daughter’s beloved has gone to fight on the barricades. Valjean goes to protect him and hopefully to see him through alive.
Bring Him Home
— end —
Invention of the Irresistible
December 1, 2013
Rev. Douglas Taylor
An old favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strip has the mom and dad talking in the kitchen about their concern for their son Calvin. In particular, they are discussing the impact of the ads he is seeing on TV. In the last panel of the comic Calvin runs into the kitchen with panic in his eyes: “Mom, Dad, I just saw an ad for the most amazing thing that I absolutely cannot live without but did not know existed two minutes ago.”
Black Friday, our national holiday in honor of the God of free markets, has an irrational impact on our society. The theory from the perspective of the marketing agents is: people need to buy things for Christmas. If we get them in our store because of our great deals, they will be so tempted by the deals that the shoppers will buy more than they intended to buy and we, the store, will make more money. A fundamental purpose of a store is to make money selling a product. A fundamental purpose of Black Friday is for the store to make extra money from shopper making impulse purchases, collateral spending, if you will.
This is one way the concept of the irresistible comes into play. The allure of the irresistible appears in the commercials, courtrooms and psychology classrooms. It is tangled up in at least five of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, sloth, lust, greed, and anger can all be seen as the collapse of self-control in the face of irresistible temptations.
The reading (from Daniel Akst’s We Have Met the Enemy) suggests that we, like Odysseus, must take heroic precautions to secure ourselves from temptation. The irresistible ever beckons to us, ever calls us to stray from our own best intentions. If we could but rid ourselves of these pesky irresistible temptations in life then all would be well with the world.
Fernando Savater is a modern Spanish philosopher and professor of ethics who offers a different perspective on this. When I was 25 years old I discovered a slim book of his published a few years earlier entitled Ética para Amador. It is a book of ethics written for his son, Amador. I was a young man considering the ministry when I found the book. I have uncovered notes about this book that I wrote down in my journal – it had an impact on me.
Here is one significant passage that I wrote down from his book into my journal. He was talking about personal responsibility and society’s response to temptation.
Anything bad that happens is blamed on circumstances, or the society we live in, or the capitalist system, or character (“It’s just the way I am”), or bad education, or television commercials, or having been spoiled, or all the temptations on display everywhere, pernicious and irresistible. …
Savater goes on to suggest, tongue in cheek, that the goal of modern society seems to be to help create a world free from all the troubling traps that lead us into temptation. “Lead me not into temptation, I can find my way there just fine on my own.”
But consider all the silly warning signs and safety measures found on product packaging. Why would I need to be warned that the hot coffee I just purchased is hot? Not because the company really cares or thinks I don’t know that already. It’s because someone sued the company and won. Here are a few liability warnings on products from just a few years ago. There is a label on Nytol sleeping pills that warns: May cause drowsiness. It was apparently necessary to include the warning “Do not use while sleeping” for the Vidal Sassoon hair dryer and “This product moves when used” to the packaging of the Razor scooter. And consider this one: “The Vanishing Fabric Marker should not be used as a writing instrument for signing checks or any legal documents.” That’s clever.
Savater goes on to say:
Think of the huge relief in knowing that if any loose temptation comes along, the responsibility for what happens lies with those who failed to wipe it out in time, not with those who succumb to it. What if I told you that this Irresistible is nothing more than a superstition conjured up by those who are afraid of their own freedom?
This isn’t just about silly product labels and the courtroom decisions that allow individuals to not be responsible for their actions by shifting the blame to the product for not giving enough warning of potential danger. Product liability is small potatoes to me when compared to rape culture and the way people are not held responsible for their violent behaviors. Are people culpable for their actions or can they plead that some temptation was irresistible?
We are thankfully seeing a shift in the courts away from allowing the “provocation” defense stance. It used to hold up in court that it was reasonable for a man to be provoked beyond reason by, for example, the sight of his wife in bed with another man. The difference between murder and manslaughter is premeditation rather than a fit of passion. The instances of rapists being let off because the victim was too tempting is also waning thankfully. The question of culpability and personal responsibility in the courtroom is still open to interpretation but with more female judges and lawyers, the misogynist results are in decline, though not eradicated.
“What if I told you that this Irresistible is nothing more than a superstition conjured up by those who are afraid of their own freedom?” I found and still find these ideas from Savater captivating. I’m not sure I can wholly agree without reservation but it is compelling to consider Savater’s statement: “We are not free not to be free … we have no choice but to be free.” As an ethicist, Savater comes down solidly on the side of Free Will.
Historically Unitarians and Universalists come down heavily on the side of Free Will against the opposing theological argument of predestination that claims the list of those saved is preordained and set. Well, Universalism had a unique response, but Unitarianism was a strong and vocal opponent to the idea that God already knows the few who will be in heaven, according to the doctrine of predestination. A major result of this doctrine was the implications people took for life here on earth, believing that we could tell my looking at a person’s life if they were one of the elect. The theology slipped from determination of the afterlife to determination in this life with predestination basically affirming that you are not free – every choice you think you have is already known and experienced in the mind of God.
Those who favor free will, such as me, see no freedom or responsibility in such a perspective. If God preordained my life, then am I really responsible for my actions against other people, against society, against the earth?
But in many ways, I find fewer people are interested in the theological side of this conversation and more interested in the sociological, psychological, and biological sides of this issue. There is a game we play at the New UU workshop each season. It is the theological continuum game. It asks us to line up from one side of the room to the other based on the answers to questions like Do you believe in God, yes or no – with the acknowledgement that the answer is not necessarily ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, there is a continuum possible.
So, one of the questions is “Do you believe in Fate or Free Will?” Most people find themselves somewhere in the middle, allowing for Free Will and choice, but also acknowledging chance, circumstance, genes, and past choices to have some say … not exactly fate, but not unfettered free will either.
In all the years I have done this game there was only one person I found standing at the wall in favor of Fate with minimal room for Free Will. He was a biological geneticist. He stood there for scientific reasons rather than religious reasons. He was saying, so much of what we consider our choice is preset by factors beyond our control such as on which continent you were born or in which century. The geneticist was taking the cosmic view. Even narrowing it down to the determination of your own personal life: you had no control over your race, nationality, biological sex at birth, or family of origin.
There has been quite a bit of research into the biological and chemical aspects of decision making. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of research done in the name of marketing – how to get people to buy more and want more – particularly as it relates to food. There are studies that demonstrate how people are unwittingly influenced by the number of people sitting around us, our potion size, our plate size, the portion size of other people around us, the lighting in the room, and the music. One study showed that people ate “dramatically more M&Ms simply by [having] ten different colors into a bowl instead of the usual seven.” (Ibid, Akst p165) These studies undermine the notion that we are not free to not be free because choices are being made below our level of consciousness so can we really call them choices anymore?
Addictions lead us down another refutation of free will. Alcoholics and opiate addicts are not in control of their behavior in relation to the drug. It is irresistible. But interestingly the argument of addiction lends itself directly into the middle path I am looking for this morning. This is the path that does not say free will is all there is and our vices and destructive behaviors are choices we make freely and knowingly or we are fooling ourselves otherwise. This middle path also does not say free will is a sham and that our lives are determined by God or genetics or slick marketing tricks – one way or the other we are not in control of our actions. Instead, this middle path says yes the temptations are real and are hard, but they are also resistible if we know what we are doing and if we have help.
I remember Michael Dowd, the evolutionary evangelist proclaiming the good news of evolution and religion as two understandings of life that are complimentary rather than competing. He talked about the impact of our evolution on choices we make today. Look at our proclivity as humans for sweet foods high in fat. That was evolutionarily valuable early on when high fat food was rare. Now we manufacture it and make it available whenever we want it, and we always want it because we are hardwired to want it.
The same is true of the Bill Clinton phenomena or the Tiger Woods phenomena. Or name the phenomena for whichever male celebrity figure is in the news lately for sexual infidelity. The root of it, evolutionarily, is that men receive a boost of testosterone when they accomplish something of significance. We feel more powerful and virile, yes: more sexually potent. This is one of the layers of natural selection: more successful individuals are more attractive as mates to perpetuate the species. It has little to do with fidelity or morality; it is a base desire to perpetuate the species.
I also remember Michael Dowd saying that this knowledge of our evolutionary impulses should not be considered license to obey those instincts that are no longer leading us to success as a species. Instead it is an opportunity to understand where the urges come from so we can overcome them. We can point to our evolutionary predisposition for high-fat food and say “see, I can’t help myself,” or we can say “see, that’s why it is hard to control.” In a way, I am suggesting we have a choice: we can either pretend we have no choice or we can admit that we are all still responsible for our actions.
Which brings me back to Odysseus. In the Greek story, Odysseus knows the temptation of the Sirens will be strong. But he doesn’t say, “Oh, well – that’s just it’s my nature to succumb.” He also doesn’t say, “By sheer will power I will resist the temptation.” Instead he has his men bind him to the mast so he cannot comply with the temptation when it comes.
Daniel Akst, the author of our reading this morning (We Have Met the Enemy) offers a similar example from the children’s story series Frog and Toad, by Arnold Lobel.
In the story “Cookies,” Frog and Toad can’t stop themselves from eating a mass of freshly baked cookies, so Frog tries putting them in a box, tying it with string, even using a ladder to place the box out of reach. But each time, Toad points out, they have the ability to undo these weak forms of precommitment … Finally, Frog takes the cookies outside and gives them to the birds, who eat every last crumb.
The moral of the story is that, ideally, a precommitment should be binding. If it is to work, it has to be genuinely coercive – but the coercion is one we impose on ourselves.
[note: precommitment is when we choose to ‘constrain ourselves against the foreseeable strength of some later desires.”]
Our goal is not to be morally perfect, even if I were bold enough to suggest what that would look like I refuse to set it as our goal. Our goal is not to create a world free of temptation so we can blissfully follow every desire without counting the cost. Instead our goal is to align with our own best intentions, to accept our own personal responsibility but not assume we can accomplish our goals without support.
We are who we are and there are parts of us that are beyond our control – that’s just the way we are. However, we all have the capacity to become our best selves, to live in alignment with our best intentions. In the final analysis, even acknowledging chance and genetics predispositions, we are all still responsible for our actions and our responses to the vicissitudes of life. We are not free to not be free. Rather than claim something is ‘irresistible’ as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility let us claim that something is hard, and that we all occasionally need support resisting the temptation. Like Odysseus, we can acknowledge that it is best not to face the Sirens without a plan, or, for that matter, alone.
In a world without end
May it be so
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 10, 2013
A story is told of an ancient time when the people lived in an arid desert country. Trees were scares and fruit was sparse. It is said that God wanted to make sure all the people had enough to survive in the difficult landscape. He called upon a prophet and announced to him that the people must restrict themselves to eating only one fruit per day. “Record this in the Holy Book and be it known that to go against this decree is to sin against God and against humanity. This commandment is for all people for all time.”
This commandment was observed faithfully by the people for centuries. Eventually scientists discovered a way to irrigate the land and turn the desert into a bountiful home for grain and livestock. The trees grew plentiful and bent heavy with the lush fruit. But the fruit law was the law of the land, enforced by civil and religious authorities.
Arguments arose about the fruit that was left to rot on the ground because the law forbid a person consuming two fruit. Clergy would devote multiple sermons to upholding God’s commandment and how the righteous were those who obeyed. Many people became disillusioned with the commandment and so disillusioned with all of religion. Others secretly broke the law but felt deeply guilty for doing so. Some went through remarkable layers of logical justification to abide by the letter of the law while in fact breaking the commandment. The vast majority, however, continued to adhere to the one fruit rule and saw themselves as holy simply because they upheld the senseless and outdated custom. (This story is paraphrased from p85-6 of Anthony de Mello’s book Taking Flight.)
The Golden Rule is not senseless or even outdated. But it does arise from an era in which it was most necessary and in its time was the pinnacle of ethics. “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” (from Luke 6:31) During the past half-century in particular, average people have become acquainted with the confluence of Golden Rules that are found in nearly all the major religions of the world. This is seen as evidence of its importance and global appeal.
Greek philosophers such as Socrates tell us: “Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others.” The early Vedic tradition of India say: “This is the sum of duty. Do not unto others that which would cause you pain if done to you.” (from Mahabharata 5 1517 from the Vedic tradition of India) Confucius is considered the earliest proponent of this ethic of reciprocity: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (Udanavarga 5:18) Christianity: Do to others what you would want them to do to you. (Luke 6:31) Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith) Wicca: ‘an ye harm none do as ye will. (The Wiccan Rede)
Clearly these statements have come from a wide spread of cultures and locations. Interestingly the majority of these statements arose at around the same time in the history of civilization. Not that the religions themselves arose at the same time, but these statements arose from within the various religions at around the same time. It is German philosopher Karl Jaspers who called this time period the “axial age” because it was a pivotal time in the spiritual development of humanity. The axial age marks the transition from ritual to ethic. It used to be enough to go through the correct rituals, to enact the mythic story or take on the role of the First Hunter or the Great Mother. It used to be enough to offer up the sacrifice as prescribed in the story. But as humanity matured and more was needed.
I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)
We had to treat each other with respect, with justice. Ethics became important. The axial age demanded inner reflection so people could know their own motives and needs. What would you have done unto you, or not done unto you? This is the first step in understanding the motives and needs of another, in knowing what others would have or not have done unto them.
The Golden Rule served as the pinnacle of ethical behavior in its time. To this day the majority of people still consider it the best possible guide for ethical behavior. Its appeal, however, is not universal and there is a growing movement to critique it. It is not all that new a critique; Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell have each grappled with its faults.
Jerome Slote is our Worship Associate today, he often brings me a David Seabury reading when he and I sat down to talk about the upcoming service, and this week was a prime example. We eventually selected the Shermer reading, but I can’t resist lifting up an excerpt from Seabury and his personal critique of the Golden Rule.
When I was a child, the women in my home kept me in long curls, starched white dresses, pink ribbons, bright buckled shoes and velvet-banded, delicate straw hats. They punished me when I climbed fences, shinned up posts, got out on roofs, chased cats, wandered in swamps, raced through thickets and shrieked when my tangled curls were combed. They loved white dresses, lace collars, fancy shoes. I was treated by the Golden Rule. (from The Art of Selfishness, p60-1)
Generally the root critique of the Golden Rule is that it limits the ethic to your own wishes. Karl Popper wrote: “The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever reasonable, as they want to be done by” (in The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2). This is considered a new Golden Rule or even the Platinum Rule. It clears up the oft-cited sadist/masochist dilemma. We can all breathe easier knowing the Platinum Rule allows the masochist and the sadist to get along.
Unfortunately this is more a play on logic and semantics then true ethics. If I like tea and my neighbor likes coffee, either the platinum or the golden rules could get us where we want to be. I could simply say, I like to be treated to my favorite hot beverage, I am sure my neighbor would as well – thus we need not disparage the Golden Rule, we need only adhere liberally rather than rigidly.
Seabury, considering things from the perspective of the little boy he was, takes issue even with Popper’s Platinum Rule saying it would not have helped for the women in his house to have been treated him as he himself at that age had wished to be treated because that would have left him running around near-naked with no manners and no self-disciple. Seabury suggests using neither your own wishes nor the wishes of the other when considering your actions. He says, “Do unto a small boy according to his basic needs, according to cosmic law, according to the ways of health and sanity.” (p 61) There are situations that a person’s best interests are not served by doing unto them as they would wish or as you would wish for yourself.
Kant, in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, suggests a similar situational critique of the Rule – Platinum or Golden! A criminal, convicted by due process, may appeal to the judge for release citing the Golden Rule: The judge would not want to be sentenced to life in prison and the criminal also does not want to be sent to prison. Seabury’s suggestion to go beyond Golden or Platinum Rules gives us the ground we need for this situation. We proceed not as you or I would wish for ourselves but in accordance with a greater need.
My point is that the difference between the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule is a logical semantic difference that is important if you are going to adhere to the rule strictly, literally, and rigidly. And both serve in a significant number of situations, but not in all situations.
Let me shift tack and look back at the earlier note about how all the world’s religions share a version of the Golden Rule. The sentiment behind such an observation is to say, all of the religions are essentially the same. It is to lift up the common ethical root beneath all the different religions. Much like the premise behind the personal ethic of the Golden Rule that says – what I want in life is surely what anyone would want because we are all the same. We are all one human family, we are all children of the same God, customs differ but at heart we are the same.
This is one of those deep truths that can lead us astray if we do not pair it with its complimentary truth that we are all different and our differences matter. Physicist Neils Bohr has said, “There are trivial truths and great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” The Golden Rule is based on the recognition of the ‘other’ as sharing one’s own essential humanity.
As civilizations developed, the differences between groups became an obvious and understandable barrier. In some ways the barrier was evolutionarily and culturally important. So as we grew, a rule such as the Golden Rule opened people up to see that we do share certain commonalities in our efforts to live good lives on this earth. It opened us up to see that the ‘other’ might be more like us than we had previously believed. As the pendulum of group dynamics and culture swung, a movement developed in which we see past the barrier of difference, to see our commonality as more true than our differences.
As this idea plays out, the extreme end will claim there are no differences that matter and that all people, all ideas, all religions, all cultures are equal. This is sloppy thinking and devalues and dismisses great swaths of beauty and truth in the world as well as glossing over great evil and abuse.
Yes it is true that we are all one human family; that we are all children of the same God – but that is not what all religions say. That is what I say. The truth of my statement of universality is a tenet of my faith not of all religions. Not all of the Golden Rules agree with each other. Not all people want the same thing. If a man walks into a bar spoiling for a fight, I don’t think I need abide by the Golden Rule and give it to him. If a particular religious edict demands the conversion of all non-believers I don’t think I am under any obligation to support it or to pretend that such an edict is not important to that religion.
Step back from the details and consider the grand purpose of the Golden Rule. God delivered this commandment to the prophets for a reason. Early civilizations evolved this ethic to serve a particular survival need. The sage saw the wisdom of this ethic for the good of the people. Whichever worldview you live in, consider why this ethic arose.
It is basically an ethic of tolerance. It is a call to live and let live, to not treat other people worse than you would wish to be treated. The Golden Rule is meant to establish a minimum level of civility so we down burn the whole human venture to the ground. It calls us to consider the commonalities, our essential humanity and God-given dignity.
It is now time for us to open a new Rule that goes beyond tolerance. We could continue to stretch the Golden Rule into a more positive form and claim it says more than it did when it arose millennia back. We could reach to a new goal of full unity among all people despite the evidence of our differences. I would like to suggest that a next level of ethic is available already in the call to hospitality.
The next step past tolerance is hospitality. Tolerance is a cease-fire with the neighbor, and clearly is still needed in our word. In my Press and Sun guest editorial this week I suggested Compassion as the guiding ethic for the new era. Perhaps hospitality is a more suitable candidate as it serves as intermediary between tolerance and compassion.
There are a great many people and cultures and religions in this world for us to tolerate. Tolerance is the low bar, the minimum respect afforded based on our shared essential humanity. Compassion, if we are honest with ourselves, is reserved for a higher level of interaction. Compassion assumes a deeper relationship and connection that needs to be built, earned, and worked out. Tolerance lets your neighbor be across the street with the doors between us. Compassion is to set up a room in our house for the ‘other’. Hospitality is in between, the door is open, the stranger becomes a guest but not a roommate.
As with the law of the fruit from the story I shared at the beginning, we can allow our religious ethics to reflect the times in which we live. We can recognize that we do share an essential dignity with all humanity but that our differences are real and do matter. Let us be hospitable to the stranger in our midst that we may learn and grow in spirit together.
In a world without end,
May it be so