us -vs- them.

30 Oct

Us -vs- Them.
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on October 28, 2012

Litany of Diversity
by Michael Sallwasser, 2006
In memory of the Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley

If the colors of our skin or the lands of our ancestors are different,
It need not divide us.
If the genders we claim are different,
It need not divide us.
If the stages in our lives are different,
It need not divide us.
If our means of achieving the common good are different,
It need not divide us.
If who we love and how we love are different,
It need not divide us.
If the spiritual paths we follow are different,
It need not divide us.
If our abilities to think and do are different,
It need not divide us.
If our resources are different,
It need not divide us.
If we join spirits and hearts,
Our differences will not divide us, but deeply bind us together.


I learned about the Litany of Diversity (above) on the Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage that I was on earlier this month.  It was inspired by #576 in our hymnal, the Litany of Restoration, written in 1987 by the Rev. Marjorie Bowens Wheatley. In the original, the repeated phrase is “It will not matter.”

The Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association was going to use the original litany and realized that it was insufficient to the task.  It was insufficient to the task because, between 1987 and 2006, our understanding has shifted away from “It will not matter” to a larger understanding that where we come from, our journeys, our challenges, and so much more do matter.  But they need not divide us. They wrote the litany with Marjorie’s input, bringing her into the process.

Unfortunately, dividing us seems to be happening all too often these days. I’ve been hearing stories from friends of mine who live in battleground states in this divisive election season. They say they can’t turn on the TV without being bombarded with heated political ads, all suggesting that the world will go to hell in a hand-basket unless you elect their particular candidate. Some of the ads use blatant lies to try and convince the potential voter of the evilness of the other candidate.

On facebook, I’ve heard many stories of people “unfriending” those whose political views are so divergent.

In other areas of the public arena, the name-calling of the “other” candidates and their supporters has gotten to a level that is cringe-worthy.

Our government is deadlocked, unable to get anything done because no one is willing to give anything up.

Compromise is something that has gone the way of the dodo-bird as each side digs itself deeper and deeper into the trenches. The rhetoric escalates, the public discourse descends to vilification – each side calling the other not just “wrong” but idiotic, hateful and downright evil.

When Barbara, our new office administrator, and I were working on the cover of the order of service this week, we talked about what design to use. I knew I wanted a venn diagram, and it seemed perfect to put “Us” on top and “them” on the bottom, because that’s where many of us are right now – in a place where we feel superior, righteous. We don’t understand how any rational person could vote for the “other” candidate – and in truth it doesn’t even matter which side we are on, because both sides can agree on one thing: if the other wins, the state of the country will be in peril.

But what happens when one group is on top of another, looking down? It closes off access to one another, it shuts down the lines of dialogue and communication. We forget that no matter what side we are on, “we” are not all right, and “they” are not all wrong. And when we fail to realize this, when we fail to look at the entire frame of our shared humanity, we miss out on a deeper experience of understanding and wisdom.

Parker Palmer is “an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change.” He is the featured interview in the November 2012 issue of The Sun Magazine.  I was first exposed to Palmer in seminary when we had to read his book Let Your Life Speak. His words, and the way he expresses his ideas, inspired me to fully embrace what Mary Oliver calls my “one wild and precious life.”

In the interview, based on his new book Healing the Heart of Democracy (which arrived from Amazon today and which I can’t wait to read!), Palmer points out that “what we call the ‘politics of rage’ is, in fact, the ‘politics of the brokenhearted.’ There’s heartbreak across the political spectrum, from one extreme to another” and because we don’t know what to do with our suffering, with our heartbreak, we act out violently – with mean and abusive words, and with mean and abusive actions. Palmer says that this heartbreak and subsequent violent acting out is “not just in this country. If Americans don’t understand that radical Islamic terrorists are heartbroken about what’s happening to their people, we’re missing the point.”

Now, that may seem like quite a leap to go from the heated political rhetoric in this country to comparing us to radical Islamic terrorists. But the deeper one delves into the language of the extreme left and extreme right in this county right now, the more apt the comparison seems, and it all stems from a sense of heartbrokenness. The vitriol that manifests as rage (that comes out of our heartbrokenness) is causing more and more of us to completely abandon the conversation (if it can even be called that) because it is so toxic, divisive and abusive. And what happens when we leave the dialogue? Palmer points out that “this creates a vacuum into which nondemocratic powers like big money are eager to rush in.” When citizens exit the dialogue, it benefits the status quo, the powers that seek more power and don’t care what means they use to take it or whom they step on to get it.

We lose out on democracy when we leave the dialogue, but how can we stay in such a painful place?

I think that it helps to know that we have this human tendency to turn someone into “other,” whether it is in the political realm or elsewhere. Just in the last 100 years, many theologians, anthropologists, philosophers, sociologists and experts from a variety of fields have observed this behavior.

For instance, in 1923, German theologian Martin Buber talked about having an I/It or I/Thou relationship with other people. He asserted that we can relate to people as either objects – we can see them as “it” – or we can relate to people as fellow participants in the divine reality – we can see them as “thou”.

Elsewhere in Europe, Simone de Beauvoir wrote of women as “the other sex” in 1949. She said that men have objectified women as “other” where men and maleness as viewed as “normal.” This objectification oppresses women and fails to see their unique qualities except in comparison to the male. De Beauvoir insisted on the impossibility of comparing the “character” of men and women without considering the immense differences in their situations (it matters, but it need not divide us). While she did not draw directly on Buber, the ideas are related – both claim that when we don’t see the unique story and character of an individual, when we are not able to recognize their inherent worth and dignity, we all lose out.

Along these same lines, I remember being struck by a quote in the preface to the 1958 edition of Anne Braden’s memoir “The Wall Between.” In it, Braden writes:

“In a sense, all of history has been a story of [one group of people’s] efforts to learn to live with other people – resolving first [their] individual conflicts with others in order to form societies for the common good, and then resolving or trying to resolve the conflicts of one society or group of people with another. Always there have been those groups which were the oppressed; always there have been those others who felt their security and way of life threatened by the group struggling for its place in the sun. Where the creative forces are needed to resolve the conflict have failed, groups of human beings have turned on others – and have destroyed themselves as well as sometimes their opponents.”

Thankfully, Braden doesn’t stop there: “Where the conflicts have been resolved, society has reached a new level and groups that once feared and hated each other have enriched each other’s lives.” I think this last line is where our hope might lie during these tumultuous times, in the possibility of various groups of people coming together and enriching each other’s lives.  Whether those groups are men and women, Jocks and Nerds, Cheerleaders and Glee Clubbers, Democrats and Republicans, Socialist and Tea Partiers, Blacks and Whites, and so much more. Where the conflicts have been resolved, society has reached a new level.

Once we understand that this characteristic of “othering” someone is something that human beings have tended to fall into, but have the capability to rise above, the next step is to understand what it does to us, as individuals, when we “other” someone. It’s not just that it harms our relationship with someone else, but it damages us when we “other” someone. We like to think of ourselves as nice people, maybe even as fair and just people. So when we “other” someone, or deny their inherent worth and dignity or fail to see them as “thou,” we also expend crazy amounts of mental and emotional energy trying to maintain the self-deception around what we are doing. There is a cost to the cognitive dissonance required: How can we be nice and just if we fail to see the humanity in another person? How are we being nice people if we go around calling people who follow the other candidate mean, hurtful names?

This hurts us spiritually, as well. Anne Braden observed that oppression not only builds a wall around those who are oppressed, but around the oppressor as well, “cramping their spirits and causing them to grow in distorted shapes” as we fall out of connection, out of relationship with one another.

When we are able to stop turning someone, or a group of someones, into “other”, when we see and relate to them as “thou,” we are able to recognize not only their inherent worth and dignity, we also realize our connection to them in the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. As a result, we deepen our compassion and wisdom.

This is one of the reasons I loved that we had the kids Trick or Treat for UNICEF today. UNICEF is the United Nations Children’s Fund, and it “works in 190 countries and territories to save and improve children’s lives, providing health care and immunizations, clean water and sanitation, nutrition, education, emergency relief and more.” They work hard “toward the day when ZERO children die from preventable causes and every child has a safe and healthy childhood…Because every child deserves a childhood.”

UNICEF is way of recognizing and acting on our connectedness in the interdependent web, of understanding that we live in a world community, so when you educate a child in Afghanistan, or when you inoculate a child in Kenya against malaria, or when you feed a child in the horn of Africa, it benefits the rest of the world.

Because we are all connected.

So at this point, you might be thinking something like “Great, Dawn, but how do we actual MAKE this change in ourselves. How do we shift? Give us something concrete.”

Okay! Glad to!

First, we can practice getting up on the balcony. This technique comes from Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky in their book Adaptive Leadership: Tools And Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Most of the time, they observe, we are down on the dance floor, dancing away just like everyone else. We are buying into the political rhetoric of our preferred party, we are objectifying the other dancers, “other”ing them if they don’t agree with us, surrounding ourselves with folks just like us. Or, we can climb up onto the balcony, where we can watch the dance, observe it from a higher vantage point. From the balcony, we see things differently – patterns and relationships become more clear. We also get a bigger picture – we can see the whole dance floor instead of just the one little piece we were dancing in. We might notice spots where no one is dancing, or where someone on the edge is dancing in a new, innovative way. From the balcony, we can observe the forest and the trees, and not get as caught up in what is going on in our one little piece. One of the ways we can climb up on to the balcony is to notice that we are dancing! Simply noticing is the first step.

Second, we have to scratch our “but”s. You weren’t expecting that, were you? 🙂 Really, though, this is another way to practice understanding our interdependence. Because we do it all the time: I love my friend, but her politics are ridiculous; I want to stay friends with this person on facebook, but he is so wrong; I don’t mean to sound close-minded, but those people just don’t get it.

Whenever we use a “but” in a sentence in this way, one part of the sentence negates the other, and so that cognitive dissonance comes into play – one part of the sentence reinforces what good, nice people we are and the other part then negates that. So scratch those “but”s. A simple test is to use the word “and” instead of “but” – if you can do that and have it still make sense, you are good to go.

Another technique we can use to make the shift from “othering” is to become curious about another person or group of people. Imagine tilting your head in wonderment – you’ve seen those pictures of dogs, or cats, or kids (or adults) when they are befuddled or curious or wondering, where they tilt their head to one side, right? So do that! Get curious!

Rather than assuming we know everything (cause we rarely if ever do, right?), we can wonder about where someone else might be coming from. Parker Palmer says that “The more we learn about other people’s stories, the less possible it is for us to dislike them, distrust them, or dismiss them.”  Palmer also uses this technique when someone tries to “other” him – he says “When people want to argue with me about issues, I try to say something like ‘Please, tell me your story. I want to listen. I know I can learn from your experience.’ ”  When he finds himself engaged in a polarizing conversation, Palmer asks himself: “Am I here to win this argument, or am I here to create a relationship?” He shares that research has shown that when “you throw facts at people to refute what they believe, it only hardens their convictions. But if you create a relational container that can hold an ongoing dialogue, it’s more likely that someone will change – and that someone may be you!”

So the next time you find yourself othering someone, seeing them as objects rather than as unique people with their own stories, imagine yourself up on the balcony, scratching your “but” and tilting your head in curiosity. This crazy visualization might help us practice being open to change ourselves, might help us to better relate to folks who we have been “other”ing. These actions might help make us the folks who live in that middle ground on the venn diagram, or, even better, outside the “us vs them” paradigm in the open space all around. They can make us border-crossers, who don’t let borders and boundaries limit our experience of one another. When we become border crossers in this manner, we stretch our current theological and philosophical and cultural and political frameworks. We get out of our comfort zones and listen to the stories of people who are different than we are. Rather than saying “If you are Republican and I am Democrat, it will not matter” we say “If you are Republican and I am Democrat, it need not divide us but may deeply bind us together.”

Because the differences do matter – they add richness to the stew of meaning and experience that we are all creating together. No one group of people, whether it is a country or a political party – no one group has all the right answers. Ever. The divine and holy can be found in the creative tension that can exist among people of different perspectives, viewpoints, stories and experiences. When we trust our own wisdom, and that other one another, when we respect each other’s inherent worth and dignity, when we recognize our interdependence and both tell our own deep stories and listen to other people’s stories with a loving mind, then our hearts are in a very holy place, indeed, and it is no longer us versus them. We are in it together. May it be so. May we make it so.

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