In This Together

In This Together

You’ve perhaps heard versions of the old Yorkshire saying, “The whole world’s a bit strange ‘cept thee and me – and I’m not so sure about thee.” That just about sums up the message of today’s address. I’m asking the question: what might be helpful to us, living on a planet with 7.2 billion other people, when most of us are thinking that everyone else is a bit strange? How can the simple statement that we’re in this together help us live our days in complex social structures of the 21st century.

Well let’s start with the good news: it’s completely normal to engage in what we could describe as us and them thinking – stage two of thinking that I’m me and the rest of you … are weird. We each have a sense of our own individuality and we then seek to gather with people with whom we identify. And the possible groupings are many – family, geography, nationality, gender, education, religion, sports teams we support, music we like …

I’ve long admired the work of psychologist Daniel Goleman who writes in his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships that we humans are ‘wired to connect’ – we are social beings who naturally gravitate towards one another. We like being able to say ‘us’ as well as ‘I’. In this book Goleman also explores an interesting feature of the human brain – known as categorization. We seek order, we are constantly assessing the world around us and putting what we perceive neatly together, giving everything meaning. This is the cognitive basis of ‘us and them’ thinking where we humans sort out which camp we are in as us and then consider all those different from us as them. Goleman goes on to describe the process whereby this quite normal cognitive function develops into stereotyping and prejudice:

“A vague sense of anxiety, a tinge of fear, or mere uneasiness at not knowing the cultural signals of Them can be enough to start the skewing of a cognitive category. The mind builds its ‘evidence’ against the other with each additional disquiet, each unflattering media depiction, each feeling of having been treated wrongly. As these incidents build, apprehension becomes antipathy, and antipathy morphs into antagonism.”

I don’t know about you, but I certainly experience some of those feelings quite regularly. They’re part of the disquiet I often feel when reading or listening to the news.

So what we might call ‘us and them’ thinking is completely normal, it’s been around throughout human history, it’ll never go away. But – given the crowded and digitally connected nature of the world we live in today I’d say we have an important task. I’d say that our task as spiritually and socially aware people, our task as people who care – is to move beyond the categories in our minds, to work to develop a global awareness, to keep telling ourselves – we are in this together, all of us – our friends, our families, our nations, our sports clubs, …… and our enemies, all those we don’t identify with. We’re all here together on planet earth. It’s surely the most radical of Jesus’ teachings – it’s easy to say and hard to do.

Listen to Jesus’ radical teaching recorded in Matthew’s Gospel: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.”

That’s a very strong universalist message – that God makes no distinctions, so why do we – no wonder that Martin Luther King Jnr reckoned that ‘loving our enemies’ was a topic he needed to return each and every year. It’s a message explored by many Christians. Listen to these words from Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man in a relationship to be appointed as a bishop, who you may remember wore a bullet proof vest at his consecration – having received so many hate messages and death threats – because he loves another man.

“God calls us to the hard work of compassion for our enemies. Some people may quarrel with that characterization, but we do have enemies. It’s a word that Jesus used. The hard part is following Jesus’ own command to love our enemies. Not to like them, not to be paralyzed by their opposition, not to give in to their outrageous demands, but to love them nevertheless. To treat them with infinite respect, listen to what drives them, try our best to understand the fear that causes them to reject us, to believe them when they say they only want the best for us. That’s hard work, and we can’t do it without God’s own Spirit blowing through us like wind, breaking down our walls, causing our assumptions to ‘come loose,’ and reminding us that our enemies too are children of God…”

It’s a message echoed by all religious and spiritual traditions. In the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, we are reminded that ‘Hate is not conquered by hate; hate is conquered by love. This is the eternal law.’

None of these teachers are telling us to give up our identities. Nor are they telling us to condone appalling behaviour. There is a moral imperative I believe to hold on to our values and to seek to build a world of justice, equality and love. We know that hatred leads to de-humanizing of the ‘other’. That is what chills us so when we hear the words of those involved in genocide – the systematic targeting of particular groups because of their identity. This is what frightens us when we hear the messages of extremists the world over. They have lost a sense of common humanity. They are trapped in ‘us and them’ thinking.
And here is our task as global citizens; because in the face of ‘us and them’ thinking we tend to join in too. If we listen to our current political discourse we might start to think that there is an enemy out there who can be defeated, or that locking people up will make us safe, that building a wall is a sensible way to keep people apart. I don’t believe it is. Yes we must take care of ourselves, yes we need to take sensible steps to make our world as secure as we can. But in truth there have always been differences between people and our only way forward is to build bridges not walls, to create connections, to explore differences in curiosity rather than fear, to seek understanding, to accept the complexity of the global situations we find ourselves in.

Edwin Markham, a Universalist poet, wrote these words that speak of the need to include rather than exclude:

They drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in. (adapted)

That’s the challenge – to keep thinking of all of us in one circle, living on one planet, well and truly in this together. And remembering that most of us are probably thinking much of the time that the whole world’s a bit strange, except thee and me – and in truth I’m still not entirely sure about thee. Amen.

Rev. Sarah Tinker

Sermon – 22nd March 2015