Another homily from Pastor Dick Dahl–enjoy! –Pastor Kathy
February 11, 2018
Today’s first reading from the Book of Leviticus describes how in ancient times Israel dealt with perceived dangers to the community. When someone had symptoms that might develop into a virulent disease like leprosy, the person was brought to an authority, at that time the priest, and if confirmed, the person was excluded from the camp. It was a severe form of quarantine, but similar to the initial action taken with ebola victims a few years ago.
We need interaction and relationships with other people for our psychological health, our spiritual health, and even for physical well-being. This is the reason that quarantine, exile, deportation, even being shunned are such painful experiences.
Today, however, instead of being forcefully separated from others, people often choose to enter into communities of separation. Walls in Israel and along our own southern border are built to keep people out. On a more local scale, we have “gated communities.” We may recognize in ourselves a tendency to mainly interact with people we have natural patterns of association with. Even our “All Are One” community–while being “all inclusive,” that is, open to all who chose to come and join it–consists of very like-minded people, people who share the same values.
I suggest that the affliction challenging us the most today is the difficulty so many of us have in listening to and finding a way of communicating with those whose values differ from us–especially in religion or politics.
Three years ago I gave a homily at this time of year about an interview Bill Moyers had had on public television with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. Haidt, had recently authored a book entitled “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” I think the main points of that interview bear repeating today given the ever increasing divisions in our society.
Haidt pointed to the way in which people have chosen to self-segregate. As we concentrate mainly with people who are just like us, we are less and less able to understand those who’re not like us. Without a human connection it is harder to like and even respect those whose views and patterns of behavior differ from our own. We can end up in separate moral universes, each with its own facts and experts.
Furthermore liberals and conservatives differ in the importance they give to certain values. Liberals give top ranking to caring and compassion. Fairness is also important to them but caring will top that when push comes to shove. They also tend to believe that in the long haul cooperation is more productive than competition.
Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to give high ranking to group loyalty, to authority, order and sanctity. They see it as unfair when government policies punish success and reward failure. They see this happen when welfare and other payments are given to people who aren’t working. They tend to think that bad example needs consequences.
Haidt said that many people, especially Baby Boomers, are prone to Manichaean thinking. Manichaeus was a third century Persian prophet who preached that the world is a battleground between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And everybody has to take a side. Some people have sided with good, and of course, we all believe that we’ve sided with good. But that means that the other people have sided with evil. And when it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but when it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to find common ground or compromise.
Conservatives tend to sacralize institutions like country or church and symbols like the flag. Liberals tend to sacralize victim groups. Haidt pointed out that once we sacralize a group or idea, we become blind to contrary evidence.
Haidt offers a path toward positive communication by helping us first recognize the values passionately held by those with whom we tend to disagree. Haidt also proposed that we identify and avoid demonization. We can disagree as much as we want, but if we dismiss other people and demonize their motives, we’re usually going to be wrong about that. So if we could begin to see this in ourselves and each other and even challenge each other and say, “Hey, you’re demonizing.” Disagree with them but stop attributing bad motives to the other side.” That would at least be some progress.
Finally I want to call your attention again to the Red Boot Way which I’ve spoken about frequently in recent months. You may remember that it is a nationwide organization created by Molly Barker, who believes that people simply don’t know how to listen to each other. Its purpose is simply to gather people to discuss how they see the world and why, and to then share what they believe their role in it to be.
Among its “11 Steps” are the following: (Step 5) “We came to see that, despite sometimes being fearful of those who are not like us, we have more in common than we realize. We approach those we meet with positive intent and likewise assume that they come to us with positive intent. We are open.” (Step 7) “We came to see that, despite wanting at times to ‘be right’, we best serve the world by seeking first to understand and then be understood. We humbly put aside our own agendas and listen with our whole heart before responding. We are present.”
In closing let us remember that in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus did not withdraw or separate himself from the disfigured, leprous man who came to him. He first touched him. Then the healing took place. In a similar manner his example challenges us to strive for respectful contact with those we differ from so that healing communication has a chance to take place. And as Paul urged the Corinthians, “…whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Give no offense…just as I try to please everyone in any way I can, I do this by seeking not my own advantage, but that of the many….”