Love Stinks

Presenter: 
Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 01/26/2014

As you know, the theme this month is What Would a Truly Just World Look like, and two weeks ago we started talking about UUtopia and how we might bring such a thing about.

I talked about the role of compassionate love and the golden rule, and traced the UU interest in love back through Christianity and Judaism. I compared the Jewish and Christian ideal of the kingdom of god to what UUs might also consider to be utopia.

A striking image of a peaceable kingdom was reflected in a poem by Methodist minister Jan Richardson, that went like this:
"And the table will be wide.
And the welcome will be wide.
And the arms will open wide to gather us in.
And our hearts will open wide to receive.
And we will come as children who trust there is enough.
And we will come unhindered and free.
And we will open our hands to the
feast without shame.
And we will turn to each other without fear.
And we will give up our appetite for despair.
And we will taste and know of delight.
And we will become bread for a hungering world.
And we will become drink for those who thirst.
And the blessed will become the blessing.
And everywhere will be the feast."
-Jan Richardson

The theme song that week was “All You Need is Love,” and that’s where we left it. All you need is love to bring about UUtopia, the peaceable kingdom where no one hurts or destroys. Problem solved. Cue empathic civilization now.

Although, not really, right, because as anyone who is paying any sort of attention might note, these ideas from Unitarian Universalism and Christianity and Judaism have been around for thousands of years, and yet the world is not yet a UUtopia by any stretch of the imagination. People do hurt each other. They certainly do not open their arms wide to the stranger. They do not love others as themselves. They do not, most of the time, see the common threads binding themselves to the rest of the world.

Yet we heard from the video [RSA Animate: The Empathic Civilisation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g] that we are soft wired for empathy, and are already inclined to empathize with members of our own groups, whatever that group may be.

Ah, there it is. We are inclined – biologically, as our video suggests, or certainly socially – to empathize, to practice the Golden Rule, within our own group. So the big question, it seems, when we’re asking about creating UUtopia – or an empathic civilization, as our video calls it, or beloved community, or the kingdom of God – the big question is, what is our group? How do people decide what their group is?

Originally, people grouped according to blood ties, and close proximity in a primitive culture. The people on this side of the mountain, many of them our cousins, belong to us; people on that side of the mountain are not us, not our group.

The creator of the video, Jeremy Rifkin, uses the term “fiction” several times to talk about some of the groupings that people have chosen to bond in over time. Because later on, people created social structures to measure their belonging, and those structures change over time and culture. You can use religion as a marker of who is in and who is out. You can use nationality. You can use race. You can use political persuasion. You can use the football team you’re rooting for in the Superbowl as a marker of your group. People are able to use any dividing line as a tool between an in group and an out group, an us versus a them. I said in a committee meeting this week for example that there are two kinds of people, people who want to use the phone and people who do not want to use the phone. The list goes on forever.

These in groups and out groups are invented. You might guess that football fandom is pretty arbitrary, but no more so than the rest. National borders are drawn by people. Religions were invented by people. It is no more natural to group people by skin color than it is to group them by height or hair color. Everywhere you look, people have made some sort of group, to which they either belong or do not, to which you may also belong, or not. Whether you both belong to the identified group makes a difference in how you see each other, no matter how arbitrary or remote that group is. Have you ever been traveling and met someone from your hometown? Have you ever been at work and met someone who went to your high school? Boom! Bond! It creates an immediate affinity, apparently because that is how we are made, to bond with those who belong to the same groups we do.

Why? Why are we always creating groups and lumping people in them? Why does there always seem to be an us and a them, when it comes to human beings?

Remember in the video that Jeremy Rifkin says that human beings have a drive to belong. I think that’s a critical piece of the puzzle. Human beings are desperate to belong, and they strive to find out where it is they belong.
Trying to belong is what makes us empathetic, says Rifkin. We use empathy within our group in order to learn, bond, and survive. Empathy helps us belong, as if empathy were the glue that the group uses to get you stuck into it as firmly as possible. Because if you want to belong, you need a group to belong to, right? Even if it’s an abstract, mental group, like “extroverts” or “scientific thinkers” or “republicans”, it’s still something that you can feel you belong to, and human beings have a drive to do that.

We strive to belong, says the video, and I would also say that at the very core of who we are we fear a lack of belonging. We fear that we don’t belong. We fear that we don’t belong to our families or communities. We fear we don’t fit in, that we’re alone, that we’ll be on our own in a difficult world and no-one will help.

Does that fear make us want to invent new groups to which we can belong?

Remember how the video says that any child of eight realizes that the world is a difficult place and that we’ve only got one life and it’s going to end anyway? We are vulnerable and fragile, that’s for sure. Do we group up, in a primal sort of way, to protect ourselves from being alone and even more vulnerable? And, when we group up because of fear, do we risk losing the ability to extend our natural empathy to those who are outside our chosen groups?

For the good of all humanity, for the good of all living things, doesn’t it make sense to try to make the group you belong to as big as possible?

If we listen to the video’s evidence, then it seems even more clear than ever that Unitarian Universalism’s path is a useful one. Unitarian Universalism definitely heard the Christian message to love your neighbor, way back in the day. We’ve kept asking who our neighbor is for all this time, and making different groups of neighbor and enemy, and after decades and centuries of getting new groupings wrong in different ways, we Unitarian Universalists have decided on this:

It’s all our neighbor. We need to love it all.

There’s only one group. We are an interdependent web. We come from the same source. We are all stardust, all brothers from another mother, all cousins, all leaves on the same family tree.

There is no one side of the mountain that’s safe, and the other side that’s dangerous and needs to be controlled. There is no us and them. There’s not even any Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. Life isn’t a contest for a Superbowl ring. We need each other and we all belong. Because we need each other, we all HAVE to belong. When we aren’t able to make the group big enough for everyone, then all we do is fight. We’re soft wired to, apparently.

How do we extend the empathy we’re so good at offering to our selected, invented groups to more and more people?

The very morning I began writing this sermon, the Washington Post published an article called “For Rats, social familiarity – not genetics – breeds empathy, study finds” [1.15.14, A3] The study in question found that when rats from different families, meaning rats with no genetic similiarities, grow up together, then they offer each other the same empathy that they otherwise would offer family members. The rats “aren’t born with an innate motivation to help their own kind, but instead [to help] those they are socially familiar with.” This may be something any adoptive parent could tell you.

Still, it’s informative. It calls us to remember that we may also be more empathetic to those with whom we are socially familiar. Still, if we look around at our daily lives, we may see a lot of conformity. Do you associate primarily with folks from your own race, your own class, your own educational background, your own political perspective? How does that affect your ability to be empathetic to those who are not from those groups?

And if these groups of yours are privileged ones, meaning white or economically secure, or well-educated, how might your groupings affect your work for justice, for UUtopia? You’re doing yourself a disservice when your groupings are too homogenous, because it will be harder to naturally empathize with people you aren’t familiar with. And you’ll be doing the world a disservice if you can’t empathize with people who are less fortunate and less privileged than you are, because those folks belong just as much as you do, and so long as the world is skewed against them, then we’re all going to suffer because the world won’t be what it can be.

So, spending time with people from different groups until they feel like they’re actually in our group, that’s a good thing to do to bring about UUtopia. What else?

I think we need to be aware of fear and how fear plays a role in our desire to group up. G. V. attended the Soul circle meeting last week and spoke about how much he sees fear as an impediment to UUtopia.

What would the world be like if we weren’t afraid of losing our resources, or not being able to provide for our children? How often do we project our fears, our awareness of our fragility and our vulnerability, onto groups we don’t belong to?

Is fear the opposite of empathy, perhaps the thing that keeps our empathy flowing just to our own groups and not to the others?

What would happen if you saw your fear as a product of the us vs. them dynamic, and then set it aside. “Oh, I’m just feeling afraid of this person because this person is in a different group than I am! What would happen if I act as if this person is in my group, even if I am afraid? How would that change things?”

Or this: “Am I feeling more afraid because this person seems to be in a different group? Would I feel the same way if this person were in my group? Since these groups are invented, just fictions, can I practice that by pretending for now that this person and I are in the same group? How does that affect my fear?”

That’s what we do in church, right? We practice stretching our belonging group. Everyone who comes here belongs to us, and us to them. So we interact with them in a new way as a result. Not to say it always goes smoothly. But we do practice belonging, together, and we see what happens to our interactions when we do. Generally, it’s a remarkably positive thing, to break down these boundaries between us. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen little glimpses of UUtopia right here at SCUU. It happens.

I think we also need to know that every little bit of work we can do to become one group will help.

Polish poet Stanislaw J. Lec [Letz] once said, “Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty.” The quote points, Rev. Vanessa Southern says, to the great impact that even small acts of injustice have on the world. “Little acts can add up,” she writes, “like snowflakes on an overhang, sometimes with tragic consequences….[but] small acts of kindness and courage can also pile up… seemingly inconsequential acts of goodness and mercy can precipitate avalanches of their own—avalanches of good.”

Southern goes on to say that this is good news for those of us who are unlikely to blaze a giant path of improvement in the world. All the little things we do to make the world better, they matter. If we can help UUtopia come to life by breaking down these barriers, little by little, until we really finally see that there is only one group, that all the world deserves our empathy and care, then that is work that needs to be done. The littlest snowflake at some point causes the avalanche, for good or for ill.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief, says the Talmud.
Do justly, now
Love mercy, now
You are not obligated to complete the work
Neither are you free to abandon it.

Because you cannot do everything, says Edward Everett Hale, you must not refuse to do the something that you can do.

You are already a Unitarian Universalist. You already believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. You already believe that every voice matters. You already believe that you belong to an interdependent web of creation that also contains everything else in the world, in the universe. That means you belong, without a doubt, and so does everyone else. There is one group, the group called All of Us. All we have to do to bring about UUtopia is to act as if what we believe to be true actually is true. And then UUtopia will be here.
And the table will be wide.
And the welcome will be wide.
And the arms will open wide to gather us in.
And our hearts will open wide to receive.
And we will come as children who trust there is enough.
And we will come unhindered and free.
And we will open our hands to the
feast without shame.
And we will turn to each other without fear.
And we will give up our appetite for despair.
And we will taste and know of delight.
And we will become bread for a hungering world.
And we will become drink for those who thirst.
And the blessed will become the blessing.
And everywhere will be the feast."
-Jan Richardson

So may it be, soon. Amen.