A drink from a different cup

Cup of poison

Next to me sat a minister wearing a collar. In front of me were two men wearing yarmulkes. On the other side of the mosque were women in various head coverings. A nun sat among them.

Everyone in the mosque was in stocking feet, seated on folding chairs or simply reclining on the carpeted floor.

An organizer invited everyone to share the name of their place of worship. Dozens of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples were represented at this gathering prompted by the massacre at mosques in New Zealand this month.

We were reminded that religion – the real deal – is about standing up for peace, compassion and healing. It’s about choosing love over hatred in our individual and collective interactions each day.

The man who killed Muslims in New Zealand is the latest example of what happens when we drink from the cup of hatred. Important parts of us die off. A man whose compassion, decency, and sense of humanity were killed by this poison committed a great evil.

Poison that divides

The various hate-filled men who have violated sacred spaces – an historic black church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, mosques in New Zealand, and many others — all drank the same poison that is readily available these days:

The poison that exalts nationalism and supremacy and privilege.

The poison that advocates war and weapons as solutions.

The poison that stokes fear of anyone who is different.

The poison that builds walls against those who have a different skin color, different religion, different ethnic origin, different nationality, different sexuality, different political viewpoint.

The poison that aims to divide God’s children and turn one against another.

The struggle against hatred has gone on as long as humans have been around, and it will continue after each of us is gone from the planet. But this is our time – our moment — to offer an antidote to the poison in its various forms today.

I’ve been inspired by the many interfaith gatherings in the last couple weeks. People joined hands in offering the world a healing dose of love, compassion and peace -– the shared values of all actual religion.

They renewed their commitment to transform poisoned hearts and divided communities with a love that is undeterred and undiminished.

They offered the world a drink from a different cup.

They prayed for the victims and the perpetrators while recognizing that their thoughts and prayers were only a starting point. Words are never a finish line. Action must follow.

At the gathering I attended, we were reminded that this action must start inside each of us. We need to guard our own hearts against the poison. It’s easy for words of hatred to seep inside and influence us.

Offering an antidote

Next, we have to challenge our leaders – those who have outsize influence — to denounce these acts as expressions of evil. But the denunciations can’t end there; all leaders must emphatically and fully reject the ideologies that produce these acts.

Acts of hatred don’t come out of the blue. They’re shaped by the poisonous words in our world. Any leader who contributes to the poison or who refuses to condemn hateful ideologies is aiding and abetting and promoting the inevitable results.

Finally, we must respond in some way to the poisonous words we encounter in our daily interactions. We mustn’t allow them to pass without offering alternate words – a reminder that everyone is an equally beloved and beautiful child of God and must be treated as such.

It’s not about enforcing political correctness; it’s about offering an antidote to counteract the poison.

As the imam prayed on behalf of everyone in the mosque that day: May we work together so that goodwill dominates, love prevails, and hope spreads through our communities.

There will always be hatred in the world. We’re obligated to make sure there’s always more love.

We offer a drink from a different cup.

Choose your dream

Lorraine Motel

A section of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis recalls the lunch counter protests. An old video shows young black people sitting at a counter, being denied service.

A crowd of white people has formed to watch. Young white men begin pushing the protesters. One flings a bottle of sugar on them. Others drag protesters off their stools and begin beating them.

Some white people in the crowd laugh and cheer. Others just watch – it’s difficult to make out their expressions from the grainy images. You can’t tell if they’re horrified or supportive.

In any case, none of them intervenes.

As I watched the video, I wondered: If my white face was in that crowd, how would I have reacted? Would I have intervened? Or would I have just watched and felt bad for the protesters?

Honestly, I probably would have just watched. I would have been too intimidated to speak up in a crowd. And that’s both my problem and my challenge.

I don’t have to play “what-if” and wonder what I might have done then; the challenge is how I react today.

Which dream am I living?

The National Civil Rights Museum is part of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life for his dream 50 years ago tomorrow. The many videos and displays remind us that people were forced to choose sides in the civil rights struggle.

Some chose to push back against injustice. Others tried to protect the status quo. Many thought they could just be spectators, watching without getting involved.

That’s not possible, then or now.

King was deeply disappointed with the many white moderates who refused to choose. His Letter from Birmingham Jail was directed to white clergy who wanted him to abandon the march for justice.

King notes that some white moderates agreed with the dream but weren’t willing to embrace it or sacrifice for it. He considered them the “great stumbling block” in to the quest for equality – more than even the overt racists.

The dream is participatory. By refusing to get involved, they were siding with the KKK and the other racists who wanted to block the dream from becoming more real.

King spoke so often and so eloquently about his dream, which is based upon Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Like Jesus, he worked to make the world more of a place where the needy are cared for, the suffering are healed, and everyone is treated as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God in all respects.

It’s never been a widely popular dream.

Merely watching isn’t an option

Many people dream of a world where people like them enjoy privilege. Those who are different from them — different color, different religion, different nationality, different sex, different sexual preference – are relegated to second-class status. They work hard to preserve a system that favors the rich and the powerful and the privileged.

Each of us must choose which of the dreams will animate our lives. This is no time for standing back and watching.

Moderation isn’t an option.

MLK’s dream endures, but it becomes rooted in our world only to the extent that we are willing to work for it and sacrifice for it – to carry a cross for it.

We’re the ones entrusted with making sure that people are considered not by the color of their skin or any other superficial measure, but by their character and heart.

We’re the ones who are given the sacred work of making sure our divine diversity is respected and encouraged.

We’re the ones who must build a table where all God’s children can sit together and eat in a spirit of mutual acceptance and love.

We’re the ones

Our society has come a long way since King’s assassination on the hotel balcony. There’s much work to be done. Those who have a different dream are out there right now advocating for it – white supremacists speaking up, the KKK and neo-Nazis marching boldly, leaders lauding them as very fine people.

What do we say? Which dream do we choose? How will we sacrifice for it?

Merely watching isn’t an acceptable option.

Trying to make hate look pretty

love-hate

I was reading a story about the rise of hate groups, and a quote jumped out at me. The Columbus Dispatch interviewed the leader of a Ku Klux Klan organization about its plans to expand.

Near the end of the story, Amanda Lee defended her group’s actions as something other than hate.

“We don’t hate anybody,” she says in the story. “God says you can’t get into heaven with hate in your heart.”

Wait, what?

How can a group that reveres its history of lynching, bombing and terror contend that it’s not driven by hate? How can anyone think that there’s no hate involved in demeaning and hurting people who are different from you?

If that’s not hate, then what is?

Wait, what?

We’ve heard a lot of similar lines in the last few years from people trying to redefine hate into something more acceptable:

“I don’t hate black people. I just think they’re not as good as white people. And they should stop complaining about how they’re being treated. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate gay and transgender people. I just think they’re horrible sinners – unlike me – and I should be free to discriminate against them in any way I wish. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate Muslims. I just think they’re all dangerous and they should be prevented from practicing their religion in my country. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate women. I just think they should be submissive and accept that they’re not equal to men. And they should be quiet when someone says it’s OK to grab them by the crotch. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate refugees. I just don’t trust any of them – not even the starving babies – and I don’t want them near me. They make me uncomfortable. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate poor people. I just wish they’d get off the street corners so I wouldn’t have to see them. I think they’re all lazy and undeserving of help. But that’s not hate.”

There are many variations on the “I don’t hate (fill in the blank) people” theme. I suppose much of it involves people trying to justify their prejudices rather than confront them. Or maybe they’re trying to dress up their ugly ideas so they can gain a following.

Fill in the blank

But I also get a sense that some people who make these statements might actually believe what they’re saying. They think that because they don’t feel all angry and hateful and vicious toward others, then it’s not really hate that’s involved.

We need to talk about this.

Love and hate aren’t about emotions. They’re about attitudes and our actions. Love and hate aren’t about how we feel toward someone, but about how we treat them – what we do or don’t do to them.

To love someone means to treat them as we would want to be treated, regardless of how we feel. When we’re told to love our enemies, it doesn’t mean we feel warm-and-fuzzy about them; it means we respect their inherent human dignity.

Love recognizes that everyone is an equally beloved child of God and must be treated as such by our words and actions. Love values everyone’s dignity and worth as equal to my own.

By contrast, hate rejects another person’s equal value and worth. It sees those who are different from me as less than me in some ways. It creates the conditions for people to be abused and mistreated.

Hate is about attitudes and actions, not emotions.

Choose love instead

One of the most jarring parts of Viktor Frankl’s description of his time in a Nazi extermination camp was how people did such savage things with so little emotion. Hate becomes truly dangerous when human empathy is stripped away.

Let’s also remember that hate has an evil twin – indifference. Hate is given approval to do horrific things when people shrug and say, “Not my problem.”

And let’s not forget that hate and love exist within each of us. That’s what it means to be human. Spirituality involves an ongoing examination of our attitudes and actions to see whether they convey love, hate or indifference, and then choosing to do the most loving thing as best we can.

We need to challenge those who try to dress up hate and misrepresent it as something other than what it is. To do anything less is to give cover to hate and allow it to clothe us in its robes.

Choose to put on love instead.

And the young girl said: Don’t give up

Jogging

My jogging shirt and shorts were sweat-soaked and clinging. I probably could have stopped and wrung out my wristband. In fact, stopping was what I had in mind as I made my way up the short hill on my evening jog a few nights ago.

It was hot and extremely humid. My legs were pretty well spent. There was so much water in the air that each breath felt a bit like inhaling the whole ocean. And I still had a mile to go before I was back home.

Yeah, I think I’ll stop when I get to the top of the hill and just rest a while before I start up again.

Just then, I noticed three children approaching me on the sidewalk. Two boys, one girl. About 10 years old or so. African-American. They probably lived in the apartment complex right there, one where you don’t live if your family is well-off.

“Hey, how you guys doing?” I said.

“Gooooooooood,” they replied as a group, in the long “oooooo” sound that kids will make when you ask them that question. And then one of the boys asked a question back.

“How you doing?”

Normally I might say “gooood” right back, but at that moment I had to be honest.

“I’m strugglin’!” I said.

They moved aside to share the sidewalk with me. I thanked them. After I’d passed them, I heard one of the boys say to me, “You blazin’!”

I know that the expression has several connotations, but I took it to mean that he thought I was going fast. That made me laugh.

“I’m tryin’!!!!” I said.

And then I heard the girl’s voice call after me.

“Don’t give up!” she said.

Don’t give up. Wow! This young girl tells the plodding 60-year-old guy not to give up. All I could do was smile, turn back over my shoulder and say, “Thank you!!!”

You know those times when someone totally unexpected _ in this case, a group of children _ gives you a lift with their kindness and encouragement? Don’t those moments make you feel good?

We all need encouragement, and I have to admit that I struggle with that in some ways. Often, when I encounter someone who’s struggling with something, I’m not sure what to say. As a writer, I try to find the right word, and words are often so slippery.

Plus, it’s hard to know what to say to someone who is facing something that’s not part of my experience. For instance, feeling trapped inside the cages of racism, sexism, homophobia. Facing ostracism because of your religion or your sexual identity or your ethnic background. Being constantly judged by your looks. Fighting endlessly for your special needs child so they can get the opportunities they deserve.

I hear the daily frustration of those who are still – STILL, can you believe it! – having to push back against hatred and discrimination and indifference. They’re worn out and discouraged. They feel like they’re getting nowhere. They wonder why they should keep trying.

Me? I haven’t had to walk in their shoes; I’ve had the privilege of doing my daily jogs in cushy, comfortable ones.

And then, I meet three children on a sidewalk and they remind me of something important: Encouragement matters, no matter how it’s expressed or who it’s coming from. Sometimes, the few words of a stranger can be as powerful as any spoken by a friend.

A simple hug, a kind word – those make a difference. So does reminding someone that they matter and that their life matters. And yes, it’s important to acknowledge how frustrating it is at times. Then, it’s equally important to remind them that the arc is long, but their hands are bending it.

So keep blazing. Keep blazing those trails in our families and our neighborhoods and our schools and our religions and our cultures and our countries and our various circles of friends, including those on social media. Keep doing it even when we’re out of breath and our legs feel like they’re giving out and our energy needle is getting awfully friendly with the empty mark.

Do it even when we feel like we’re getting nowhere — especially when we feel like we’re getting nowhere.

And if we need to stop for a moment and catch our breath and wring a little sweat from our wristband, that’s cool. Everybody needs to take a step back from time to time and catch their breath before putting one foot in front of the other again.

Remember the young girl’s three powerful words. The ones that helped me make it all the way home without stopping on one hot night. And probably will many more nights, too — more than that girl will ever know.

The bolts of hatred

Bolt

One of my roommates in college was gay. He confided in me about his sexual preference, knowing I’d respect his confidence. Back then, gay people were openly ridiculed and rejected and attacked.

I wish I could say this was no longer true, but obviously I can’t. We’ve come a long way, but what happened in Orlando and the reaction to it provide harsh reminders of how people hate those who are different from them in some way.

Still so much hatred.

I’m the associate minister at an open and affirming UCC church. We accept everyone just as they are. I’ve heard many stories about how members of my church family have been treated horrifically by their families, by their former “Christian” churches, and by co-workers because of their sexual orientation.

Their openness touches me. Their courage inspires me. Their stories remind me how I enjoy a sort of “straight” privilege. Nobody has ever threatened me because I was holding a girl’s hand, or refused to rent me an apartment because I was dating a woman. Nobody has ever refused to bake me a cake because I’m straight.

I have never had to worry that my sexual identity was going to get me killed.

One thing about the reaction to Orlando troubles me greatly. People who have said so many hateful and harmful things about LBGT people are now trying to distance themselves from what happened. They’re trying to frame it as merely another instance of extremism by different people from a different country and a different religion.

Nothing could be further from the truth here.

So many self-styled “Christians” have done so many hateful and hurtful things to the LGBT community. It’s tiring to have to remind people of the way so many “Christian” parents have disowned their children simply for being gay, or how many “Christian” churches have invited gay people through their front doors only to attack them from the pulpit, or how many “Christian” evangelists have blamed all of the country’s ills on gay people being treated as equally beloved children of God.

Sorry. No matter where we are in the spectrum of things, none of us can take ourselves completely off the hook for what happened in Orlando. We all contribute our part. None of these horrible things happens in a vacuum.

We’re the ones who create the hot bed in which hatred grows and spreads and eventually strikes out. Or we encourage it with a shrug and indifference. Or we speak out for love and justice, which can pull hatred up by the roots for a while. And we keep at it, responding to hatred with love over and over.

This is on each of us. Are we going to encourage it, hide from it, or push back against it?

And those who like to think they’re totally different from the person who pulled the trigger in Orlando need to remember that our attitudes matter just as much as our actions. Jesus said as much all the time. We’ve seen it play out so many times.

One year ago this week, a young white man walked into an historically black church in Charleston, S.C., participated in a Bible study, and killed nine of the African-American church members. The white man had gotten swept up in the deep current of racial hatred in our country, a current created by the words and attitudes of others.

What we say and how we treat others affects everyone and everything around us. That’s one of the basic tenets of religion – love one another, treat others the way you want to be treated. Do it because how you live has such a big impact on everyone else.

What we say and how we say it create the atmosphere in which we live. Just as each exhaled breath puts something into the air, so does each word.

Hateful attitudes are like an electrical charge that gets sent into the atmosphere. The charge grows and solidifies and forms a lightning bolt that hits some target and causes great harm and destruction.

These bolts never come out of the blue. They come out of us.

So does love. The only way to dissipate hatred is by giving all people the same unconditional and unlimited love that God has for each of us. As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

None of these horrific acts is isolated from us. They happen in a world that we fill each day with either a little more love or a little more hate or a little more indifference. Each of us must chose.

Hatred or love? Violence or peace? Holy wars or holiness? Being silent or speaking up? Loving everyone or no one at all?

Archie and me

Archie

I became well-versed in slurs during my childhood. I learned them in my neighborhood, in my church, in my extended family. I heard many different types of people demeaned with many different words.

I grew up in an ethnic area of Cleveland. Each immigrant group had its own neighborhood, its own tavern, its own bakery, its own church, and its own groups that it disliked because of past history.

Italians? They’re all in the mob. The Irish are drunks. The Poles are dumb. Blacks are uncivilized. Women are dim and emotional. Protestants are hell-bound. Jews are money grubbers.

On and on it went. There were demeaning terms for pretty much every group, including my group. And the mention of other groups could bring out the worst in some people.

That’s why Archie Bunker was one of my favorite television characters. I knew him. Also, I knew many people like his daughter and his son-in-law who regularly called him out for his prejudices. For instance, my dad would challenge my grandfather for using the n-word yet again.

The show came on TV at a time when another idea was taking root in America: People should be considered by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or any other superficial difference.

For a time, the slurs and the ugly jokes receded, although many people still felt comfortable telling them when they were around people like them. They’d complain that the country had become so “politically correct” that their slurs and jokes no longer drew nods and laughs, but criticism.

And they wished things would go back to the way they were. Back to the days when we openly judged people on the basis of the color of their skin or the country of their origin or the sex chromosome they inherited. And people would nod and laugh and agree.

Like Archie, they thought: Those were the days.

Well, those days are making a comeback in some ways, aren’t they?

A presidential candidate gets applause for saying a Mexican can’t be an impartial judge, or Muslims are dangerous, or immigrants are criminals, or women should be judged on their physical appearance. Or when he says that only rich people like him can be great.

And it’s not confined to politics. Religion is providing its own blast from the past: I’m going to heaven, but you’re not because you’re a sinner and I don’t want to have anything to do with you because I’m afraid it might jeopardize me. So go away.

My childhood, revisited.

Fearing those who are different from us seems to be our default setting as humans. It’s true for me. I’m more comfortable in groups of people who are more like me in some ways. People who think like me and have similar life experiences.

Yeah, there’s that little bit of Archie in me, too. It’s just a human trait, I suppose, woven throughout our history and religious texts. And so is this: The moral and spiritual imperative to push past our innate fears and learn to love each other and appreciate our differences.

Jesus loudly advocated for it, which got him into a hell of a lot of trouble. He reached out to the rejected groups of his times and welcomed them. He was constantly criticized for inviting the wrong people – the ones who were the objects of the slurs and the nasty jokes – to eat and socialize with him.

In fact, he made those people the heroes of his stories. It’s the dreaded, good-for-nothing Samaritan who is the model of behavior, not the religiously observant people.

Is it any wonder that people wanted to push him off a cliff?

So, what about us? Perhaps we start with never allowing anyone to be slurred or bullied or made the butt of jokes, even if there’s a price to be paid in standing up for them.

But it requires something more.

Perhaps the next time we encounter one of them people – as Archie would say – we could invite them for coffee or lunch. Instead of talking about our differences, we could share stories about what keeps us up at night, what breaks our hearts, what makes us feel alive, what we’d most like to change about ourselves.

And maybe along the way we’ll have a few laughs and change how we feel about each another a little bit. In doing so, we might actually get somewhere.

Somewhere beyond the days that were great only for those slinging the slurs.