One morning in early February 2022, I opened a link to a video of a person aiming a stream of water from a hose toward several large dogs of various breeds that were playing and drinking in the water flow as the narrator said:
“… you have the dogs that love the water …” Then, the camera pans to a group of similar dogs just sitting, watching from a safe distance, and the narrator says, laughing, “… and then you have the dogs that hate the water.”(1) This link was embedded in a daily devotional and was accompanied by this quote from the poet, Audre Lorde:
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” (2)
Robert Sapolsky, the Stanford primatologist, and biochemist, writes that
“Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language, group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture. We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency. … But crucially, there is room for optimism … we all carry many Us/Them divisions in our heads. A Them in one case can be an Us in another, and it can only take an instant for identity to flip. … The brain’s fault lines dividing Us from Them are also shown with the hormone oxytocin. Famed for its pro-social effects, oxytocin prompts people to be more trusting, cooperative, and generous. But crucially, this is how oxytocin influences behavior toward members of your own group. When it comes to outgroup members, it does the opposite.”(4)
Pretty depressing; we are hormonally wired to distinguish Us from Them; even to create differences, where none need to exist. Sapolsky further points out that we readily forgive our fellow ingroup members for their transgressions; we interpret their “wrongs” situationally, we highlight extenuating circumstances to explain their behavior. However, when a THEM does something “wrong”, well, “that’s the way They are.”
Humans are not unique. A recent article in National Geographic described a research study in which a rat is confined inside a transparent plastic tube with holes; the tube has a door that can be opened from the outside. One rat is placed in the tube which is then placed inside a cage containing another rat that is free to move around. The rat in the tube squirms causing the rat on the outside to circle the tube, bite it and try to dig underneath it attempting to free the trapped rat.
“After a few sessions, the free rat figures out how to open the door. Once it has learned this trick, the free rat wastes no time in liberating the trapped rat. This helpful behavior, though, is contingent on whether the free rat feels a sense of kinship toward the confined one. A free rat raised with others of the same genetic type will help a trapped rat of that type, even if it is a stranger. But if the trapped rat is of a different genetic type, the free rat remains unperturbed by its plight and doesn’t let it out. However, if a rat from one genetic type grows up with rats of another, it helps rats only of that other type, including strangers, while ignoring the distress of rats of its own type.”(4)
Unlike rats, humans can create their identity factors … and we do! As Robert Sapolsky points out, humans are flexible with respect to their identities. We easily convert “Them” to “Us” depending on the question asked. A question as simple as “Do you like broccoli?” can serve to split a group people into YES – (maybe) – and NO!!! sub-groups. For the record, I am in the ‘maybe’ group on broccoli. We humans have a lot of identity factors that are VERY important to us … and we can shift our allegiances quickly, depending on the circumstances.
Our Scripture reading today is rather provocative. In it, Jesus is talking to “the people who had faith in him,” the chosen, “Abraham’s children,” asking why they want to kill him “for telling you the truth that God gave me … I did not come on my own. Why can’t you understand what I am talking about? Can’t you stand to hear what I am saying? ….” Jesus was rejected by his own people; he was marginalized by “the Jews.” The Gospel of John is, in the words of the scholar Adele Reinhartz, “a Gospel of paradoxes and contradictions both in its content and in the reactions, it evokes in its readers. … John’s Gospel has been called both the most Jewish and the most anti-Jewish of the Gospels”(5) as it extensively relies on the Jewish Scriptures yet contains numerous passages such as todays. Other scholars point out that this passage reflects a family squabble. John’s “Gospel was written in the context of early Christians’ painful separation from Judaism and from the synagogue.” The followers of John were a minority community among the followers of Jesus; they were marginalized, they felt themselves exiled both from the majority population of Jews AND from the other nascent Christians. (6)
This passage has caused a lot of trouble in the “real” world. The author of the book The Difficult Words of Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, relates her own experience with this troublesome Scripture in the chapter on this passage, entitled “Your Father the Devil,”
“Twice, once in North Carolina where I did my graduate studies and once in Tennessee where I now live, I have been asked by older women in Methodist churches when I had my horns removed. I knew that some Christians thought Jews had horns. In part, the idea comes from our difficult verse in John 8. … I gently told both ladies that Jews do not have horns. They were pleasantly surprised. Their question did not make them antisemites. Uninformed, yes, but not antisemites.” (7)
We live in uneasy, uncertain times. We continue to be overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending pandemic, by famine, by wildfires and drought, by hurricanes and flooding, Antisemitism is on the rise in this country, and Islamophobia continues to gnaw the edges of our social contract. Political violence, which is often made worse by religious differences within and between faith traditions, is also increasing, and not just in the U.S. Recently the tension between Hindus and Muslims in India (8) has impacted those in the UK, in New Jersey (9), and in the greater Bay Area. The hearts and minds of those who live among us are burdened by what is happening to family members who find themselves on the “other side” of our polarization. Our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate our differences leads to “compassion fatigue.” Many of us are starting to recognize the cumulative effect of these worries, concerns, and losses … we are grieving. We are heartbroken.
David French, a columnist at The Atlantic magazine, recently wrote that
“Hatred is making people foolish. Hatred is making people gullible. The process works like this: The more negative your view of your opponents, the more likely you’ll believe even the wildest claims against them. … prior bad acts and scandals should make us skeptical not gullible. … We’re all vulnerable to our own animosities. We’re all far more prone to believe allegations against opponents than we are to believe allegations against allies.” He advises readers to “Be skeptical of your instincts and desires; they’re tainted by bias. … Hatred can make fools of us all.” (10)
.As I prepared this sermon, the following quote kept coming back to me:
“… I couldn’t understand why anyone would fear me. I thought I was only doing what was right and defending those I loved.”
That quote comes from an opinion essay by Derek Black, entitled “Why I Left White Nationalism,” (11) In this essay, Black describes growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida near Mar-a-Lago as the son of the founder of Stormfront, the first major white nationalist website, and godson of David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (12). Black attended “a liberal college where (his) presence prompted huge controversy,” the college happens to be my undergraduate alma mater. He attributes his change in attitude to the “many talks with devoted and diverse people … who chose to invite (him) into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize (him).” Black notes in his essay, which was written shortly after the 2016 election, that, since his renouncing of white nationalism,
“People have approached me looking for a way to change the minds of Trump voters, but I can’t offer any magic technique. That kind of persuasion happens in person-to-person interactions, and it requires a lot of honest listening on both sides. For me, the conversations that led me to change my views started because I couldn’t understand why anyone would fear me. I thought I was only doing what was right and defending those I loved.”
No “magic technique,” just the “honest listening on both sides” that happens only person-to-person, between individuals and in small groups. In Black’s case, it was the initiative of a single Orthodox Jewish student inviting Black to join a small, diverse group of fellow students at a weekly Shabbat service that provided, over many months, the setting for those conversations during which he slowly realized that his long-held beliefs hurt these friends. These conversations gave Black the courage to renounce white nationalism; … in doing so, he lost his family and the community that formed him. It was not an easy choice to leave “those (he) loved.”
Dwelling on these differences can take a tremendous toll on us … and sneak in when we least expect it. Such as the surge of “wicked glee” I feel when I learn that someone famous, like a politician or someone close to them, especially one who isn’t vaccinated, comes down with COVID-19. And why do I feel especially self-righteous and smug about my own fully vaccinated and triply boosted state? What about this “schadenfreude,” (13) that “German term for the joy one takes in another’s misfortune’? It is certainly not what the Gospels teach us! Jesus wants us “… to pray for our enemies not celebrate their misfortunes, … (to) care for the sick, not laugh at them. … Schadenfreude is not a Christian value. It’s not even a loosely moral value.” In a column in the New York Times in January 2022 (14), Fr. James Martin observes that “the problem is that even a mild case of schadenfreude” is bad for us and if “indulged in regularly, schadenfreude ends up warming the soul. It robs us of empathy for those with whom we disagree. It lessens our compassion. …. It ‘hardens our hearts.” Acknowledging that “if someone coughs in your face either intentionally (or thoughtlessly) … it’s natural to get angry. At least for a few seconds. But what you do with those emotions – give into them, prolong them or intensify them – is a moral decision.” Finding glee or satisfaction in another person’s misery is “mean. It’s immoral. And one day you may be the unfortunate one.” That column hit me in a sensitive spot, this type of “COVID schadenfreude” is something I find hard not to indulge in.
I find some comfort in the work of Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, who observed that the growth of the early Christian church may have been impacted by two epidemics in the first two centuries of the Common Era, during each of which up to a third of the population of the Roman empire perished. Relying on both Christian and pagan historical sources, Stark suggests that “Christianity … projected a hopeful … portrait of the future. … Christian values of love and charity had, from the beginning, been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival.” (15) Christians provided food, water and other fundamental care to others who were temporarily too weak to cope for themselves. Even this minimal level of caring does a great deal to reduce mortality. Simple acts of compassion, of caring, … of love … saved lives. Deep listening and person-to-person connection heals.
Swedenborgians often describe God as Divine Love-and-Wisdom (16). We use the image of the sun in our solar system: the sun itself is heat (love) and light (wisdom) and Divine Providence is the radiation that emanates from the sun and brings life to our beautiful blue planet, Earth. Interestingly, “John’s Gospel has more to say about love than the other three Gospels combined. … its focus …is on loving one another” (17). In True Christianity, Emanuel Swedenborg advises that people develop “prudent kindness” by performing acts of compassion from genuine goodwill.
“Doing an act of kindness for an evildoer is like giving bread to a devil; the devil will turn it into poison. All bread that is in the hand of a devil is poison. If it is not, the devil will turn it into poison by diverting the act of kindness to an evil purpose. … It is as if you gave leadership and control to a thief whose sole focus was keeping an eye out for things to steal; the thief would create rules and make decisions based primarily on the abundance and value of the loot.” (18)
Our intentions to do good do not “stick” if we don’t make them our own and weave our beliefs into our actions, reflecting and learning how to be prudently kind, prudently compassionate. This is the path of regeneration, of salvation. It’s a practice, an earthly experience engaged in by spiritual beings. One that involves reflecting on our actions, repenting (turning again toward God), reforming our behavior and re-engaging with others as stewards of our beautiful, material world. We are embodied spirits; through our bodies, our actions here on earth, we reform our spirits and form ourselves for heaven through our life in the world.” (19) Perhaps there’s some group or activity in your local community that you will want to get involved in, perhaps with others of your church or faith community. Currently there are several innovative ways of “doing” and “being” church in the Swedenborgian Church of North America:
- the Garden Church of San Pedro worships by working, worshipping, and eating communally in a garden in San Pedro, California, (20)
- the New Church of Southwest Desert, in Silver City, New Mexico, uses their fellowship hall for the OASIS/Coffee and Tea House as outreach to the wider community, (21)
- and the Swedenborg Chapel in Cambridge, Massachusetts is birthing the Helen Keller Center of Spiritual Life to provide a place to support Keller’s vision of human flourishing. (22)
All these places provide a space for healing conversations, spaces for discussions that may lead to an Aha! moment such as that experienced by Derek Black. A place where people find connection, identify ways of working together to build a strong, resilient community. The essence of our Swedenborgian life in action, our Christian hospitality: simple care for our neighbors. Simple care of listening, talking, working and eating together: church. What an opportunity!
We need heart surgery. We need a “change of heart.”
In The Difficult Words of Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine points out that “The problem is that Jew-hatred, like the other social sins of racism, sexism, classism, judging people by what their bodies look like or how those bodies move or express themselves, and so on, has become so normalized that people often don’t even hear it. … Jesus … is substantially interested in making us better than we are, and part of that process is opening our hearts. The process is painful, as anyone who has ever had open-heart surgery well knows. We come out of the procedure with scars, but ideally, we come out healthier. The journey is difficult, the road narrow, but the rewards stupendous.”
May each of our hearts, … may all our hearts be changed. Amen
Joy T. Barnitz, M.Div, Ph.D. is on the Leadership Team of the Tri-City Interfaith Council, which has members from Fremont, Union City and Newark, California, serving as President 2021-2022. A lifelong Swedenborgian, Joy has served on the Board of Wayfarers Chapel and on the Council of the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church. A member of three Christian denominations, she is an active member of Niles Discovery Church in Fremont, a church aligned with both the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
n addition to her interfaith work, she serves on two boards in the Northern California Nevada Conference of the UCC. She received her Certificate of Swedenborgian Theology in 2014 and her M.Div. in 2015, both from the Pacific School of Religion; she received her Certificate in Women’s Studies in Religion from the Graduate Theological Union in 2018. Now retired after over 30 years in the biopharmaceutical industry, she has broad experience at the laboratory bench, in the corporate boardroom and at the bedside. She volunteers as a spiritual care provider at Washington Hospital where she serves as an on-call chaplain and leads a bereavement outreach program.
(1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAsbsyqgCmI (accessed 14 November 2022), originally seen in Clara Parkes, “The Daily Respite,” https://dailyrespite.substack.com/p/february-9-2022 ; access limited to subscribers
(2) Audre Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us: Poems. https://sweeva.wordpress.com/2017/07/03/it-is-not-our-differences-that-divide-us-it-is-our-inability-to-recognize-accept-and-celebrate-those-differences-%E2%80%95-audre-lorde-our-dead-behind-us-poems/ (accessed 11 February 2022)
(3) Robert Sapolsky, “Why Your Brain Hates Other People: And how to make it think differently.” Nautilus, June 22, 2017. https://nautil.us/why-your-brain-hates-other-people-6283/ (accessed 11 February 2022), all quotes are taken from this article
(4) Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “What are animals thinking? They feel empathy, grieve, seek joy just like us.” National Geographic, published September 15, 2022. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/what-are-animals-thinking-feature (accessed 5 November 2022)
(5) Adele Reinhartz, “The Gospel According to John” introductory essay in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2017). Adele Reinhartz information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adele_Reinhartz (accessed 8 February 2022)
(6) Based on John Buchanan, “John, ‘the Jews’ and us: John’s context and ours,” https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2010-02/john-jews-and-us?reload=1644272172638 (accessed 12 February 2022) and Gail R. O’Day, “John and Judaism” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003) pp. 1925-26.
(7) Amy-Jill Levine, “Your Father the Devil,” in The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2021) pp. 125-149. The focus text for her essay is John 8:44a
(8) Megan Specia, “Tensions That Roiled English City Have Roots in India,” New York Times, October 2, 2022 (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/02/world/europe/leicester-violence-uk.html , accessed 3 October 2022) and Tracey Tully, “An Anti-Muslim Symbol from India Is Paraded on Main Street, New Jersey,” New York Time, September 27, 2022 (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/25/nyregion/bulldozer-indian-parade-new-jersey.html, accessed 3 October 2022)
(9) See Cory Booker’s statement on October 26, 2022 at the end of Diwali, https://www.booker.senate.gov/news/press/booker-statement-condemning-anti-hinduism (accessed 14 November 2022)
(10) David French, “Hatred Makes Fools of Us All,” The Third Rail newsletter for The Atlantic subscribers, September 30, 2022.
(11) R. Derek Black,”Why I Left White Nationalism,” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/opinion/sunday/why-i-left-white-nationalism.html (accessed 3 February 2022)
(12) David Duke, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Duke (accessed 3 February 2022)
(13) For a definition, and pronunciation, see: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/schadenfreude (accessed
(14) James Martin, “How Do You Respond When an Anti-Vaxxer Dies of Covid?” New York Times, Opinion, January 30,2022 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/30/opinion/culture/covid-death-mental-health.html?searchResultPosition=1 (accessed 12 February 2022)
(15) Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), Chap.4, p. 74, italics in original text
(16) I. want to thank George F. Dole for using “Love-and-Wisdom,” as if one word, to convey the oneness of God.
(17) Mark Allen Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2009) p. 187
(18) Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, New Century Edition, 2012, translated by Jonathan S. Rose) No. 428
(19) Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, New Century Edition, 2000, translated by George F. Dole) No. 360
(20) Garden Church of San. Pedro website is https://www.gardenchurchsp.org/ (accessed on 24 October 2022)
(21) Rev. Carla Friedrich, personal email communication, 31 October 2022
(22) Helen Keller Center for Spiritual Life, https://swedenborgchapel.org/hk/ (accessed on 5 November 2022)