(c) Rev. Doug Slagle and The Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Three of this month’s Sunday messages will have come, in part, from some of our members. Last week we heard an excellent message from Cheryl Leksan as she reminded us that it’s beneficial to empower ourselves. We must engage in a kind of pay it forward method of serving others. Take care of yourself first so you can then take care of others. Next week, we’l consider violence and gun rights – a topic suggested by Johannes Bjorner who has personally experienced the horrors of guns and warfare.
Today’s message topic comes from Chris Adamson, a member of the old Gathering, who won last years auction bidding to choose a Sunday message theme. Chris was engaged in fierce bidding with another member to win this amazing privilege. If my memory is correct, she finally won the prize with a bid of $1.27. The other person, for some reason, refused to go over $1.25!
I encouraged Chris to choose a topic that deeply resonates with her – one that intersects with her life interests. After some thought, Chris indicated that throughout her life she has witnessed in herself and in others the peril of making assumptions. Too often, thoughtful people are trapped by their flawed beliefs. Without even being aware of mistaken assumptions, people proceed to live according to beliefs that are simply wrong. As we know, a fact is an assertion of a thing that exists or is already done. An assumption, however, is supposing something without proof. It is taking something for granted as true when it has not been proven.
For instance, when I – along with many of you – began to first explore the idea of a merger, I did a lot of research not on Unitarian Universalist beliefs, which I mostly knew, but on UU culture. I ran across many UU jokes that seemed to all be based on a similar premise. One of the jokes was: How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb? There are three possible answers. 1) There is no fixed number of UU’s needed to change a light bulb BUT, the committee to change a light bulb must have a quorum. 2) It doesn’t require any UU’s to change a light bulb since UU’s accept a light bulb the way it is. Or, 3) It doesn’t require any UU’s to change a bulb because UU’s are not afraid of the dark.
A second joke also concerned me. Arguing with a Unitarian Universalist, it seems, is a lot like mud wrestling with a pig. Pretty soon you realize the pig likes it.
It’s often said that comedy and tragedy are based on false assumptions. Romeo committed suicide because he assumed Juliet was dead when she had only fainted. I initially assumed, on the basis of a few jokes, that Unitarian Universalists love lots of committees, lots of talking and lots of argument.
Fortunately, my first experiences here gave me the opposite impression. And that has continued to be the case. I’ve found people here are passionate about what they believe but no more so than anyone else. UU churches have committees but no more than many other organizations and churches. Indeed, the willingness to collaborate and cooperate is strong here – and in other Unitarian groups I’ve joined. I was with a group of ten UU ministers this past Tuesday to talk about issues facing local congregations. It could have been a day of endless talking by Unitarians and ministers – since both supposedly like to talk a lot. Instead, there was brief and orderly discussion and no argument. All were polite and did a lot of listening. The same holds true for our Gathering at Northern Hills Board. It’s held only three votes in the nearly one year I’ve participated with it. But it has made many, many important decisions. On every issue, the Board reached a consensus that broadly reflected everyone’s opinion. Disagreements were listened to, acknowledged and used to make decisions even better.
The pleasant truth for me is that UU’s are, in reality, nothing like the jokes and stereotypes. There are some unique distinctions but, overall, UU’s act according to their beliefs – to respect the dignity of and listen to every person.
And this relatively benign example is played out in situations of far greater consequence.
Marriages and relationships are regularly damaged by false assumptions one partner makes about the actions of their loved one. A partner doesn’t surprise the other with small gifts anymore. Therefore, he or she must not be in love anymore, etc, etc. Businesses routinely make elaborate sales plans based on false assumptions about what consumers want. Wars have been fought based entirely on assumptions that later proved mistaken – like the belief that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of chemical and nuclear weapons.
Our nation struggles with assumptions and stereotypes made about other races, religions, sexualities and genders that not only demean millions of people, but diminish the valuable contributions they could offer. Police officers kill innocent, unarmed African-Americans based entirely on false assumptions – that all black men are violent, have criminal intentions or are up to no good. Large numbers of our population, including a candidate for President, demean Muslims based on the false assumption that Islam is a violent religion focused on killing non-believers. Many of us look the other way when we encounter a homeless person by assuming he or she is an addict or simply lazy. We often assume the problem with people who suffer is their own making. They lack work ethic or are immoral. And it blacks or the poor do succeed in life, we attribute it to luck or by getting unfair advantage.
Psychologists say that stereotypes and assumptions are mental heuristics – short cuts in thinking that are made to save time. People assume and generalize things based on limited facts in order to make sense of a complex world. We categorize, jump to conclusions, fail to see nuance or we mind read all in order to deal with an often unknowable world. Humans do so because we’ve been programed by survival instincts to think and react quickly. We take mental short cuts. It takes too long, for instance, to investigate whether or not a particular snake is dangerous. We’ve seen people die from snake bites – so many people, like me, stereotype and fear all snakes.
More than that, humans have found that their survival depends on combining into cooperative groups. But our cooperation does not extend to people who are outside our group. Indeed, psychologists have shown that people closely identify with people in their own family, city, ethnicity, religion, church, gender, or sexual orientation. But they fear and compete with people in other groups.
We tend to see great differences between our group and other groups – even though differences are usually minimal. Irish Catholics and Protestants have fought bloody battles for centuries over small differences in religious belief, even though both groups are Christian. Sunni and Shia Muslims despise one another over differing beliefs about who rightfully succeeded Muhammad – even though both groups see him as the messenger of God.
In our own nation, racist assumptions still linger even though differences between blacks and whites are remarkably small. Over 75% of all African-Americans living today have white ancestry. Substantial portions of their genes come from whites – a legacy of white slave owners raping female slaves. Hatred towards African-Americans by some whites is, therefore, animosity towards their own relatives.
Such hatreds are the product of group identity. We categorize each other into groups while believing that only those within our particular group are good. We often demonize those in other groups as inferior and less intelligent.
In that regard, experts say that making stereotypical assumptions directly results from egotism. Experts indicate that group chauvinism results from a lack of self-esteem. If a group or individual is at peace with itself, assumptions about others are much lower. But, when a group or individual’s self-esteem is threatened, false assumptions and prejudice are higher. That was the case with the rise of Hitler in 1920’s and 1930’s Germany after it’s humiliating defeat in World War One. Nazi hatred toward Jews was an explicit way to boost German self-esteem. The hateful bombast of Hitler belied the deep insecurity in him – and in many of his supporters.
I believe we are witnessing a similar trend today. As demographic diversity in the U.S. increases, some white, straight males feel threatened economically and socially. They are no longer at the apex of society. As their self esteem is assaulted, many react in hateful ways toward blacks, immigrants, Muslims, women and homosexuals It is a common attitude to tear down another in order to somehow feel better about oneself.
Challenging assumptions we make is a difficult process , however. Each of us make assumptions without even realizing we are doing so. Experts, however, offer two primary ways to challenge them.
Before acting on an assumption, we should first conduct a pre-mortem, a pre-autopsy, to discover facts. That is, we should critically examine our assumptions. The next time any of us have a disagreement with a romantic partner, for instance, we should stop and think of the assumptions we are making about the other. We can do so by looking for weak spots in our thinking. We can undertake fact finding by learning opposing thoughts. We should think as if our assumption is wrong and then list all the arguments that will prove it wrong. And, we must intentionally move outside our group and get to know people in other groups.
This task involves much greater communication with one another. With our romantic partners, fellow church members, and friends of other races and religions, we must engage in honest conversation – seeking to listen and even adopt their arguments – all for the sake of eliminating false assumptions.
Second, we must reject a black and white, good and bad thinking about other people. As I discussed in a January message on the merits of the color grey, truth lies somewhere between two opposite extremes. To avoid making false assumptions, we must look for grey zone similarities in people instead of categorizing them according to perceived differences.
As an example, Christians, Jews and Muslims should be known for how they are alike. Each honors the same creator God. Each recognizes Abraham as the father of their religion. Each advocates charity towards all people. Each establishes the Golden Rule as the primary ethic for a moral life. Their core, foundational beliefs and values are the same.
Likewise, the many races that comprise humanity are rapidly blending. We are truly becoming one human race. In 1980, less than 5% of all marriages were interracial. Today, nearly 20% are and that percentage increases annually. Anthropologists say that we are moving toward a world with one race much like the olive skinned people of Brazil who are a three-way blend of black, native, and white.
And, to further my point, human sexual orientation in most people has also been shown to be remarkably similar and fluid. Most millennials cannot understand why there are categories of orientation that override the simple idea of affection between consenting adults. As Unitarian Universalists affirm, we stand on the side of love – a unifying spiritual ethic that all religions promote.
Finding what unites instead of what falsely divides is thus an essential value. Jesus practiced this by intentionally reaching out to women, children, the diseased, the poor, the sinner, the criminal, the Jew and the non-Jew. He moved beyond stereotypes to see one’s inherent humanity and, like Mother Teresa said about the poor whom she served, he saw the face of God in every person.
The Buddha taught the same. The path to enlightenment is to let of go of selfish thinking and desires. We must be caring and gentle toward our selves, as Cheryl Leksan encouraged last week. BUT, that is only the means to a more important end: we must love and serve others without prejudice.
Interestingly, core Islamic belief promotes this ethic. Allah, the Quran says, sees no differences between people. We are his children and Allah sees only our hearts. This is why, when pilgrims travel to Mecca and circle the Kaaba – the focal point of Allah’s earthly presence – each person wears a simple white garment recognizing that there is neither male, female, rich, poor, white, black, young or old. A beautiful tapestry of humanity from all over the world gathers together. In the presence of all that Muslims believe is good and divine in the world, there is an assumption free zone of one human family. In our homes, workplaces, churches and cities, we must create the same.