Show Compassion for EveryonePosted: July 14, 2013
Show Compassion for Everyone
SLIDE 5: WHO IS NEIGHBOR?
Who is my neighbor? Indeed, that is the question. In responding to the lawyer Jesus went far beyond the simple message to help everyone. He was trying to speak to our deepest fears, our most persistent prejudices, the aggression programmed deep within the limbic systems of our brains, our innate hostility to those who are different from us. Our prejudice toward those who are different, those who are outside our tribe, our ethnic group, our circle of friends, is a deeply programmed survival mechanism from our distant evolutionary past.
SLIDE 6: JUST ASK ME ABOUT TRADING LAND FOR PEACE
During distant pre-historic times, when different people moved into our neighborhood their presence meant competition for scarce resources, and inevitable conflict to determine who would prevail. Strangers were best regarded with suspicion and hostility. Rather than welcoming new people who were different, we encouraged them to move on, go away, in order to protect our turf. If the new comers didn’t leave peacefully, we attacked them. Sharing was the first step to becoming dispossessed. I remember a “T” shirt in Jerusalem with a picture of the Native American Chief Sitting Bull that read, “just ask me about trading land for peace.” Compassion for those who were different was weakness rather than a virtue. Such were the instincts of survival.
SLIDE 7: SUSPICION AND HOSTILITY
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus challenges us to transcend the fear and hostility of our brain’s old limbic system and embrace compassion for all people. Samaritans were a neighboring ethnic group hated by Jews. They were the descendants of the Ten Northern tribes of Israel, who had broken away from the Kingdom of Judah, and who had been rivals of the Jews engaged in intermittent warfare. In 733 BCE the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom and deported those Israelites into exile. According to the Jews the Assyrians resettled other ethnic peoples in that territory. But the Samaritans claimed that with the Fall of Assyria, in 612 BCE the peoples of the Ten Northern Tribes returned to their homeland. The Jews, however, also claimed that the religion of the Samaritans was a heretical bastardization of Judaism, while the Samaritans maintained they were the one true expression of the Abrahamic Faith. Samaritans and Jews were hostile rivals, and yet Jesus chose a Samaritan to serve as the hero of our Parable this morning.
SLIDE 8: THREE-THOUSAND YEARS OF SUSPICION AND HOSTILITY
A small identifiable Samaritan community still exists in the West Bank today, near Mt. Gerizim, the location of the ruins of their temple, but the Israelis identify them as Palestinians. So, even today the animosity between Jews and Samaritans continues – three-thousand years of suspicion and hostility. Jesus’ parable is still relevant in our modern context. But we do not need to be primarily concerned about Israelis and Palestinians? No, we, at United Church, need to consider the question, who is our neighbor? Who are the people who are different from ourselves, who arouse our fear, suspicion and hostility?
SLIDE 9: EVERYONE IS WELCOMED AND AFFIRMED
Are we uncomfortable with people of other ethnic identities? What about immigrants? Are we suspicious of people from other churches – people outside of our tribe? Are we hostile or judgmental toward folks whose theology, philosophy or politics are different from our own? Do people whose gender identity is different from our own cause us to feel uncomfortable? At a meeting I attended someone said our congregation had been referred to as “too gay.” What does that mean? It is sort of like you can’t be just a little bit pregnant. Either we welcome and affirm everyone or we don’t. And in the Parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus was saying if you are going to follow me, show compassion for everyone. Every human being regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, theology, philosophy, political persuasion, or gender identity is a human being worthy of respect, dignity and yes love. And everyone must be welcome and affirmed here in the faith community that claims to follow the way of Jesus.
SLIDE 10: SAME STRUCTURES STIMULATED WHEN WE MEDITATE AND PRAY
So this morning I want to talk about our struggle with our natural suspicion and hostility toward people who are not like us. A first step in becoming more compassionate is to recognize that the limbic system, the old reptilian brain is a part of us. Hostility and suspicion even violence toward the other was a part of our evolutionary survival. We do not have to allow the reptilian brain to control our behavior, however, for in the evolution of the human brain we have also been given new structures capable of rational thought and compassion.
Allow me to share an insight from How God Changes Our Brains. “Something happened in the brains of our ancestors that gave us the power to tame our limbic systems. No one knows exactly when or how it happened, but the neural structures that evolved enhanced our ability to cooperate with others. They gave us the ability to construct language and to consciously think in logical and reasonable ways. Our research shows that they are the same structures stimulated when we meditate and pray, which is what allows us to consciously envision a loving and compassionate God.”
SLIDE 11: SPIRITUAL PRACTICES
Spiritual practices that focus on a loving and compassionate God change our brains to become more cooperative and accepting toward others. Meditation, prayer, Bible Study, worship, participation in welcoming faith communities all potentially can contribute to the strengthening of the neural pathways that will help us in our struggle to become more accepting and loving toward people who are different from us.
SLIDE 12: CHURCHES WHERE DIVERSITY OF BELIEF IS NUTURED
A second step in strengthening the loving and accepting parts of our brains is to surround ourselves with diverse people and ideas. Gated communities, homogeneous neighborhoods, segregated schools or facilities, orthodox religious institutions, where everyone has to believe the same thing, all contribute to our suspicion and hostility toward people who are different from us. Open neighborhoods, integrated schools and facilities, churches where diversity of belief is nurtured and encouraged all can help us to become more open and accepting of others.
SLIDE 13: ACCEPTING OURSELVES
A third step in strengthening the loving and accepting parts of our brains is to become more loving and accepting of ourselves. Much of our early childhood education and religious training in the past has been directed toward fault finding. You did it wrong. You fail. You are a sinner — sinners in the hands of an angry God. All of this negative energy focused on fear and anger strengthen the limbic areas of the brain. Instead if we can learn to focus on loving ourselves, accepting ourselves, even the parts of ourselves we might like to change, and focusing our faith on a loving and benevolent God, we can strengthen the neural pathways that result in love and compassionate behavior.
SLIDE 14: SOME ACT OF KINDNESS EVERYDAY
A fourth step in our journey to become more loving and compassionate is to consciously choose some small act of kindness every day. We don’t have to overcome world hunger, or bring world peace. Go visit a shut-in. Write a kind note to someone in need of encouragement. Take food to someone who is ill. Volunteer at foodline, or make a contribution to the soup kitchen. Help an elderly person get their garbage to the street. Take the church recycle out to the curb. Engage in some conscious act of kindness every day. And the more that act of kindness takes us out of our comfort zone reaching across boundaries of race or ethnicity or social class or gender identity the more we stretch and grow in our compassion. I am reminded of a problem they experienced for a while at Holy Trinity United Church of Christ in Nashville. Holy Trinity by the way is the fastest growing church in the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, and they are predominantly an LGBT congregation. And the Pastor at one point discovered that when “straight people” would visit the church many of her members would say, “well, you might not be comfortable here.” And their Pastor had to challenge them to reach across the barrier of gender identity to make Holy Trinity a welcoming congregation to all people. And since then their percentage of straight members has grown immensely. So the more we can reach outside our comfort zones with acts of kindness the more we will strengthen our compassion for others.
SLIDE 15: HOW GOD CHANGES YOUR BRAIN
A final step in the journey toward compassion for others is to find a social network that will support us in our desire to become more accepting and loving of others, and encourage us to remain optimistic and to have faith that life is good as it is given. All of these suggestions and more you can find in the book we have been studying How God Changes Your Brain, and it is not too late to join the study. Both the Monday Bible Study and the Thursday Sharing Table have made it less than half way through the Study Guide for the book. The Monday Bible Study resumes on August the 19th and the Thursday Sharing Table will begin again on August the 15th. If you want to join us let me know, and I can e-mail you a copy of the Study Guide. Ideally an open, welcoming, diverse community of faith can encourage us to strengthen the neural pathways of our brains that support loving and compassionate behavior.