You’ve Got To Be Taught

Matthew  15:10-28

In 1953, the year I was born, during the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, a Broadway musical touring in Atlanta got the people of Georgia so upset that some state legislators introduced a bill to outlaw any entertainment having, in their words, “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.”  What really got them going was one particular song in the musical.  State Representative David C. Jones said that a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.  Oscar Hammerstein replied wryly that he was surprised by the idea that “anything kind and humane must necessarily originate from Moscow.” 

The musical that caused such a fuss was Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and the song that ignited such political and social anger was You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught. 

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

When I was about 10 or so my aunt and uncle adopted a mixed race baby boy.  This was a highly unusual thing for a white couple to do in the early 1960s, especially in the kind of rural areas where my uncle and aunt served as Pastor and Church Organist.  

That baby, Jon, was a truly beautiful child with café-au-lait skin, curly brown hair tinged with blond, and the most unusual blue-green eyes.  I remember, though, that at the big family summer gatherings some of my mom’s and my aunt’s cousins would act a little differently around him—not exactly hostile, but a little stiff and stand-offish.  I wondered if it might be because he was adopted, but my little sister was adopted, too, and nobody treated her like that.  Nobody gave her sidelong glances and muttered little comments when they thought my mom and dad weren’t looking or close enough to hear.  

Then one day one of my second cousins, one of the kids my age, cleared up mystery.  A bunch of us were playing by the barn and Jon wasn’t with us.  I don’t remember exactly why.  What I do remember is that my second cousin said some pretty ugly things about Jon and “his” kind of people.  I remember him using the “N” word to talk about Jon.  Our cousin.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

“Listen and understand,” said Jesus.  “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.  What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions… These are what defile a person.”

And when those things come out of someone’s mouth, they tend to go right into someone’s ears.  Like, say, a child’s.

What is it about the human mind that makes it so easy to absorb negative, awful, malicious, even untrue things, and so hard to purge those things when you learn better?  Why is it so easy to pick up biases and prejudices and bigotries and so hard to unlearn them?

When my second cousin used that ugly, racist word to describe our other cousin it was there in his vocabulary with all the hideous ideas behind it because he had learned it somewhere.  It was a word he had heard his dad use while talking to other Kansas farmers.

Kurt Stroh, a K-4 teacher and librarian from Grand Rapids wrote in his blog a few years ago about something he observed on a trip to the movies:

“My wife and I decided to go to see The Greatest Showman. It was an afternoon showing and there were quite a few kids in the theater. In fact, there was a lady with her two kids, who looked to be 8-10 years old, sitting right next to us. As always, there were previews prior to the movie. In one of the previews, the teenage boy character was coming out to his parents. The family on the screen was having a loving, understanding conversation. The lady next to us loudly ordered her kids, ‘plug your ears…now!’ The kids looked confused, but did as they were told. Sadly, it didn’t end there. A minute or so later, when it looked as if the boy character might kiss another boy character, the lady actually reached over and covered her kids’ eyes. Ears plugged, eyes covered, she was bound and determined to make sure that her kids did not witness this preview…and quite honestly, make sure those around her knew exactly how she felt.

   As the feature movie started, I couldn’t help but notice that the eyes and ears of the children were not covered during violence. They were not covered during hatred. They were not covered during infidelity. In addition to being angry, my heart broke for these kids. They were being taught to be judgmental …carefully taught to hate.”

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

It’s so hard to unlearn the hate, especially when it doesn’t feel like hate, when you just grew up with it, when it’s part of your culture, the way of your people.  

It’s a constant struggle to silence the vocabulary, those ugly words that float up in your mind, those words you wish you had never heard in the first place, those unkind names for all those other people who are “those other people.”  

It’s a constant internal cleansing to flush out all those insidious bigoted ideas that infested your thinking before you were old enough and smart enough to prevent them.

It’s work. 

It’s work worth doing.  It’s work that makes you healthier and makes the world a healthier place.  But it’s still work.  You have to think about what you’re saying.  You have to think about what you’re thinking.  You have to think about how you’re thinking.

And sometimes, when you’re tired or distracted or both, you forget to do that thinking.  You forget to do the work.  And that’s when your culture, the unedited voices in your head and heart, the voices you grew up with, might suddenly pop up and do the talking for you.

I suspect that maybe something like that is what’s happening with Jesus when the Canaanite woman comes to him and begs him to heal her daughter.

He’s tired from travelling.  He’s in foreign territory.  She keeps shouting and won’t go away.  When he finally does respond to her, he’s abrupt and more than a little rude:

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

For a moment he’s not the Jesus we’re used to.  For a moment he’s not the Jesus who feeds multitudes, heals everyone within reach, chastises Pharisees for their rigid piety, and welcomes all comers.  

For a moment he’s just another Jewish man talking down to a Canaanite woman, one culture and gender speaking disdainfully to the other.  

“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”  He had forgotten his own words.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

But she knows he’s better than this.  She knows she deserves better than this.

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

It takes work to change the heart.  Sometimes it even takes confrontation.   Sometimes someone has to hold a mirror up to you if you won’t hold it up to yourself.

Sometimes you need to be reminded of your own words. 

It takes work to flush out the bigotry we grow up with and replace it with a broader love and understanding.  It takes work to see the ways the world around us is trying to normalize the ugliness and division and keep us from making our own hearts more expansive.  We may not always get it right.  We may have lapses.  But it’s work worth doing.

After all, what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.  In Jesus’ name.

Fear, Faith, and Foolishness

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately [after feeding the multitude] Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.  23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,  24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.  25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.  27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

28  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”  31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

How often has this happened to you?  You’re waiting in line to check out at the grocery store and you notice that the line just to your left only has one person in it!  So you push that cart like it’s NASCAR and you’re Bubba Wallace, and BOOM! before that lady who was just in front of you in the previous line has even noticed the opening, you’re offloading your Fig Newtons and frozen Chicken Piccata onto the conveyor belt.  You’re feeling pretty pleased with yourself  until you notice that the new line you’re in is… not… moving…  because the checker and the one customer ahead of you are apparently old friends who haven’t seen each other since the turn of the century, and they have decided that right here and right now at the checkout counter is the perfect place and time to catch up on the past two decades while your ice cream is getting squishy and you fidget behind them.  Oh, also the customer is writing a check…which the cashier has to stamp and initial and slide under the tray in the cash drawer as the customer enters all the details in the check register.  While… you… wait. Did I mention the ice cream?

And when it’s finally your turn with the cashier, as you glance up from entering your PIN number to pay for your seven items, you notice that the customer who was behind you in that first line you were in is already on her way out the door.

‘One moment of patience may ward off great disaster. One moment of impatience may ruin a whole life,’ says the oldChinese proverb.  

We are not a very patient people, by and large, and Covid-19 has been trying our patience mightily.  Here are a few tidbits from a survey conducted by Wakefield Research for Fifth/Third Bank that show just how impatient we are.  Bear in mind that all of this data comes from before the pandemic:

  • 96% of Americans will knowingly consume extremely hot food or drink that burns their mouth; 63% do so frequently.   
  • More than half of those surveyed hang up the phone after being on hold one minute or less.
  • 71% frequently exceed the speed limit to get to their destination faster.
  • Americans will binge-watch an average of seven TV episodes in a single sitting  –again, that was before the pandemic.  I wonder what it is now.
  • Nearly a third of respondents ages 18-24 wait less than one second before bypassing a slow walker.
  • 72% of us will push an elevator button that is already lit hoping it will come faster.  By the way, it doesn’t.

It’s not just Americans.  A survey by OnePoll of 2,000 people in the United Kingdom found that a large percentage became impatient after waiting…

  • 16 seconds for a webpage to load
  • 25 seconds for a traffic signal to change from red to green
  • 20 seconds for ink to dry on a greeting card
  • 22 seconds for a movie to start streaming
  • 18 seconds looking for a pen
  • 28 seconds for a kettle to boil
  • 30 seconds in a line; 
  • 13 minutes to pick up luggage after a flight
  • 90 minutes for a response to a work e mail

50% admitted they would probably move to another queue if the one they are in appears to be moving more slowly.  45 % confessed to losing their temper when having to wait an ‘excessive’ amount of time.  “Excessive” was not defined.

So what, you might be wondering, does all this have to do with Peter’s attempt to walk on water?  Hang on, I’m getting there.

Impatience and anxiety go hand-in-hand.  Anxiety can cause impatience and impatience can often cause or increase anxiety.  

Anxiety is about control.  

Control is about a lack of trust.

People deal with anxiety in different ways, but since anxiety is essentially a kind of elongated state of diffused fear, our responses to anxiety tend to be diffused or displaced versions of fight, flight or freeze. 

I think this is an important element in this story of Peter momentarily walking on water, and that too often we overlook it.

Most often when preachers come to this story they focus on Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid.”  There is a whole “no fear” theology that has sprung up around this and other “be not afraid” sayings in the Bible.  There are books and websites that will tell you that in various forms there are 365 “no fear” sayings in the Bible, one for each day of the year, and that this is one of the central messages from God to us.  I, myself, have preached that a time or two.

Well, that idea has its merits.  It’s easy to let our fears and anxieties get the better of us and stop us from doing what God has called us to do, or even just what we need to do to live a basic self-actualized life.  Fear can stop us from acting in faith…or acting at all, for that matter.

Some say that fear is the opposite of faith, and sometimes that’s absolutely true.  I would point out, though, that indifference can also be the opposite of faith.  I would also point out that there’s a difference between being fearless and being impulsive, reckless, or just plain stupid.

So, be not afraid.  But also, be not foolish.  Fear is not all bad.  Fear is the built-in mechanism God gave us for self-protection.  It’s our early warning system.  Fear is that built-in voice that tell us to keep our eyes open.  

So let’s run this scene from the top.  

Jesus sends the disciples off in the boat.  He sends the crowds home then goes up the mountain for some much-delayed time alone.  Meanwhile, the sun has set, it’s dark, and out on the lake, far from land, the wind and the waves are making things scary for the disciples out in the boat.  That’s when, in the wee small hours of the morning, they see Jesus walking toward them. On the sea.  Walking on the water, just to be clear.  Something pretty far out of the ordinary.  They think he’s a ghost and their fear meter jumps straight up to terrified.  But Jesus calls out, “Courage!  It’s me!  Don’t be afraid!”

Notice again:  they think he is a ghost.  Layered on top of their already high anxiety due to the dangerous situation they’re in, they now have a very specific fear.  Jesus speaks to them to address that specific fear.  He’s not telling them to adopt a lifestyle.  “Look!  It’s me, Jesus!  Don’t be afraid!”

But Peter goes off the rails.

Peter was anxious.  His anxiety created impatience.  His impatience created more anxiety, which in Peter usually results in something impetuous and rash which is why he says one of the dumbest things yet: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

I can just see Jesus rolling his eyes.  Oy.

Remember when Jesus was tempted by the devil?  How did the devil begin each challenge?  “If you really are the son of God…”  There’s an echo of that here in Peter’s strange challenge.  And do you remember how Jesus responded to the devil at the end?  “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Why would Peter say this?  The wind is howling.  The seas are roiling.  It’s dark and spooky. They’re all exhausted.  It’s a pretty strange time for an ordeal of faith.  And what if it had been an evil water spirit and not Jesus walking toward them—they did believe in such things, after all?  Wouldn’t such a being take delight in commanding Peter to come and then watching him drown?

Remember what I said about responses to anxiety and responses to fear—fight, flight or freeze?  From what we know about Peter, it seems pretty clear that his go-to response to anxiety is fight.  He’s a physical guy.  In this moment he needs to do something physical to fight his fear—something external to fight the fear that’s internal—and all the better if it can look like faith while he’s doing it.  So, impulsive as ever, Peter asks Jesus to command him to come to him, to walk to him across the water.

And to Peter’s credit, between the adrenaline, and his love for and faith in Jesus, for a few brief steps he manages to walk on water.  But have you noticed that Jesus doesn’t calm the wind and waves for Peter during his self-imposed test of faith?    

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

Why did you doubt?

This looks at first as if Jesus is suggesting to Peter that his doubts caused him to sink—maybe doubted himself, maybe doubted Jesus.  But suppose for a moment that Jesus is really asking Peter why he didn’t stay in the boat.  Why did you doubt that it was really me when I told you it was me?  Why did you need to put us both through that dangerous little test?  Why did you doubt that I was on the way to the boat to save everybody?

When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

Impatience breeds anxiety.

Anxiety is about control.  

Control is about a lack of trust.

All over the country we’ve seen churches defying state health restrictions by worshipping in their sanctuaries or in large closely gathered crowds in spite of the still-rising numbers of Covid-19 infections. They claim that it is an act of faith, that they won’t be ruled by their fears.  But is this a faith that rests in and trusts in Jesus who is always coming to us across the troubled waters of our lives or is it an anxiety-driven need to prove faith?

They have claimed that their faith will protect them from the virus.  Sadly, that has too often proven not to be true.

Too many of us in this individualistic culture of ours have been trying to walk on water when all we’ve ever needed to do is stay in the boat.

As we sail on in this windy and turbulent pandemic sea, we need to let our faith, our trust, rest in Jesus who is walking toward our boat.  We need to remind ourselves that he will get here and calm the storm faster if we don’t slow him down with our impatient tests of faith.

In Jesus’ name.

Image credit: Melani Pyke

Dear White People

Dear White Working-Class Persons—especially you White Working-Class Men:

I get to say this because I am one of you. I am white. I’m a Boomer. I’ve worked as a roofer and a liquor store clerk. I’ve harvested wheat in Kansas and tossed hay bales in Arkansas. I’ve also worked in advertising and in academia, and for the last 20 years I’ve been a pastor. That’s right, a clergy person—right now one royally, righteously pissed off and more than a little depressed clergy person. But I’m still the guy who puts new guts in the toilet at home when the parts wear out and the guy who knows how to patch the roof. I’m still the guy who struggles to balance the household budget. I still load up my motorcycle with a tent and a sleeping bag when I have to get away from it all and blow out the cobwebs. So I get to say this because I’m one of you.

Last night you screwed the pooch. Last night you took the final steps down a primrose path that is nothing but dust and feathers. You were led there as deftly as any pied piper ever absconded with the village children. And it didn’t just happen overnight or even during this latest election cycle.

You’ve been played.  For the past 35 years you’ve been listening to a very loud and very skewed story about how awful everything is for you. And yes, I know that things have been tough. Things have changed. The ground has shifted. Jobs have been tougher to come by and they pay less. You’ve got a legitimate beef.  But instead of looking at why all that is happening and what you can do about it and who maybe has some solutions, you just listened to the loud, sad, bad story of punditry which was really nothing more than a lot of finger-pointing in all the wrong directions.

Don’t you get it?  Well, clearly you don’t. It’s all been a big carnival trick of misdirection. All the Rush Limbaughs and Fox News Personalities convinced you that it was those nefarious (it’s a real word, you can look it up) Liberals who were to blame for all your troubles. And you bought their fertilizer by the bagful. And if any legitimate news source tried to give you some actual facts that didn’t agree with the story those windbags were spewing, they taught you to just dismiss it as “Liberal Media.” My God in Heaven, with all the competing information out there you had to choose to be ignorant.

And over and over again while you were memorizing their evil little song about how bad everything is, you let them guide you into making it worse. You let them lead you into electing people whose primary role has been to create schism and dysfunction. You let them pull you by the nose into electing people who manufactured the worst, longest-running war in our history out of nothing but fairy tales in the desert. You let them convince you that the people who were deepest in bed with the lobbyists, big money, big pharma, big oil and all the other special interests were, somehow, the best people to represent you!  You let them lead you into electing people who pulled the brakes and steering out of our financial industry so that they could crash the economy and make you pay for it!

You let them lead you into electing people who brought the whole government of the United States of America to a standstill. You let them tell you it’s a matter of principle, that you have to take a firm stand. Well guess what, compromise is also a principle. You can actually take a firm stand on that, too. Finding common ground is a principle. Finding a common vision is a principle. Opening doors so that everybody has a chance to enjoy those unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a principle. And maybe if you had shut off the Angry Red channels for a week or two you would have heard a few interesting facts about where we stand and a few workable ideas about where we could go from here.

But no. You let them convince you that our government, itself, is at worst evil and at best incompetent. You swallowed their blame story about The President or The Party We Don’t Like. How could you not see how insane that is? Didn’t you study civics? Didn’t you learn about the balance of powers? Didn’t you understand that the balance of powers only works when there’s an effort to actually balance the powers? And didn’t you learn where the ultimate responsibility for all of this really lies? Didn’t you learn that WE ARE THE FREAKING GOVERNMENT??? Oh…you didn’t? Well that explains a lot.

So you let them make you angry. You let them take that cold little trickle of fear that everybody feels from time to time in our ever-changing world and convert it into a gleeful little flame of self-righteous anger. You let them take all the things that make you nervous—your discomfort with people of color, your discomfort with immigrants, your discomfort with different religions, your discomfort with LGBTQ people, your discomfort with women in positions of leadership, you discomfort with freakin’ CHANGE which is simply a fact of life—all your myriad little discomforts—you let them play on all those anxieties like a fiddle until they had you dancing down their lane right into the voting booth. And there you voted your fears instead of your hopes.

Don’t you ever ask yourself who wants you to believe what and why? Don’t you ever stop to think about the crap you’re hearing through your radio and TV and social media and ask who those pundits are working for and what’s their agenda? I’ve got news…your well-being is not their top priority.

But you followed them. Boy did you follow them. And this time they were led by the greatest showman since P.T. Barnum. Remember him? He’s the guy who said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American People.” Yep. Last night you elected a showman. And face it, when all is said an done, that is all Donald Trump actually is. He sure isn’t a successful businessman, although he plays one on TV. He sure isn’t a family man, unless your idea of a good family man is a guy who blows through wives like candy and makes salacious comments about his own daughter. He sure isn’t a paragon of moral virtue. Do I even have to cite examples of how much he is NOT that? And for all his buddying up to the Fundagelical Religious Right, he sure as hell doesn’t look or smell much like a Christian to me. Yeah, I know. Judge not. I’m just saying, if I was his pastor, we’d have some words about the Word.

No, when all is said and done, Donald Trump is nothing more than a showman. He is P.T. Barnum writ larger than Barnum ever dared to portray himself and that’s saying something. Last night all y’all elected a huckster. A showman. I hope you like the show. The previews give me nightmares. May God forgive us all for electing entertainment over substance.

The Path of the Foxes

playfulfoxIt was my privilege last night to be the keynote speaker at the annual awards banquet of the South Coast Interfaith Council. What follows is my address to that group.

It is a great honor to be here as your keynote speaker this evening and I thank you for inviting me. Also, congratulations and well done to all those being honored here tonight. Before I begin, though, let’s take a moment and turn to the person next to you and say in the language of your own faith tradition—namaste, shalom, alssalam ealaykum—peace be with you.

Human psychology being what it is, I am well aware that there is a high statistical probability that right now at least a few of you are thinking, “Who is this clown, what is he yammering about and how long is he going to be up there talking?”

So…there’s a high statistical probability that some of you are worried that you’re about to be bored, that there will be an as-yet-unknown number of minutes of your life that you will just never get back. Not only that, but because this is an interfaith audience, there is also a high statistical probability that at least a few of you are worrying that I might devote too much time to the perspectives of my own faith tradition or that I might say something insensitive or offensive to your faith tradition. I truly hope I don’t. But if I do, please let me know and I will apologize. These worries are, in fact, very human responses to a situation like this. Those very human responses come from a well documented and universal element of human psychology called the Negativity Bias.

The Negativity Bias. I will say more about it in a moment, but first I want to distract you from your Negativity Bias with a story about foxes. Domestic foxes. Pet foxes. And to do that, I’ll start with dogs.

Dogs have been, unarguably, the most important domestic animal in human history. They were the first animal that humans domesticated and we have formed a bond with them that has not only proven mutually beneficial, but has quite literally transformed both our species. Many anthropologists now believe that our relationship with the dog was a significant factor in our own evolution as a species and even enabled us to develop civilization. So well done, Fido.

We’ve known for a long time that dogs are simply domesticated wolves, a fact that’s now been proven through DNA. So that little Chihuahua peeking out of Paris Hilton’s purse? That’s a wolf…which will give you some idea of what can happen with selective breeding. But how did we ever come to domesticate the wolf in the first place? How is it that in some distant past our hunter-gatherer ancestors struck up this partnership with a species that was not only one of our primary competitors, but actually quite dangerous to us—as we were and are to them?

Dmitri Belyaev, a Russian geneticist, wondered about this, too. He believed that our prehistoric ancestors selected wolf pups based on temperament. So, along with Lyudmila Trut, he set up an experiment in 1959 to prove his hypothesis. He set out to see if, selecting for temperament alone, he could create a distinct breed of domestic foxes–pet foxes—a tame version of an animal related to wolves and dogs but one that had never been domesticated.

They set up their experiment in Siberia near the Soviet government facilities where foxes were being bred for their fur, so they had an ample selection of fox pups to choose from. Their selection process was fairly simple. The fox pups that showed aggression or bit them or would flee from the experimenters when stroked or handled were put into one group. Those who responded with curiosity, playfulness and friendliness were put in another group. They continued breeding selectively for these traits of friendliness and curiosity, and in only six generations Belyaev and Trut had succeeded in breeding a new class of foxes they designated as “domesticated elite,” foxes who not only tolerated human companionship, but were eager to establish and maintain it. Foxes who behaved very much like dogs. After 20 generations of breeding, nearly 80% of that group were rated “domestic elite”—suitable as pets and human companion animals. The breeding project is still going and they now help support their research by selling some of these foxes as pets.

freddytopBelyaev and Trut were able to create domestic foxes by selecting pups that were willing to overcome their Negativity Bias. See, humans aren’t the only ones who have it. Many mammals have it, especially those with more highly developed brains.

The Negativity Bias is a feature of our psychology that originates in our physiology – our neurophysiology, to be specific. The Negativity Bias arises from the most primitive part of our brains, the amygdala—sometimes called the Lizard Brain. This is the part of our brain that looks at everything as a possible threat and responds with only 3 options: fight, flight or freeze.

The Negativity Bias is a universal factor in human psychology and it served a very practical purpose in our evolution as a species. That thing you’re about to pick up, is it a stick or a snake? That shape on the horizon, is that an antelope or a lion? That person coming toward me, is that a walking stick in his hand or a spear? Is he from my clan or is he one of those people from two hills away? Is he here to offer us a partnership in something or to scout us out for a raid? But the Negativity Bias doesn’t just make us evaluate things, events and people, it biases us toward the negative—it makes us lean toward fight, flight or freeze instead of investigate, make friends, and play.

I’ve done a fair amount of reading about this and I could say a lot more about the Negativity Bias, but I’m mindful that there’s a fine line between a long speech and a hostage situation.   So let’s cut to the chase. What does all this have to do with the South Coast Interfaith Council? Well I’m coming to that…but to get there I have to go here.

This is an election year and election years have a tendency to throw a lot of things into sharp relief—and nothing shows up more sharply than the shadow of our fears. Election years in general, and this one in particular, have a way of bringing out the worst in us because candidates and parties play our Negativity Bias like a violin. And since we, as a species and as individuals, are always only one layer of civility away from being ferocious, this is a very dangerous thing.

Remember those other foxes? The pups who bit or acted aggressive or fled from their human handlers? Well they did a breeding experiment with them, too. And the results are terrifying. On the other side of the compound from the tame foxes are the cages that only specially trained handlers can enter. They have to wear protective gear when they go in to feed these other foxes, because these foxes delight in attacking. They live for it. They are bigger, meaner, and astonishingly aggressive. And now nobody knows what to do with them. Animal rights people don’t want them euthanized, but there’s also a very real worry that they might escape into the wild–and that could be a whole new ecological disaster. They are a living object lesson for us.

Election years tend to bring out that aggressive fox inside us, the one we’ve kept somewhat subdued, barely restrained in the tension between first-amendment free speech and laws against hate speech.   There is a spirit of meanness and fear abroad in our country that wants to manipulate our Negativity Bias, that wants to make us suspicious of each other, that wants to make us feel threatened by each other, that wants us to imagine each other as enemies so that we can be directed to vote for the manipulator who promises to be our great leader and protector, who promises to keep us safe.

Religion is one of those traditional dividing lines that can be easily manipulated if we’re not careful. Religion has always been a productive field for those who want to play on our Negativity Bias. There are loud voices right now in our culture who not only want to make scapegoats of particular religions, but want to widen the divisions within our religions. There is a loud noise of Xenophobia and unbridled racism shouting in our land, and I have to say that right now, as a white, male, Christian Protestant, speaking to this wonderfully diverse and eclectic group of people, I feel like I should apologize for some of the things that other white Christian Protestants are saying and doing. Quite frankly, sometimes I am ashamed of my people. We have a lot to answer for. But that’s another speech for another time.

I’m not here tonight just to tell you what you already know about the bad news, about anti-Muslim rhetoric or blatant racism or the long litany of injustices that are all manifestations of our fears, especially White Anglo-Saxon Protestant fears. I’m not here just to tell you the bad news about our Negativity Bias. I’m here to give you the good news that there is an antidote.

There is an antidote. It comes in two steps. First, it’s necessary to acknowledge the Negativity Bias. Admit that it’s there. Second, it’s important to intentionally focus on positive possibilities and positive dynamics.  Focusing on possibilities allows other parts of our brains and psyches, more highly developed parts, to take the lead instead of those instincts driven by fear.

You are here tonight, we are here tonight because we are the tame foxes. We are the ones who have had enough curiosity, bravery, friendliness and even playfulness to look beyond the edges of our own religious traditions to try to see what others are seeing, to try to understand what others are understanding. We are the ones who are curious enough to learn to appreciate a different perspective without abandoning our own. We are the ones who have read past the rare verses in our sacred texts that would exclude us from each other or pit us against each other if taken in the wrong context to find the rich and plentiful vein of gold in those same texts that calls us to transcend that impulse, to be inviting, to be accepting, to embrace the stranger. We are the ones who see that our destinies are woven together. We are the ones who hear that clarion voice in every one of our traditions that says simply and firmly, “Be not afraid.”

There are things we can do together as an alliance of faith communities, things we have been doing, that can show the rest of the world that religions do not have to be in competition with one another or antagonistic to one another but can cooperate to achieve things together even more effectively than what we can achieve independently. The Farmers Markets initiated by this Interfaith Council, the support of Centro Shalom, the Habitat for Humanity building programs—these are all great examples of how we make a positive difference together, of how we “intentionally focus on positive possibilities and positive dynamics.”

But there’s more that we can do together. We can advocate for improving the status of women. We can brainstorm about how to improve education…and access to education and affordable child care. We can find ways to address injustices in our policing and criminal justice systems, particularly those injustices endured by persons of color. We can work together on water and environmental issues—after all, regardless of whatever else we do or don’t agree on, we’re all riding through space and time on the same planet.

I would especially like to suggest tonight that we unite as advocates for the homeless. We can speak with one great, united, faithful voice to our cities and counties on behalf of a people who have been literally swept to the curb. We can get creative together to imagine new ways to address this growing problem that all too often winds up on the doorsteps of our houses of worship. We can advocate for comprehensive housing-first programs that address the needs of the whole person to give those forgotten souls a new lease on life. And we can do it all in the name of God, even if we don’t mean exactly the same thing when we say that.

We need to be doing good things together and we need to be very visible in the doing of them. We need our positive interfaith actions to speak louder than their anti-faith words.

I can’t help but think sometimes that maybe we are at a tipping point in the domestication of our own species. Who will win? The aggressive foxes or the tame ones? The aggressive foxes have been let out of their cages. This is no time for us to sit quietly in ours. This is the time for the tame foxes to come out and play. With gusto.

Peace be with you. And be not afraid.