Division and Unity: Treason

The background sound track to life in London last night sounded something like: boom, crack, whistle, sizzle, crash, boom, boom, boom. 

That accompaniment was, of course, the lead-up to one of our most widely celebrated English holidays, Bonfire night. 

The excitement of bonfire night brings us together in a powerful way. After all, everyone can get fireworks and everyone can experience them. Aside from those who might want some peace and quiet or recoil at loud noises, fireworks have a nearly universal appeal. How exciting it is to see brilliant coloured lights arc through the sky! It doesn't matter what we believe, the colour of our skin, where we come from, our sex, our ability, our age, our class, or who love, we can enjoy fireworks. 

How strange, then, that what we are really celebrating at this time of year is a particularly nasty event in religious division - in the long battle between Catholics and Protestants in this country! 

The festivities celebrate the capture, conviction, and execution of Guy Fawkes, a member of the so-called gunpowder plot of 1605. 

What drove the plotters to undertake such a dangerous mission? Their actions would make them guilty of high treason, a crime punished by the brutal penalty of being hung, drawn, and quartered. 

Fawkes, like his co-conspirators was a Catholic in a Protestant country - a country that banned Catholicism and punished those who would not adhere to the state Protestant church. 

The lives of Catholics were ruined by civil and even criminal prosecution. The resentment must have been enormous among the those - the Recusant Catholics - who felt bound to remain true to their faith. 

The division between Catholics and Protestants was initially a political matter, of course. The turn of England away from the Roman church being a matter of conflict between King and Pope. But it became something more, as divisions always do. For Protestants, Catholics became the strange and dangerous 'other' and Catholics similarly grew to mistrust and misunderstand Protestants. 

I learned a new word recently thanks to a someone I don't know. @reed0680 taught me the word 'otherisation.' It is the process through which we begin to say 'he's different', 'she's strange', 'oh, he's not like us.' 

Of course, otherisation neither begins nor ends in this country. Our news has been filled lately with news of the frenetic final days of the US presidential election. The US is a country divided almost equally into right and left, Republicans and Democrats. Every day, it seems, the otherisation grows more intense. The maps we've all seen could not be starker - blue or red. One or the other. There are no shades of bluish purple or purplish red on that map. It has become important for the powers that be to convince everyone that this is a matter of 'us' and 'them'. You are either with 'us' or you are the dangerous and worryingly different 'other.' 

It seems that we humans excel at finding differences and 'othering' individuals and groups. Muslims and Jews - followers of two religions with deep similarities and cultural ties - have been at each others' throats for centuries. 

Christians have 'othered' over matters of belief so seemingly trivial that we cannot even understand them, and yet these become enough to begin the process of 'otherisation.' 

Imagine if aliens arrived on earth in the mid 20th century and saw how the nations, bristling with nuclear missiles and bombs, were prepared to annihilate one another. Why? Because we had chosen different economic systems. Of course, geopolitical power concerns played on those differences, but consider that in the US the label of 'socialist' is still a guarantee of failure in almost any election. 

Otherisation is not enough to bring us to the brink of war, but it is a step in the process. Once we begin to think in terms of 'us' and 'them', it is not a large step to move to painting the other as unworthy of compassion and even to strip them of their humanity. Dehumanization of the other is the essential event that makes the worst of cruelties possible. Sadly, it has happened again and again throughout human history and continues into our own day. Otherisation is how we begin down that path. 

Small children don't seem to 'other' nearly so much as adults. They mostly care about being with their parents and about not having to share their toys. They don't particularly mind if a new acquaintance is a different colour, has more or fewer limbs, or speaks differently or not at all. 

But, humans do seem to have a very strong tendency to mistrust and fear difference that emerges later. Once we begin to develop a sense of what is and is not 'normal' and who is 'us', we start to stay away from 'them' - the abnormal - the other. 

Surely, some of our suspicion and fear is a function of indoctrination. In her book "Learning to be White", Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka tells of the experiences of white Americans earning racism from their parents. They report painful childhood experiences of treating other races as 'us', only to be reprimanded by racist parents and taught to see 'those people' correctly as different. They are taught to 'otherise'. 

Archaeologist Howard Winters declared "Civilization is the process in which one gradually increases the number of people included in the term 'we' or 'us' and at the same time decreases those labeled 'you' or 'them' until that category has no one left in it.

Sadly, we don't appear to have very much civilisation sometimes. We live in this amazing modern world where we can all speak to one another, read one-another's words, and even see each other more easily than any time in history. We might expect that increased understanding would result, but the technology that could be employed to build feelings of unity between people has all too often become a powerful tool for otherising. It is used for the propaganda of separation, rather than for propagating understanding and creating a sense of kinship. 

At New Unity, we proudly call ourselves a radically inclusive community of faith. It is a daring statement - a visionary aspiration in a world of othering. We aim to include everyone possible among the 'us' and leave no one in the category of 'them.' 

Our dream is well-supported by a stream of our faith that arises from the US - the same country that now seems to excel at otherisation. That faith stream is Universalism. In 1961, the US Unitarians merged with the Universalists to create the Unitarian Universalist association. 

Universalists initially distinguished themselves from the Calvinist Christian milieu of their times by boldly proclaiming Universal salvation. No one, they declared, would be condemned to eternal punishment. 

It sounds quaint now, in a time when Universalism has become a part of even more conservative Christianity, but that same impulse propelled the Universalists further over time. If God loves everyone, they reasoned, then we should as well. If God will not divide humankind into the good and bad, then our mission too must be to include. 

Universalist poet Edwin Markham wrote a powerful and popular epigram that reflects this perspective: 

"He drew a circle that shut me out --
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

We win, not by shutting out, not by defeating and overcoming, but by including, by welcoming, by loving, by embracing difference. 

"Come, come, whoever you are", we sang at the beginning of this service in the words of a great Sufi mystic poet from more than 800 years ago. 

And today we hear of Sushi shrines being deliberately destroyed by their more conservative Muslim brethren as inclusion takes a back seat to fierce otherisation. 

Our mission is to win by drawing the larger circle. 

Our battle is the harder one because it is a battle with the frightened and mistrustful part of ourselves. 

That is the struggle to which we must commit - not the destruction of the other, but the destruction of the barriers that 'otherise.' 

Let there be fireworks, but let them be fireworks announcing the end of exclusion, the end of pushing aside, the end of suspicion because of difference. 

Let there be explosions of understanding and flashes of love. 

May it be so.