Do the Next Human Thing

I am writing this article in an attempt to get at a phenomenon I encountered over and over again in my nearly thirteen years as a Lutheran parish pastor. Retrospectively, I realize I have encountered this phenomenon throughout both my upbringing and adult life as a Christian, finding myself on different sides of it at different times and in various situations. The gradual solidifying of my own human response to this phenomenon has been a significant impulse over the past decade in my journey out of the religion of Christianity and into the universal, human-centered Spiritual Naturalism I have come to embrace.

What is the phenomenon? Let me try and articulate it: “I don’t have to behave humanely toward you—or treat you with the dignity due a fellow human being—because there is something disqualifying about you in relation to my understanding of reality.” Stated more simply, “Allegiance to my ideology is more important than you are in all your uniqueness.” 

In the history of religion, this perspective has been called “taking a god’s eye view” (i.e., if the deity disapproves of something or someone then its adherents disapprove as well). Sociologists call this phenomenon Othering. Othering arises from human tribal survival instincts. Othering establishes Us vs. Them relationships where people like us are In, and people different than us are Out. Professor Darren J. N. Middleton identifies Them as people “outside the official range of sympathy”—at least according to the Us group.

Another layer of Othering emerges when tension arises within the Us/In group who lays blame for that tension on a particular person or persons within the group (a Them who are here with Us causing problems!). Group survival instincts drive the group to expel Them out from among Us. The historically scriptural term for this version of the Othering phenomenon is called Scapegoating.

What if one’s god commands, or the tenets of one’s religion require that certain people be excluded on the basis of differing beliefs, unacceptable behavior, or discriminated against for any number of other reasons? Or what if, somewhat more charitably, the god/religion requires that others convert and become like Us before they can be included in the In group? 

Adding the divine mandate overlaying the Othering/Scapegoating phenomenon can result in a literal death sentence. Consider the tribal motivations behind stoning, stake-burning, exiling, witch-hunting, Crusade-fighting, and even proselytism. Cloaking those motivations with a divine commandment and a compulsion for religious institutional survival, results in people dying. People have killed and people have died. This is not okay even when supposedly commanded by a god.

Unfortunately, however satisfying getting rid of the identified scapegoat may feel at the moment, it is never a long-term remedy for a group’s dysfunction. (Incidentally, the Scapegoating phenomenon has been at play in the rhetoric surrounding the congressional impeachment of the 45th President, and the subsequent trial in the U.S. Senate.)

In Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, Silence (marvellously represented by Martin Scorsese in his 2016 film of the same title), Portugese Jesuit priests secretly enter Japan attempting to bring the Catholic Church’s sacramental ministry to the Kakure Kirishitan, the Hidden Christians of Japan’s Edo period in the early 17th century.

Filled with religious idealism and missionary zeal, Father Sebastian Rodrigues and his companion are also trying to find another priest, Father Ferriera who is rumored to have apostatized from the faith and to be living as a Japanese. 

As the story progresses, Father Rodrigues (endowed with a robust messiah complex) is betrayed by an important character named Kichijiro who embodies both Judas (from the Gospels) and Gollum (The Lord of the Rings). While in prison, Rodrigues is repeatedly questioned by the Samurai governor of the region. Curiously, the official Japanese agenda presented in Endo’s story is one of nationalistic Othering that is bent on Scapegoating the Christian religion and its adherents out of Japan. The personal impact of the various forces brought to bear on Father Rodrigues is what makes the story so compelling.

The dilemma to which Father Rodrigues is brought by the governor, and by the now-apostatized Ferreira is this: Japanese Christians will continue to be tortured and killed unless you, as a priest, apostatize by stepping on an image of Jesus. Do that, and the torture of these people will stop—they will be set free. Rodrigues’ frustration is compounded in the realization that his fervent prayers on behalf of the suffering Japanese Christians are met not with divine intervention, but rather with silence. Henry van Dyke, in his timeless classic The Story of the Other Wise Man, casts such dilemmas in terms of: “the conflict between the expectation of faith and the impulse of love.” 

Potentially infuriating to a devout Christian believer, Rodrigues’ dilemma takes on a beautiful hue when viewed from the perspective of a Zen Koan. The priest is presented with a double bind calling forth a spontaneous response. He is “damned if he do, and damned if he don’t.” 

How can an act of betrayal also be an act of faith? Is faithfulness found in clinging to stories, ideas, and even the content of faith within oneself, or is it found in taking whatever action lies within one’s power to alleviate the suffering of other living beings? Can one renounce Christianity and still follow Jesus? Is it worth losing one’s religion if it means helping others? These are the questions with which Endo invites our engagement in Silence. Like a skillful Zen Master, he does not give us any answers.

The Othering and Scapegoating phenomenon are common to groups of every kind. Othering is behind systemic racism, sexism, ableism, and gender discrimination. Secular Humanists “other” Christian Nationalists and vice versa. Hindus “other” Muslims. Capitalists “other” Socialists. Chevy drivers “other” Ford people. All of us “other” people we don’t like or who make us feel uncomfortable. None of us are immune from this tribal instinct. How can we find a more adaptive way forward together both individually and collectively? 

In 12 Step spirituality there is a practice some people find useful: “Do the next right thing.” My own practice is to try and “Do the next human thing.” Jesus, the Buddha, and one of the Hadith’s in Islam all speak of discovering the divine in the faces of ordinary people. This is the invitation of compassion. The religious impulse finding its ultimate fulfillment in service to humanity. We are all connected, and we are in this together. Our ultimate concerns are met in loving service to one another.

“But what if I don’t like my ‘neighbor’?” The Othering/Scapegoating phenomenon arises out of fear of difference and of the unknown. The antidote to Othering is not a forced sameness, but rather recognition of oneness and honoring its manifestation in diversity. 

I am offering us a practice of embracing. Interiorly, and when possible, literally. To embrace what makes us uncomfortable in others and in ourselves. To bring the unknown in close and just be with it. I have found that it is difficult to keep Othering or Scapegoating a person while I am embracing them. And it is difficult to engage in Othering or Scapegoating the parts of myself I find uncomfortable when I embrace them instead of rejecting them. 

Now, I can hear the objections brewing: “What about Hitler and axe murderers? Isn’t Othering/Scapegoating okay in relation to ‘bad’ people like that?” Compassion invites us to embrace all living beings, even people considered “outside the official range of sympathy.” For many religious people that group also includes those of weak faith, apostates, and non-believers.

We embrace the other with compassion and with boundaries. Social Worker and researcher, Brené Brown has said that the most compassionate people in the world are able to be so because they have ironclad boundaries. Compassion and boundaries go together like fronts go with backs. It is also true—axiomatic even—that love changes people. Compassion invites us to trust that and to act accordingly. 

The invitation to embrace the other is not only extended to us in group contexts; it is also an invitation toward personal integration. From beginning to end in Silence, Endo gives us a window into Father Rodrigues interior journey. In one encounter, Rodrigues is confronted with how he is clinging to his illusions and calling it faith. To what illusions am I clinging? What about myself am I Othering? What parts of my own shadow side have I Scapegoated into exile? What we Other/Scapegoat outside of us is a clue to what we are Othering/Scapegoating about ourselves. Some have suggested that the silence referred to in Endo’s title includes Rodrigues’ struggle to silence his own ego.

I used to say, “Jesus is proof that God is more human than most humans are.” Now I say, “Whatever we call our gods are as human or inhuman as we are.” It is not okay to blame a god, religion, ideology, or whatever group we belong to with our instinctive tendency toward Othering/Scapegoating. We are each responsible for how we treat each other, and for how we treat ourselves. 

Compassion is the guiding light on the path away from Othering/Scapegoating and toward the loving embrace of ourselves, each other, and even our enemies. In the practice of embrace, we keep on asking, “What is the next human thing?” And even if it means letting go of gods and religions; egos and illusions; ideologies and the stories we tell in our heads, keep on trying to do the next human thing.

Love One Person

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