“They drew a circle that shut me out. But love and I had the wit to win…we drew a circle that took them in.”
—poet Edwin Markham
I recently returned from an extended stay in the United States, a time which included the celebration of Martin Luther King Day.
As I reflect on our recent Anti-Bullying Day, my heart aches for all those who have been shut out and discriminated against, derided and humiliated in our society.
Why do so many humans seem compelled to prove their “worth” by diminishing the humanity of others? Why do we tolerate put-downs and racial or religious slurs that happen in our presence? Does anyone really believe that “words will never hurt me?”
Violent forms of bullying or hate crimes do not spring up out of thin air.
They breed in a climate where other humans, those perceived in some way to “not belong,” are fair game for slurs and intolerance.
We sometimes forget that many religious teachers, in particular Jesus of Nazareth, did not “belong” in their own society.
Hospitality to the “stranger” is one of the oldest religious teachings of humanity.
It had to be taught because humans have always had a tendency to distrust those who were different—sometimes with reason.
Yet we are also curious creatures; if we feel safe and accepted ourselves, we may well want to learning more about those who are “other.”
No matter how closely we try to follow the Buddha’s teaching of loving kindness or the call of Jesus of Nazareth to love our neighbours, we are each of us complicit in the suffering of those marginalized in our society.
We are complicit in that in our heart of hearts even the most accepting of us harbours some fear of what is alien—fear of the unknown and discomfort when we don’t know the “rules” among folks who are different from us.
We are complicit because we don’t acknowledge and immediately repair small rips in our web of relationships that our own moments of frustration, anger and impatience create.
We are complicit because we so often want to be “right” more than we want to be loving.
We are complicit because, out of discomfort and misguided politeness, we don’t speak up when intolerance or disrespect is expressed in our hearing.
A post-modern worldview recognizes that we are all woven into the web of society and that by our very participation in that society we are complicit in its failings as well as its accomplishments. This perspective can seem lacking in hope, but constructive change has rarely come about because leaders who consider themselves “righteous” set out to change the rest of us.
Truly inspirational spiritual leaders, like the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa, have a core humility that accepts their own imperfect humanity as the starting place.
Nothing spells ‘false prophet” as much as a stance of self-righteousness. Jesus reminded us to tend to the “log” in our own eye rather than the speck in our neighbour’s.
Yet harshly judging or bullying ourselves is not constructive, either. Whether in our own hearts or in society, change happens when we practice the difficult spiritual discipline of speaking our truth in humility and love.
We are better able to love our neighbours when we stop trying to build tight walls that define who “belongs” and who doesn’t—when we open our doors and our hearts to the stranger, or are willing to step out of our familiar doors altogether to meet those who are different on their home ground.