© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 7, 2007

The strongest chains are the chains we love.

Spirituality is about breaking chains, breaking the bonds that tie us to old ways that don't work. At their best, all of the world's great religions can help us break free from old habits to serve a higher goal. I think of the Abrahamic traditions, for instance, - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - which focus on love of God and love of neighbor. Each of these religions tells us to rise above narrow, personal interests by treating other people with justice and compassion. Another example would be the Hindu-Buddhist-Sikh tradition which teaches people to let go of attachment. Through yoga, through meditation, through the Eightfold Path, one can learn that life is more than just fulfilling our personal cravings. Spiritual traditions can help people open up to ever-expanding circles of love and respect.

So how can you and I move forward in our spiritual journey? How can we "grow our souls?" The way I think of it is that we can start with Spirituality 101, and then move on to the advanced course. Spirituality 101 is where we learn basic lessons by relating to our immediate neighbors - friends, family, and co-workers. But in the advanced course we encounter the Stranger, the one who seems different from us. It has been said that in our encounter with the stranger, we meet God in disguise.

So where can we find such a stranger? Let's just state the obvious. Because the Tri-Cities area [Fremont, Newark, and Union City in California] is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the U.S., one easy way to encounter those who seem different is to relate with people from various ethnic backgrounds.

On some Sundays we have heard from people who belong to ethnic minorities, but this morning I will be speaking from my Caucasian perspective, and much of what I say will be addressed to those who share my European ancestral roots. But I hope those of you with roots in other regions will also relate to my comments. I assume every one of us could benefit from exploring our attitudes about race and ethnicity.

As I tiptoe into this morning's topic, you might ask yourself if you are already feeling uncomfortable. If so, good for you! At least you're aware of it. Feeling our own unease is often a signal that we've got a spiritual opportunity here. But there is one particular form of discomfort that can backfire and that is guilt. I mentioned in a recent sermon that guilt often keeps us stuck in destructive behaviors. For one thing, people tend to avoid uncomfortable experiences, so they avoid thinking about subjects that trigger guilt. Therefore they do not candidly face their own habits and attitudes, and that blocks spiritual growth.

In life's great banquet, guilt should be a seasoning, not a main dish. I believe in feeling just enough guilt to nudge me out of complacency. Any more than that will probably keep me stuck.

One thing that can trigger guilt in me is when people start talking about "white privilege." I can put this in a larger context by remembering that people are privileged and non-privileged in a variety of ways. Most of us are lucky in some respects and unlucky in others. It's natural to want to keep whatever good fortune has come our way, even if we are fortunate at the expense of other people. So this is an opportunity for us to grow spiritually.

Most Caucasians automatically assume that:

I don't writhe with guilt because I am fortunate in these ways. But I want everyone in this country to become just as fortunate, and that's quite a challenge. Feeling a pinprick of guilt about white privilege can motivate me to notice how our culture still disempowers ethnic minorities.

I ran across an interesting example of a racist interpretation of an ambiguous situation back when Katrina flooded New Orleans. The Associated Press showed a photograph of a man accompanied by these words: "A young man walks through chest-deep flood-water after looting a grocery store." Another image from the same flood was captioned: "Two residents wade through water after finding bread and soda from a grocery store." (AFP/Getty Images) Cartoonist Keith Knight asks, "Can you spot the difference between 'looting' and 'finding'?" Of course, the one who was called a looter was African-American and the folks who just happened to find the bread and soda were white.

Living in Fremont, I am especially aware of anti-Muslim prejudice. I am stunned that Representative Peter King, who is a homeland security adviser to Rudy Giuliani and who used to be chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, recently stated that "Unfortunately we have too many mosques in this country, there's too many people who are sympathetic to radical Islam." (The Argus, September 26, 2007, News p. 10) Can you imagine the outcry if an American Muslim said there were too many churches in this country and implied that those who go to church are extremists? I can't believe what people can get away with saying about Muslims. In this climate of prejudice, the next time there is a big terrorist attack in the United States anyone who looks Middle Eastern will be more of a target than ever. So let's take the extra step of connecting with Muslim acquaintances and co-workers, so they feel like a part of America instead of feeling so isolated.

Last month I drove to Antioch to a demonstration in solidarity with a family and a house of worship. The family was African-American, and their Brentwood home was broken into, vandalized, and tagged with racist graffiti. The house of worship was a mosque in Antioch that has received threatening mail; stones have been thrown through their windows, bullets have shot through their walls, and in August arson caused them $400,000 of damage. By the way, it was moving to see several people from a synagogue in Richmond there, marching beside their Muslim brothers and sisters - human unity despite ethnic diversity.

Tonight we will gather here in Cole Hall to watch a film about how five Northern California communities responded to hate crimes. Seeing this film will help prepare our spirits for the day when we will be called upon again to stand up against hatred and violence.

Of course, respect for all cultures and ethnicities is more than just responding to a crisis. It also involves day-to-day engagement with political issues. For example, racial justice and economic justice are closely connected. I think of the economic problems of many Afghan immigrants in the Tri-Cities area. Looking at the larger picture of economic justice, I recently preached about David Korten's book, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. For the Great Turning to happen, we must "live simply, that others may simply live." Many of us do sense that God, or the spirit of life, or our inner light calls us to simplify and share. But there's one area where it is hard to cut back financially. We do not want to give up the assurance of good healthcare, nor should we. Often, people who have simplified their lives begin to focus once again on accumulating wealth as they get older and their bodies begin to fall apart. If each of us thinks we need half a million dollars in case we need long-term care round the clock, it will be harder to share our resources with those in need. Reforming the health care system turns out to be an essential step toward racial justice and Earth Community. By the way, health care is one of the top priorities of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry in Sacramento.

So politics is important here. But this morning I want to especially focus on personal change, change from the inside out. Dealing with ethnic diversity helps us grow our souls, because it gives us practice in staying conscious and aware in our face-to-face contacts. Because ethnic interactions are often complicated we need to stay alert, so that we don't set off some culturally-related land mine without even realizing that someone got blown up. And I want to pause now and ask what you already know about this. What are some things we might do that would inadvertently upset people of various cultural and racial groups? (Sharing within the congregation.)

Thanks for those examples, and I'll share a few more. Of course, we are generalizing when we say a particular behavior would offend members of a particular ethnic group. No doubt there are exceptions to any such generalization. Some people in each group would not be offended by these behaviors. But it's probably best to err on the side of caution. (The quoted passages which follow are by Gary Stoller, USA Today, August 24, 2007, pp. 2A, 2B.)

"A few months ago American actor Richard Gere embraced Indian actress Shilpa Shetty and kissed her on the cheek at an AIDS awareness rally in India, "a country where public displays of affection are generally taboo. An Indian court issued a warrant for his arrest and irate protestors burned effigies of the actor."

You may already know that in most Asian cultures it is rude to wave or point chopsticks, put them vertically in a rice bowl or tap them on the bowl, and that when dining with Muslims, "always use the right hand, because the left 'is deemed unclean ...'" (Tamiko Zablith, etiquette consultant) And Euro-Americans can also transgress European cultural customs. A business traveler named Jerry Galiger was in France. He drank some red wine, and then switched to white. According to Galiger, "From the expressions of the group, you would have thought I exposed myself ... I later found out you ... can't enjoy the bouquet of the white after you've drunk the red."

Another European faux pas: In "Greece: If you need to signal a taxi, holding up five fingers is considered an offensive gesture if the palm faces outward."

In "Egypt: Showing the sole of your foot or crossing your legs when sitting is an insult."

In the U.S., use your index finger when pushing up your glasses on the bridge of your nose - never the middle finger! It's a terrible insult. And don't stand too close to those of Northern European ancestry. They'll just keep backing away till they're comfortably distant again.

In Japan and (I believe) in Korea, "Never write on a business card or shove the card into your back pocket when you are with the giver."

In "France: Never appear overly friendly because this could be construed as suspicious. Never ask personal questions." Similarly, in "Argentina: It is rude to ask people what they do for a living."

But a new "Korean acquaintance" may ask "What's your job? How much money do you make? Are you married? If not, why not? Do you have children? If not, why not?" These questions help him or her figure out how to behave toward you, partly by determining status levels. You're expected to ask the same questions ... If you don't, how will you know how you're supposed to act?"

Those of us who are Euro-American probably grew up not having to think much about race. I don't need to wonder whether poor service in a restaurant was due to prejudice, and if I'm pulled over by the highway patrol, it won't be for "driving while Black" (or Latino, Asian, etc.). But regardless of our ethnic background, all of us who live in the Tri-Cities area do need to be aware of race and culture, because there are so many ways to offend each other. We will make mistakes. So this is a chance to grow spiritually, practicing awareness, staying conscious and alert. Why did this person suddenly look tense or seem confused? Why did the conversation end so quickly?

All communication is a risk, a gamble, a reaching out into the unknown, and cross-cultural communication is an advanced lesson in dealing with the Other. It will give us opportunities to say, "I'm sorry; I meant no disrespect." And it will give us opportunities to forgive, when others hurt us without meaning to.

For those who grew up, as I did, in mostly Caucasian communities, it is a big adjustment to live here and deal with ethnic variety. Some people are quite irritated by demographic changes in the Tri-Cities area. In a recent letter to The Argus, a Fremont woman complained, "I ... resent the constant coverage of all things multicultural (as if I no longer live here)." Actually, many events publicized in The Argus are attended almost exclusively by Caucasians. The newspaper doesn't label these as examples of "white culture," but in fact they are.

If you sometimes feel as if multi-culturalism negates your own ethnicity, or if you notice prejudiced thoughts and feelings, welcome to the human race. We all have stereotypes and resentments that we have not yet overcome. Otherwise we'd all be wearing halos! We can break the chains that bind us to old ways, but the strongest chains are the chains we love. We may love our own privileges, love to feel superior, love to coast along without challenging ourselves, love our socioeconomic status - these are comfortable handcuffs. But the voice of God, the voice of spirit, the voice of conscience calls us to slip free from our cozy chains.

Part of this spiritual journey is inner work, being conscious, alert, and compassionate as we deal with other ethnicities. But it's easy to forget that we have resolved to become more aware. If we want to really make progress, most of us need to dedicate specific time to experiences that will change us. I mentioned earlier that Mission Peak will soon offer a new curriculum called "Building the World We Dream About." This is an opportunity that is now knocking on your door, an opportunity to grow your soul, to explore the human unity beyond ethnic diversity. It's a chance to listen to an inner voice that says, "I know I can be more than I am now. I can be more understanding, more loving, more compassionate, more of a force for healing this world." May we listen to the voice of spirit, and meet the Holy by encountering the Stranger.

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