Community, Connection, and Conflict

In my senior year of high school, I was able to take some advanced placement classes. I signed up for one of them just because I loved the teacher – Humanities. My group of classmates was about what you’d expect for an AP class: bookish, intelligent, largely on the introverted side. Except this one guy. One of the football players at my high school was in the class. He looked like your stereotypical Hollywood movie jock: blonde, blue eyed, handsome, tall, and he wore a football jersey to class every day. I did not understand why he was in the room.

About a month into the class, we were evaluating ancient poetry. A surprising number of poems – both devotional and love poems – survive to present day from classical civilizations. In the one we were discussing, the author talked about being the sandal his love wore, or the silk in which she wrapped herself, or the sunlight shining on her face. The other young women in the class and I decided that it sounded kinda creepy and stalkerish, at least through the lens of our own time. 

And then the jock spoke up. He spoke incredibly movingly of a love that is so pure it’s enough to simply bear witness to the wonder of his beloved’s life. That to be the sunlight shining on her would be enough for a love so deep and selfless. 

I think he caught all of us off guard. It’s been more than two decades and I can still remember the silence after he spoke. I suddenly understood why he was in the class. And I also realized that my categorization of him as “just another dumb jock” was completely wrong. Despite many outward appearances of difference, both of us shared a deep love of the written word, and the way art, stories, and poetry impact culture. 

I’ve been thinking about that moment as the culture here in the United States continues to polarize and gather in separate camps. With news media and social media reinforcing the separation between different groups, it’s getting harder to have moments of sudden commonality. Moments where we realize the person in front of us is more than their community allegiance or outward appearance would indicate. 

In my high school classroom, I had immediately made value judgments about my classmate that simply weren’t true. I wonder how much of that I’m doing now. Recent polling indicates that on values, the country has more in common than you’d expect. In a large poll released earlier this month from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 91% of us support the rights of everyone to equal protection under the law. That same percentage supports the right to vote. 90% of us support the right to privacy. 84% of us support the freedom of religion. An average of 76% of us rate a democratically elected government as extremely or very important.  Those are high numbers, and honestly felt a little surprising given the tone of some of the news media right now. 

Within the Pagan religious world, my individual faith path is Heathenry. Heathens worship the gods of ancient Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Germanic Europe. We are sometimes referred to as a reconstructionist religion, which means we are using available sources in the form of written records and archeological findings to build a modern version of the belief system present before the Christian conversion. Heathenry in particular has a problem with racist and radical factions within it. My time here isn’t long enough to get into all the reasons why that is, but the short version is that in the 1940’s, the German Third Reich claimed Heathen mythology for itself, and put forth a corrupted version of our stories to reinforce their hateful and historically inaccurate concept of a pure white race. That influence and corruption, in some quarters, exists to this very day. 

I’m part of a team of Heathen community leaders who have been working with representatives of the International Center for Religious Diplomacy on tools, techniques, and structures for helping to break the military and prison to extremist Heathen group pipeline. It’s a very real problem – radicalized hate groups prey on the vulnerable, and people leaving both the military and prison are frequently good targets. I’m grateful to the ICRD for helping combat religious extremism here in the United States as well as for all their work in so many other countries. 

In a recent meeting for that effort, one of the ICRD representatives said something interesting. One big step toward creating a safe path for vulnerable people is to build a coalition of local non-radicalized religious groups. This applies across the board, whether we’re talking about extremist Heathenry, Christianity, Islam or any other religion. A network of local groups allows those groups to refer people and share information and resources. And, the representative said that there’s been a new hurdle to this step of the process of late. The purity testing that is becoming all too common is making it harder to get groups that really do share a lot of values into cooperation with each other. That fracturing we’re seeing in the media and the paranoid inference of what slight differences might mean runs very deep right now. 

If we look at any person or organization long enough, we will see flaws or things we disagree with. That’s just the way people are. And also, more than ever, we need each other right now. The ugliness present in our culture can only be countered by an opposing wave of connection and commonality. To quote the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

The most vulnerable among us need protection and support. They need a strong coalition of connected organizations who can help share resources, counsel, and community. True community care is the next chapter of progressive religion. We’re figuring out how to turn our values into actions, and how to reach those who need us most. But sometimes we stumble because we miss the artist underneath the football jersey, the community partner who’s different than we are but whose values truly do align. We’re too quick to assume difference means incompatibility right now. 

But allowing for differences and pausing to think more deeply about them isn’t enough. The pendulum can swing too far in the other direction. I’ve seen too many organizations with good folks at the center of them fall prey to being too tolerant. The paradox of tolerance states that if a society’s practice of tolerance is inclusive of the intolerant, intolerance will ultimately dominate, eliminating the tolerant and the practice of tolerance with them. An easy way to think about this is with a simple penguins and sharks analogy. If a group welcomes both penguins and sharks, the smart penguins leave and the less perceptive ones become prey. Eventually only sharks remain. In our desire to be welcoming, we can ultimately defeat our own goal. 

The paradox of tolerance is countered by approaching tolerance not as an absolute or moral standard, but as a social contract. It’s like a peace treaty. If two parties can both abide by the terms of the peace treaty, they can move forward together. 

My contact at the ICRD said that the first step to getting a few different groups to build a coalition is to find things they agree on. To begin to flesh out the social contract of tolerance that will govern the connections. What values do we share? What are the absolute deal-breakers? For inclusive Heathens, we can agree that race, sexual orientation and gender-based hatred and discrimination are wrong. We can agree that preventing people from falling into the clutches of a hate group is better than trying to extricate them once they’ve been radicalized. And, we can agree that membership in or close ties with a hate group is a deal-breaker. Through those shared ideas within our social contract, we can begin to build the kinds of bonds and communication that allow us to more strongly impact the radical Heathenry problem. Some of us may still be wearing football jerseys, but we’ve had that moment of connection now. The jerseys become less a signifier of assumed values and instead, simply an item of clothing. 

And so we must carry multiple ideas at the same time: we must be careful not to let our assumptions based on incomplete information run away with us, and we need to be prepared to set firm boundaries when the social contract of tolerance is violated. We want to be welcoming but not fall prey to bad actors within our own organizations. It’s a lot to pay attention to at the same time, requiring inward as well as outward focus. 

One of the keys to setting good boundaries involves understanding the difference between values and aspirations. Boundaries can be described as falling into two categories: hard and soft. Hard boundaries are things we are not willing to compromise on and will remediate immediately – they’re our deeply held values. In the example of inclusive Heathenry, this would be someone spouting hate speech at a Heathen event or representing a radicalized group at a Pagan gathering. Soft boundaries are aspirational – they’re dreams we have for ourselves or our organization and are open to compromise. Again using the example of inclusive Heathenry, this could be a difference in which deities we honor or what ceremony forms we use. I’m more comfortable with Norse Heathenry because that’s what I practice and also, there’s room at the table for Anglo-Saxon or Lithuanian Heathenry even if I don’t use those spiritual forms myself. 

It’s a good practice to spend time figuring out what your values are. Most of us have an intuitive sense of our values but haven’t actually spent time writing them out or articulating them clearly. Out of a list of values, the majority of us will have three to five core values and a dozen or more aspirations. Identifying that set of values as separate from the aspirations teaches us where we will set firm boundaries in our personal lives.  This individual exercise can apply to our organizations as well. Many of the progressive religious organizations I’m in contact with have a very broad set of values. This can be a good thing in terms of giving different members of the group suitable places to focus their efforts, but also means that things get a little fuzzy when it comes to behavior or viewpoints that are unacceptable. We need to know the true red flags and be able to respond accordingly. 

Knowing our core values as people and organizations also enables us to build meaningful connections with aligned groups. Maybe our aspirations don’t entirely match, but if our values do we have the makings of a true bridge. We can clearly articulate our priorities and connect with those who share them. 

One last thread to consider is kindness. Most of us have been socialized to be conflict-avoidant, and to equate saying “no” to being mean. This is especially true if we were socialized female. Kindness is possible even when we’re setting a boundary. We can say “no,” or “that behavior is not acceptable here” without rancor or recrimination. Niceness is largely a surface phenomenon – it’s about being polite. Kindness is how we show what we care about in the world. It’s the way we show up for ourselves and our organizations. 

The bonds we build between communities are vital right now. We have so many irons in the fire: climate change, dismantling white supremacy, protecting queer youth and supporting queer adults, economic justice, and so much more. There’s a lot of work to be done, and we need teammates in order to build the beloved community. To make that process more fluid, we can do a few different things: we can have some healthy skepticism around our knee-jerk reactions to things we think of as value signifiers. Just because someone wears a football jersey doesn’t mean they’re also a bully. We can take a deep breath and make the effort to learn more about that person’s values. 

Similarly, we can start talking about the values we have in common when we’re trying to build a connection with a local group. We can focus on what we share, and know exactly what our deal-breakers are so that a difference in aspiration is just that: a difference. 

And, we can practice setting firm, kind boundaries that protect the most vulnerable among us. We can practice tolerance as a social contract with consequences if a person or organization violates it. 

Election years have a history of being contentious, and the one unfolding right now is no exception. To meet the rising tide of vitriol and language designed to splinter us, we must respond from a centered place of integrity, compassion, robust boundaries, and cooperation. There is hope – we have more in common with more people than we realize. Now we just need to build the bridges between us. 

This sermon was first offered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hagerstown on Sunday, April 14th, 2024.

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