People Who Are Different from ‘Us’ (My Latest Challenge to the Conservatives)

This piece is appearing in newspapers in my very red congressional district (VA-06). July, 2018.

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How do we know that it was of major importance to Jesus how we treat people who are different from us? Because when he’s asked, in the Gospels, to explain his main ethical injunction, he places that issue front and center.

Asked what he means by “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Jesus chooses a Samaritan as the figure to represent the “neighbor.”  Today we think of the Samaritans as “good” because we know of them through the story of the “Good Samaritan.” But to Jesus’s audience, the Samaritans were hardly seen as “good.” They were the “Other,” even the despised and hated Other.

Jesus’s point is: The ethic of love must be extended across the boundaries that divide people, even – perhaps especially — to those who are different from us.

But, as my Methodist-minister friend says of Jesus, “My boss is a tough one.”

For some people, complying with Jesus’s instruction about loving the “Samaritan” is especially hard.

Especially hard, the more people are caught up in fear and anger. Such feelings are conducive not to love but to attacking and scapegoating.

Especially hard for people whose psychological make-up is built around conflict. Some people have a need for an enemy, and for such people life works better if the enemy is on the other side of their boundaries: perceived not as part of the self, not as part of one’s own community, but rather as some “Them” who are different from our “Us.”

Especially hard as well for people who need to think that their own cultural path offers the only way someone can be a good human being.

One additional factor must be cited: history is full of rulers who use the demonization of “others” as a way to keep their own people unified behind them, and to provide an alternative target for people’s frustrations and rage that might otherwise be directed against their rulers.

It is in this context that we should look at the way the question of “People Who Are Different from ‘Us’” is playing in American politics today.

  • How should people of other religions be treated– e.g. Muslims and Jews?
  • How should people of other races be treated—e.g. black and brown people?
  • How should the majority whose sexual attraction is directed to people of the opposite sex treat those in the minority whose attraction is to people of the same sex?
  • How should Americans who identify as Republican or as Democrat (conservative or liberal) treat their fellow citizens with different political leanings?

All those are different ways that people can be different from ‘Us.’ And on all those dimensions, the picture of our political parties could not be more clear: in each instance, it is the Republican Party that greets the “Other” not with love but with hostility.

  • It is the Republicans who have expressed strong animosity toward Muslims in recent years: campaigning against a mosque in New York, fomenting a foolish fear that sharia law might be imposed on the United States, cheering a President who campaigned on passing a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. And it is the Republicans who have now been embraced by the neo-Nazi fringe who marched in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us.”
  • The picture is even more stark when it comes to race. It is today’s Republican Party that has become the political home of the heirs of those who stood for segregation. It is Republicans – in Congress and on the Supreme Court—who have worked to make it harder for African-Americans to vote. And it has been the Republicans who have supported a President – Trump – who has gone out of his way to use the protests of black NFL players (against a spate police shootings of unarmed black men) to fan racial antagonisms. It has been, moreover, the Republican Party that has been most hostile to the racially different Hispanic immigrant population. And Republicans who have rallied to the support of leadership that equates Hispanic immigrants with “rapists” and violent gang members.
  • With respect to the treatment of people with same-sex sexual orientation, once again in the political battles it has been the GOP that has continually been antagonistic, cultivating “gay rights” as a divisive issue (in 2004), and fighting equality of treatment every step of the way.
  • And when it comes to how to regard people on the other side of the partisan divide, in America, the history of the past quarter century has shown a clear pattern of Republican contempt and disregard for “librels” and anyone associated with the “Democrat” Party. “If the ‘Libtards’ are for it, we’re against it” seems to be the attitude. Polls show that while most Democrats think “bi-partisanship” and “compromise” are positive concepts for making American government work well for the nation, most Republicans want Democrats to have nothing to do with our collective political decisions.

One cannot help but be struck by a strange combination of facts. Despite Jesus’s clear central moral teaching to “Love thy neighbor” — even the Samaritan, whom you’ve been taught to hate – “as thyself,” in today’s American politics:

Those Americans who most loudly proclaim their Christian beliefs and commitments give their support to the Party that most consistently violates that central Christian teaching.

Which presents a puzzle—one that is not new to those who study human history, but that remains perplexing nonetheless:

How is it that people can proclaim a set of beliefs and values  – in all apparent sincerity – while at the same time doing and supporting the very opposite?

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Andy Schmookler – the Democratic nominee for Congress in VA-06 in 2012 – is an award-winning author whose recent work includes “A Better Human Story,” available at http://abetterhumanstory.org/

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