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Faith Matters: We've Got to be Taught Religion of Love (Carefully)

11/15/2015 06:08:22 PM


This column first appeared in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on April 14, 2015.

By Rabbi Dr. Rob Lennick

It was the first day of school and the first day of first grade for two little girls who arrived at the classroom door at exactly the same time. The moms came to a sudden halt as they approached the door. Holding their daughter’s hands, they pulled the kids back, almost protecting them from each other.

The mothers were well dressed and seemingly confident. Both appeared to be proud of their kids. They were typical upper-middle class, educated people about to let go of their children to embark on their educational journeys in the maze of suburban public schooling in America. The moms were transfixed on each other with fear, unsure who would go into the room first. No words were exchanged. Their worried eyes did all the speaking.

The little girls were in a different universe altogether, trying to break free from their clinging mommies. The daughters, oblivious to this maternal stand off and tension just wanted to go into the room. They looked at each other and giggled. Then, sheepishly, “Hi. I’m Sadie.” And with a blush, “Hi. My name is Julie.” The kids then pulled the classroom door opened and dragged the moms into the room and then shooed them away. As the door closed, the moms peered through the window in the door to see the girls sitting down together. Oh yes, Sadie was black and Julie was white. But, the kids didn’t seem to notice. It was, however, the only thing the mothers ever saw that day.

When the moms went to pick up the girls they met again at the door; each mom in a state of anxious anticipation that their girls — so different, so “Other” — would actually sit together. Each mom asked her kid, “How did it go? What’s that girl’s name you sat with? She didn’t bother you, did she? You didn’t have to sit next to her. Was it OK?” And both girls answered with the same message: “Mom, it was good. When I sat down next to Sadie/Julie, we were both so scared. We didn’t know anyone. We were so scared that we looked at each other, and without even saying anything, we started holding hands. And we held hands all day and weren’t scared any more! She’s a nice girl mommy. I have a new friend!” Kids are colorblind. We’re not born with prejudice.

Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a simple and poignant song for the play, “South Pacific.” The lyrics of, “You’ve got to be Carefully Taught,” go like this:

You’ve got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught

From year to year,

It’s got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

If kids learn racism at home, they bring racism to school. If kids see their parents dominated by fear of other people, kids will live in fear of others. If kids are taught that poor people are lazy, they will scorn other kids they feel are poor. If kids are raised with prejudice, they will judge others without knowing one thing about them. Racism, fear, prejudice and stereotyping are all thoughtless. They are just reactions. And they have to be taught. They have to be carefully taught.

The problem of hate has to be confronted from all angles. In school, home, houses of worship, the media, business and in our social dealings — we have to take a good look at ourselves and get to the root of our attitudes toward “Others.”

And the religious community must be the pacesetter. Of course, people of faith agree, right? If only it were easy. Even though we all preach one version or another of the Golden Rule, we we don’t teach it — nor do we, in religious life actually live it. Here is my challenge question for our community to ponder: How do we in religious life lessen fear and prejudice, promote respect, acceptance, celebration of diversity and the embrace of uniqueness, when our own traditions emphasize the differences between good guys and bad guys? Every religion has its sinners and saints, redeemed and condemned, saved and lost, God’s friends and enemies — acceptable prayers and those in vain. How do we teach our children that hate, prejudice and fear of the Other are unholy, while sitting in the pew and thanking God for not being one of “Them,” those spiritually unfit, poor souls?

This is a conundrum created by humans … for humans. I suspect it is quite clear for God: “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19) This first statement of the Golden Rule says God loves us as we are and so should we love each other. We could be teaching our children very different messages than how to be God’s preferred souls. We could teach that God is so loving, so caring, so understanding, so embracing, that there is room in God for every soul. Not by a test of faith. Not by power of ritual. Not by formulas of prayer. But by love.

Religion is about love, not power. Religion is about love, not who’s right. Religion is about love, not my truth or yours. Religion is about love, not winning the “Faith Race.” Religion by exclusion makes no sense. The Religion of Love is what needs to be taught. It needs to be carefully taught.

Rabbi Rob Lennick is the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim in Bentonville. Contact him at (484) 707-0047.

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