poker, prison, prayer (sermon; 040627)

This sermon was preached on Fusion, the UU Church of Rockford’s weekly television show on WIFR-TV; on 27 June 2004
Rev. Chip Roush

How many of you have ever played poker? Did you play for pennies, or poker chips, or was there paper money in the pot? How many of you have ever played strip poker,
where you have to remove an item of clothing if you have the losing hand?

The game of poker is enjoying an increase in popularity recently. The World Series of Poker is now broadcast on cable television, along with reruns of past years’ tournaments, and the Bravo channel has a hit with its Celebrity Poker Showdown, where famous women and men play on behalf of various charities.

Why, even some ministers play the game—me, for example. I have been playing poker since I was a boy. I can remember a Cub Scout trip, where we played for part of a rainy afternoon. We had no poker chips, so we played for snack foods, and we had an intricate system to determine how many pretzels or potato chips a Tootsie-Roll was worth.

I still play, off and on, although I play for nickels and dimes now. When my friends and I play, we have a limit to the amount of money a player can bet, so that nobody goes away too terribly harmed by the evening’s games.

Except that that is not really accurate.

The last time we played, as I left the game, I ran into a friend, whom I will call ‘Gus’. We talked for a minute, then I continued on my way home. I felt bad, because *he* had not been invited to the party. Now, Gus is not a bad person. He hangs out with us on other occasions, and he even arranges our trips to watch baseball at Wrigley or U.S.Cellular Field. It is just that the host of the party does not want to invite him. Most of the rest of our friends are invited, but not Gus.

The host has that right, of course, but I still felt bad about the whole thing. Mainly, I feel bad about *my* part in it. We can debate whether or not it is more just, or simply more polite, to invite Gus to our poker parties, and different people may reach different conclusions.

But if *I* think it is unjust, then I feel *I* should address that injustice.
And I have not.

I know how it feels to be the person who is not invited. I remember all too well
negotiating the grade-school lunchroom, trying to sit with people who would not reject or taunt me. I suspect that most all of us have acquaintance with being chosen last, or not being asked to a dance, or being teased about our clothing, or any of the hundreds of ways
that in-groups and out-groups are formed in school and in the rest of our lives.

I know that feeling in my stomach, sorrow turned to cold mush, as I know the way my shoulders dropped when in the presence of the popular kids.

I know the feeling so well, in fact, that I’ve learned to detect it coming, and to avoid the situation that would create it. Just as I learned where to sit in grade school, I learned when to stop talking and when to walk in a different direction, so as to avoid having my place in the out-group demonstrated and reinforced.

And that is why I have not asked our poker host to invite Gus to the next party. Because I am afraid that I won’t be invited the next time, either.

Intellectually, I know that I would probably still be invited. Whether or not I could convince them to invite Gus, my friends would not likely condemn me for asking about it. But I’ve learned the fear, and the fear has so far kept me from asking.

I have heard this fear named “internalized oppression.” That seems to be a pretty good term for it, although I think it is also the basis for a lot of externalized oppression, too.

For example, the next time I host a social event, if I do not invite Gus, because I wanted to prove that I understood and accepted his status as poker outcast, then I would call that externalized oppression, stemming from my own internalized version.

Sometimes, we want to be with the in-group so badly that we’ll treat the out-group in exactly the ways we swore we never would, when we ourselves were labeled into some out-group or other.

When I looked at the pictures from the prison in Abu Ghraib, I thought to myself, how can people do that to each other?! How can they abuse and humiliate their fellow human beings like that?

Perhaps it is not so difficult, after all. Perhaps we are so accustomed to making divisions—and to striving to be part of the fortunate half of each division—that it becomes second nature to us.

I am not saying that failing to invite people to a party is as bad as torturing them. But I am saying that the fear and desire that I felt, around being part of the “in” group, the poker-playing group, is similar to the fear and desire experienced by the soldiers in Iraq. Only, their careers and their lives were at stake, so they were probably even more concerned about being on the proper side of the division.

As unwilling as I was, to question the distinction between invitee and non-invitee, how much more difficult must it be for them! Again, I do not think that the two actions are equivalent, but I do suspect that they both come from the same human need to perceive differences between groups of people, and to behave in such a way as to belong to the preferred group.

It is natural to search for differences, and to make choices based on those differences. We are hard-wired to discriminate, to see or hear every way in which a particular group of people is different from *our* group of people. It is understandable, that our ancestors might have felt more comfortable with people who were more like themselves than with people who were different. Strangers could be dangerous: differentiating between people might really have been a survival mechanism.

However, as a religious person, I am here to point out that we are all of us a lot more similar than we are different. Here in the 21st century, cooperation is a survival mechanism. Our differences are still important, but the similarities are more so.

So, my question today is: if it is difficult for me to confront one good friend about another good friend, both of whom are very similar to me, then how am I to confront injustice with strangers?

If the need to create distinctions, and to passively accept or actively enforce those distinctions, is a natural human activity, then how are we to relieve or prevent injustice in our world?

How are we to address the fact that a third of young black men in the United States will end up in prison; that billions of people live without sufficient shelter, or food, or medical care; that loving couples of the same sex can only receive the benefits of legal marriage in a few places, worldwide?

How do we calm the fear, anger and sorrow between Palestinians and Israelis, Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics, Hutus and Tutsis? How do we support the people in the Balkans, or the indigenous peoples all over North, Central and South America? How do we reach peaceful agreements with anti-Western Muslims or anti-capitalist N. Koreans? If we are hardwired to focus on our differences, then is there any real hope of ever creating a just, peaceful world?

In fact, I think that there is real hope, yes. I think it is a difficult task, surely, yet I agree with Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King, Jr., that the arc of the moral universe, long though it may be, eventually bends toward justice.

Certainly, we are at war in Iraq, but for the first time in human history, there was an international debate about whether or not to go to war. Cooler heads did not prevail,
but the fact that there was a debate at all is an hopeful sign.

Just as slavery was acceptable for millennia, was not only commonplace but expected,
and then, in the course of one short century, was suddenly outlawed virtually everywhere—we humans are occasionally able to change for the better. Again, I know that slavery still exists in many places, exists right here in these United States, but the point is, that it is no longer legal, or generally acceptable. I do believe that we are making progress.

The fact that we are appalled by the ways that some groups treat other groups is itself a small step forward. It is at least better than not noticing—or noticing but not caring—how others are treated.

I think that the moral awareness of the average human being, and of the average human government, has been improving, slowly but steadily, for a long time. First we left the primordial seas, then we stood upright, then we created societies—now we are evolving toward just, fair, peaceful societies.

Best of all, I believe that there is a simple way to help that process.

We humans are part of the natural evolution of the universe. We are not all evolving at the same rate, but we are all evolving toward the same goal. And as long as we are evolving, we may as well do it consciously, and purposefully.

I propose that we remind ourselves, at the beginning of each day, that we are trying to make the world a better place. I suggest that we interrupt our daily routine, that we clear our heads, and center our hearts, and take just a moment to really feel the lure of the unsentimental love at the center of the universe.

It may not be the easiest thing to do, especially with the bad news that often pours out of the radio in the morning, but it just might work. If we spend an instant communing with the universe, if we are able to feel some of the joy and delight of the pulse of life inside us, then the day will already be better than it might have been.

If, every morning, we remind ourselves that we are inextricably connected to all the other beings on this planet, then we may remember to treat them better, when we come in contact with them throughout the day.

I have two examples to suggest that this might work.

One of the most kind and successful men that I know told me once that he has a similar morning ritual. He starts every day with a brief meditation, after which, he reminds himself to act justly and compassionately toward everyone he meets that day. If he expects to interact with people who are difficult for him—if he has a personality conflict with an employee, or a customer, for example—he spends extra time thinking of those people. He imagines himself treating them with respect and kindness; he envisions the best possible, win-win outcome for their interaction. Then he gets up and goes about his day. As I said, he is one of the most kind and successful people I know, so it must be working.

The church where I did my internship, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva,
recites its congregational covenant at each worship service and at each Board meeting. They are a successful, vibrant, healthy church—at least in part because this recitation of their covenant creates a context of tolerance and compassion. It helps to focus their attention, and to guide their behavior. Even in times of a budget shortfall, and in the midst of radical staffing changes, they conducted their debates with respect and goodwill.

Perhaps, if I were to spend a day or a week reminding myself that we were all interconnected, and if I imagined the best possible outcome for all concerned,
then I might become more confident and less afraid, and finally be willing to ask my poker buddies about Gus. Perhaps, if I spend a decade or two at it, then eventually the voice of my hopes may drown out the voice of my fears.

I hope that you will join me, as you are able, in bending the arc of the universe a little more rapidly. It may take a while for it to become a habit, but I pledge to begin and end every day by reminding myself of my desire to make the world a better place, and of the fact that I am connected to all living things. I will also remind myself at mealtimes.

This may remind some of you of the daily prayers that are said in any number of religious faith traditions. I agree; it is similar. If you wish to name a higher power in these moments, God or Mother Nature or whomever you address, then I think it is a great idea. For those of you who choose not to use such language, I will point out that this situation does not require any mention of the supernatural. It is a scientific, verifiable fact, that we are all interconnected and interdependent. Reminding myself of the many different people involved in growing, transporting, preparing, serving and cleaning up after my meals is a good way of recognizing this fact.

Call it prayer if you wish; say a poem if you prefer. You might use this fragment of a poem by Dawna Markova: “I will not die an unlived life…I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible, to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise. I choose to risk my significance, to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit.”

It is my hope that, as I repeat such beautiful words every day, my actions and behaviors will become more peaceful and just; my need to belong to the in-group will weaken, and wither; my compassion and respect for others will grow more strong.

Perhaps, if I am more peaceful and welcoming, then those people with whom I interact will feel better, and their experience may encourage them to be more compassionate toward the next people they meet.

Perhaps, if we teach our children to greet each day with a reminder of our interdependence, and of our desire and our *responsibility* to change the world for the better, then perhaps their children will see a more peaceful world than ours.

We are always already evolving toward a more just world. As human beings, we can help or hinder that evolution. We have the power to harm or destroy all those that we fear, and we have the will and the imagination to guide into reality the best dreams of women and men everywhere.

If I can help that process along a little—speed it up, so that there is less suffering in the world—then I am certainly going to try. I invite you to join me. Let us take more conscious control of our moral evolution.

So may we be.

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