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Presented May 2, 2010, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
Listen to a recording of "Weirdos"
29:58 minutes - 12.0 MB - Weirdos .mp3 file.
The title of this talk is "Weirdos." What do I mean by that? Am I referring to us, to the Unitarians in this town, who are considered weirdos by a lot of people out there? Is this what the talk is about? Well, in a way yes and in a way no.
By using the term weirdos, I am actually employing very sophisticated intellectual terminology. This is very similar to what I did in a talk about a year ago, a talk titled "Standing Outside the Miracle." In that talk I used another very sophisticated philosophical term, the term: nuts. In that talk I said: "Nuts here is a technical term which designates a toxic and sad combination of irrational, senseless, lifeless, joyless, and spiritless. Nuts is whatever has the effect of freezing people out of the everyday joys and miracles of our human life. When people who are perfectly able to ride a bike but never do because they tell themselves, riding bikes is for kids, I am too old for that now, that's just nuts. Remember my main example of what is nuts is that powerful tradition that still exists in a lot of places that says fathers should't be in the room when the baby is born. That just nuts, but nuts in this very special and highly sophisticated intellectual sense, this toxic and sad combination of what is not only irrational and senseless but lifeless, joyless, and spiritless.
Now you can probably see where I am going with this new technical term I am using this morning: weirdos. There is I think a deep connection between the two terms weirdos and nuts. By using the term weirdos, I am not thinking as much about the people who are called weirdos as I am thinking about that human tendency to respond to other people-or perhaps better, to resist responding to other people-by calling or labeling the other people as weirdos. I want us to think about that psychological closure that happens inside a person when they see and think of other people as weirdos. That psychological closure is also - or at least it can be if it is not overcome - not only irrational and senseless but lifeless, joyless, and spiritless. That psychological closure that happens inside of us when we think other people are weirdos is nuts, but nuts in this very specific sense.
We here in this church, our particular bunch of weirdos, know this very well. We know there are plenty of people in this area who have never come in here, into this beautiful place, because to them we are a bunch of weirdos. Now what makes us weirdos to them is a good question we can talk about during talk back and coffee. But whatever it is, their closed reaction to us is nuts, and nuts in the precise sense of being not only irrational but lifeless, joyless and spiritless. Their closed reaction to us which leads them to think of us as weirdos without actually knowing us cuts them off from experiencing in their own lives the fun of being associated with this church. And that is a shame and a loss for them and for us, and what sense does it make? After all, are we really that weird? We like to talk together, discuss important topics, help people, advance causes we believe in, have parties together. What is so weird about that?
Teachers and professors are quite learned in terms of this phenomenon of closure that results in the word weirdo. We experience and confront this psychological closure that culminates in that word, weirdos, all the time. We live among and hopefully are involved with young people, teenagers, young adults, many of whom are just beginning to experience things, broaden themselves, encounter different kinds of people with different beliefs and experiences and perspectives. For many of the young students, when they are in high school or when they start college, they have never met and experienced any person who, for example, loves literature with a passion and thinks of it as one of the most important aspects of human life. They may never have met a person who nearly weeps at a Shakespear sonnet or a particular scene in Lear. After all, to most students these are just things they have to read! They may have never met someone who gets just as angry at our useless mine inspection system in this country as most other people get at a football game. They may have never met someone who said to the students, "I don't want you to just study the constellations. I want you to get a telescope and get up at 2:00 in the morning and go outside and find a dark place and just enjoy the night sky." They might have never met a person who really thinks it is vitally important that they not only read a newspaper but that they also know when the redbuds bloom and where the most fragrant lilacs are.
Yes, of course, teachers and professors are weirdos. We teachers and professors know, encounter, experience that psychological operation of closure all the time when the students close themselves to what we are offering by thinking that we are weird. Unless a teacher works in some ideal world where all the students are already interested in everything, being a weirdo as a teacher or professor is almost inevitable. I even think that if a teacher never encounters that psychological operation that shows itself in the word weirdo and you never get called a weirdo as a teacher or professor, you are probably doing something wrong. The older I get, the weirder I seem to my students, and that is probably ok. Perhaps when it comes to a faculty of high school or college, the more weirdos the better!
Every teacher and professor knows how absolutely vital it is to have a few weirdos in the class or the college, and by this I mean a few students who are starting to actually care and become interested, intellectually turned on and are willing to articulate their interest even if other students think they are weird for doing so. When even one student says in class "That professor is a bit weird, but that really is a great poem and I never thought of it that way before," that classroom can be transformed by that student who is willing to be excited even if he or she gets called a weirdo. And even a small group of intellectually turned on students, who of course are called weirdos by some other students but who simply don't care that the other students think they are weirdos, can transform a campus environment.
The other day in the talk back I said teaching a course on the Holocaust is like taking a lid off and everything comes out, every possible issue and topic. Holocaust history and interpretation takes us directly to the topic of weirdos and to this psychological operation of closure that happens when we think other people are weirdos. Certainly if you are reflecting on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany one main topic you have to research is the role of the churches. To say the least, the Protestant Churches in Germany and the Catholic Church did not exactly clothe themselves in glory during the Nazi period. A small minority of Protestants and Catholics protested and resisted Nazi rule, but most went along and supported their country and some Protestants even joined the German Christian movement, which wedded Christianity with the Nazi ideology of racism and Aryan supremacy. Of all the churches in Germany during that time, only one really covered itself with glory. Only one denomination absolutely and definitively repudiated Nazi ideology even before the Nazis took power and throughout the Nazi era. Only one denomination absolutely refused to have anything to do with Nazi rule, firmly condemned its persecution of Jews and the handicapped, and refused to fight its war. Only one denomination had a very high percentage of its members experience brutal persecution by the Nazis and get sent to concentration camps in mass numbers because of their absolute rejection of Nazism. Do you know which denomination?
Of course you do because you are educated Unitarians. I am referring, of course, to the ones who wore the purple triangle in the concentration camps, the Jehovah's Witnesses. Of course most of us here in our church and most Americans too probably think the same thing about Jehovah's Witnesses that the great majority of German Christians thought at the time, that the Jehovah's Witnesses are weirdos. That may be, but Holocaust history teaches us that 6000 Jehovah's Winesses, mostly in Germany and Austria, were put in Dachau and other concentration campus. To get out, all they had to do was to sign a form renouncing their beliefs as Jehovah's Witnesses, and very few did, despite the torture they endured. Holocaust history takes the lid off our human tendency to label other people as weirdos and to close us off from them. And it teaches us that when we do that we miss a chance to understand and respect people who are so different from us that our initial reaction at least is to think they are weird.
The horrible history of the Rwandan genocide teaches us the same lesson about weirdos. When that country began to explode with ethnic violence in the spring of 1994, with roaming Hutu militia shooting and hacking to death any Tutsi they could find, Rwanda, this most Catholic of all African countries, was in total collapse. Very quickly this became an international emergency for all countries with embassies, businesses, NGOs. All foreign nationals desperately needed to get the heck out of there. No one was safe in this situation that so quickly, literally over night, became a bloodbath. Foreign embassies got all their nationals out, the missionaries of all the churches and denominations got all their people out, the NGOs got all their people out of Rwanda. Only one foreign national, among all the people who were ordered by various churches and embassies and NGOs to get out, decided to stay in Rwanda. He decided that he could not just leave when he knew that thousands of people were in danger of being killed and so he stayed even though he knew there was very little chance he himself would survive the unbelievable violence already engulfing the country. His name is Carl Wilkens, and he was in Rwanda as a missionary for the 7th Day Adventists.
Wilkens is now a 7th Day Adventist minister in a small town in Oregon. Asked why he risked his life and stayed through the genocide, he said: "It just seemed the right thing to do. I could take my blue passport and go, and moments later my housegirl and night watchman, both identifiable Tutsis, were going to be butchered." So he stayed and for 3 months everyday he went out into incredibly violent streets filled with murderers with assault rifles and machete and tried to protect people, tried to convince gangs of murderous lunatics not to kill this person or that person, this family or that one. That he survived this is amazing. He defied orders from his own denomination to help people, and that is exactly what he did throughout the entire 3 months of this genocide, the horror of which literally defies the imagination: 800,000 people murdered, most of them hacked to death by machete. The history of that genocide brings us the extraordinary heroism of this 7th Day Adventist missionary.
The 7th Day Adventists? Many of us and probably most Americans would say of the 7th Day Adventists, they are weirdos. But to say that people are weirdos is an operation of psychological closure, and there is no life in that, no spirit, no openness, no joy. To say that people are weirdos is a dead, lifeless response to the full reality of other people. It is lifeless, spiritless, and joyless. Yes, to do that operation of psychological closure respond to genuine human plurality by calling others weirdos is nuts.
I think we Unitarian weirdos should keep this in mind, even when, perhaps especially when we are dealing with people and groups whom we may well consider real weirdos. An example of people right now whom we might consider weirdos might be the tea partyers. We might even say those tea partyers are nuts but not in the highly sophisticated way I am using that technical term here. When it comes to the tea partyers we do have that natural human tendency to call them weirdos. From our perspective, someone who would actually pay money to go be shrieked at by Sarah Palin and who would enjoy it and be excited by it is a..well, uh, a weirdo, but when we think that and say that we just close ourselves off even more from these people who obviously in some ways think very differently than we do. Perhaps we shouldn't be closing ourselves off but should be trying to open ourselves up and understand why people are going to tea parties and putting tea party signs on their lawns. This whole tea party phenomenon might be a great opportunity to talk to other citizens who are as upset by politics as we sometimes are. And we probably have some things we could agree on. After all, isn't one of their major concerns and one of the things they are most upset about is the incredibly expanding national debt? The national debt in a decade went 5 trillion to 10 trillion and is now 12 trillion and is projected to be 16 to 18 trillion by the end of the Obama administration. What's weird about being concerned about that? Everybody should be concerned about that. We do have grounds for a good conversation with those tea partyers, but it won't happen if we don't explore the common ground and the common concerns and just think that those tea partyers are weirdos.
Last week Terrell Dempsey reminded us of that great Jefersonian dream that every American then alive would be a Unitarian before they die so that America would become an entire country of Unitarians. One might wonder what Jefferson was smoking when he wrote that. But it does raise the question: what is a Unitarian country, what would a Unitarian country be like? Would it be a country where everyone is a Unitarian and no one is an evangelical Christian or a Muslim or a Jehovah's Witness or a 7th Day Adventist, were everyone is a progressive and no one is a tea partyer? Or would a truly Unitarian country be a place where all kinds of different groups and perspectives not only existed side by side but were spiritually open to each other and truly committed to genuine and respectful dialogue with each other?
We all know for sure that our contemporary American society is not that second version of a Unitarian country any more than it is the original Jeffersonian version where every American actually become a Unitarian. But as Unitarians we are committed to that second version. We are spiritually and ethically committed to a genuinely pluralistic society where all the different groups and voices are open to each other and in respectful dialogue with each other. This is what our Unitarian principles commit us to, even if that makes us to many other people and groups a bunch of weirdos.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.