Have you ever noticed how insidious labels are? In northern Iraq they're starving women and children to death because they are "infidels". On the Mexican- Arizona border they're screaming hatred at little children trying to escape a cruel existence, with the epithet "illegal". (Never mind that we stole what is now Arizona from Mexico in the 1840sbut who knew?). And then we have the liberals and the conservatives, the Protestants and the Catholics, the Jews and the Palestinians, the blacks and the whites, plus the most popular scapegoat: homosexuals. And as all John Wayne fans know," The only good Injun is a dead Injun". (Actually I'm not sure who started that). I used to know a Jewish woman who was engaged to, of all things, a Gentile. Her parents in a stammering stupor of bewilderment asked if she were going to see to it that the children were raised Jewish. She replied that she and her fiance had decided to raise them as human beings. Her parents had a lot of trouble with that. Last week President Obama was lambasted by true Christians for praising the contribution that Muslim Americans have made to our nation. Contribution? Those people are TERRORISTS!!
Finally, I have been leading a meditation group at a church here in Shepherdstown for nearly a full year now. I rent the space and it's open to the public. The public has shown up but the members of the congregation have not, even though their excellent pastor is there nearly every week. Why have they not shown up? Because it's "Catholic". Never mind that it's not, nor am I. (I'm spiritual, ya know) (I trust the good folks there have more substantial reasons too but the aforementioned is the one I've heard).
Why are we like this? Not everyone is. It seems to be rooted in low self-esteem, sometimes coupled with invincible ignorance. Some find it consoling to view some group of others as beneath them. As the overwhelmed doctor at the Gaza hospital said last week, "Muslims, Jews, Christians! What is this? We are all human beings!!"
I suppose too most of us learn these prejudices from our families of origin and they become our cultural conditioning which then colors our view of life and other people. "Catholic", for example, may have been learned as a synonym for "rigid", "intolerant", "authoritarian" or "judgmental".
Is there a way out? Yes, stepping out of our comfort zones to stretch our way to the company of the "different" is a help. How many WWII vets commented, upon reaching Japanese shores, "They're just like us!" Another way out is by going in. Every religious tradition and sacred path has the mystical level which is attained through daily spiritual practice and helped to stay on track with spiritual mentoring. Since Christian sects have left this sort of thing to monastic types, lay folks often do not see it as their "vocation". This too is cultural conditioning. Many Christians and others have turned to meditation to expand their hearts. It works much better than will power. but it's "Buddhist". Still others look to yogavery effectivebut it's "Hindu".
(Bill O'Brien is a spiritual development practitioner and mentor. He and his wife Linda have lived in Shepherdstown since 2005.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )