As a Native New York Jew who grew up in the counter-culture of New Mexico and spent my 20s in northern California, the American South is as foreign to me as Mongolia. Maybe more. And so visiting the Bible Belt is a perfect opportunity for me to walk my talk and reject the impulse to "otherize."
Otherizing is a word I thought I made up, but then I found it in the Urban Dictionary online. Also my friend Elizabeth Lesser uses it in a TED talk. So I'm in good company. Thou shalt not otherize is one of the pillars of the Judeo-Christian traditions. It did not make it onto the stone tablets, but (IMHO) it should have.
As I travel the country sharing the common teachings of lovingkindness at the core of the world's diverse religions, I place special emphasis on the Abrahamic tradition of "welcoming the stranger." Recently, I taught an interspiritual workshop in the South and all my own otherizing responses were triggered. It was the first time (besides here on the HuffPost) that my message of the universal love that lies at the core of all faiths was met with anything besides a resounding YES. In fact, the minute I started talking about the beauty of Islam, I saw smoke coming out of some people's ears. And when I led the group in chanting the name of God in Arabic, mature grown-ups began to leave the room. I was stunned. What happened to the love fest I had come to expect? I found myself catapulted into the role of stranger, and I was not welcome there.
That night I spoke to my husband on the phone. "Tough crowd," I said.
"Remember where you are," Jeff said. "You are in Martin Luther King country. Be a prophet of peace."
"Good idea," I said.
And so I showed up again the next day disarmed and ready. By the end of our three days together, heart-gates were swinging open and the most dogmatic were testifying to the connecting power of love.
But what about me? What about my close encounter with breaking the commandment? I almost otherized. I started to tell myself a whole story about how some of these people are not at all like me. They are narrow minded and racist; I am open and inclusive. I support universal health care; they voted against their own interests. They believe in heaven and hell; I dismiss such notions as being something along the lines of "the opiate of the masses" -- delusional and dangerous. Even our costumes were radically different: conservative polyesters (them); flowey silks and low-cut linens (me). I have way more in common with Mongolians stirring pots of goat stew over dung fires on the Steppes. Off I went, spiraling into my lonely little specialness.
But then I caught myself. I reminded myself that if we are all one, we are all one. That the illusion of separation is what causes violence and oppression. The minute we identify an individual or a group as being the Other, we banish ourselves to a spiritual wasteland and justify treating someone else with anything less than lovingkindness. This is the sin. This is what it means to miss the mark: the drawing of artificial boundaries to bisect the circle of our interconnectedness with all beings.
Here's a practice I try to cultivate: When I travel to a different community, I show up. I ask my hosts to share with me what they love most about their lives, their landscapes, their faith. I accompany them to religious services in their church and I hang out with their kids; I eat their regional foods, swim in their waters, hike in their mountains and explore their neighborhoods. I listen to them. This discipline is bearing fruit. Rather than feeling depleted and beaten down when I return home to my safety zone (where people are more like me and I can count on being agreed with), I am stretched and gratified -- like a good workout at the gym. My love muscles are growing.
It's nice when I can preach to the choir and everyone nods their heads, tears of gratitude springing to their eyes in response to my suggestion that we are naturally interspiritual beings who are specially designed to embrace the sacred everywhere we encounter Her. But it also feels good to extend myself beyond the confines of my own little sub-culture once in a while and sing this love song in foreign lands where people may actually believe that all Muslims are terrorists and all Jews are greedy and all gays are going to burn for eternity. Because when we sit together and begin to peel back the layers of possibility, it turns out that just about everyone everywhere affirms that Ultimate Reality is a unified field and that no matter what names we ascribe to it, God is One. And its true name is Love.