Keawalai Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, October 24, 2010
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
It is a childhood rhyme familiar to many of us: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Such words are often said in response to taunts made in the school yard.
But long before hearing any words in the school yard, we also heard them on the street, at home, even in church. We convince ourselves that all we want to do is have some fun albeit at the expense of someone else. What is the harm in a little joke?
Such a conclusion may seem reasonable until we become the one who is teased, taunted and bullied. Words hurt – whether it is the “f” word or the “n” word or the “r” word. Words hurt – whether they are uttered by a school mate or a parent, by a neighbor or a stranger.
Words hurt – whether they are meant to call attention to a person’s race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability. These days some are quick to dismiss laws against discrimination of any kind as a way of compelling others to be “politically correct.”
But words in any language, hurt. They diminish and inevitably destroy the value and worth of another human being. “Hey, fatso!” “God, not another towel-head!” “Duh! Don’t you understand English?” “You mental or what?” “Ey! No act like one girl. Everybody going think you mahu?” We all know the harsher and more destructive versions of what I’ve just shared with you.
We live in a day and time when the identity of who we are is contrasted with who we are not. “Thank God, we are not like . . . ” Here in the U.S. as well as in many other countries around the world an attitude of “us- against-them” has permeated every facet of life.
We may wonder how it is that the school yard bully came to be. Some would argue that it’s genetics – that the schoolyard bully’s personality, temperament, or disposition is coded in his or her DNA. They can’t help but be bullies.
But I would argue a bully learns to be a bully. He or she is carefully taught.
A few months ago a local production of South Pacific, a story drawn from James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific, was staged at the Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapū. The production included several of our church members. More recently Public Television presented the Broadway version of the musical. The musical was produced in 1949 with music by Richard Rogers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
It is considered by some to be one of the greatest Broadway musicals. It has been nominated for and won ten Tony Awards. It is the only musical production ever to have won all four Tony Awards for acting.
Among its many memorable songs is “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” It was a song that drew widespread criticism because of its commentary on race and ethnicity. The year was 1949, the year I was born to a woman who was Hawaiian-Portuguese and a father who was Japanese.
Some thought it was too controversial or inappropriate for the stage. (“‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,’: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific,” Theater Journal 52, No. 3, October 2000, page 306) While on its first tour of the Southern part of the United States in 1950, lawmakers in one state introduced a bill outlawing its performance because it contained “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.” (Ibid., page 307) One legislator said that “a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.” (Op. cit.)
The lyrics are worth repeating:
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 different shade,
You’ve got 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!
So we learn to be bullies – from our families and the communities and world in which we live. We are carefully taught to hate and fear others; to regard others with contempt.
Long ago Jesus told a parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. (Luke 18:9) We can only speculate that the Pharisee in the parable may have been a school yard bully but what is clear is that he thought highly of himself at the expense of others.
He prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” (Luke 9:11)
The Rev. Laura Sugg is the Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. She made the following observation about the despair and the hope in the story: “This parable tells us about ourselves as followers of Christ. If it makes us twinge with remorse at the thought of acting like the self-righteous Pharisee, it also inspires us with the humility of the tax collector.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 213-214)
She contends that it is hard to read this parable without placing ourselves in one role or the other, of seeing and hearing ourselves as either the Pharisee or the tax collector. On any given Sunday morning some of us may feel a bit self-satisfied as we pray: “Oh, Lord, I thank thee that I am not like other people.” But others of us may feel like we have hit bottom like the tax collector aware of our own faults and failures and being despised by others.
We may be inclined to see ourselves in either the Pharisee or the tax collector. However, I would contend the parable is a reminder that a bit of the Pharisee and the tax collector is in each of us.
To be sure the two prayers – one by the Pharisee and the other by the tax collector – highlights God’s preference for humility over arrogance. (Ibid., page 217) But in both instances the parable is about trusting in God’s mercy.
It is about having trusting hearts that we may come before God just as we are. It is about carefully teaching our children not to hate or to be afraid. It is about carefully teaching them to have compassion and courage to stand up for themselves and others; to declare to all the world that we are all God’s children and therefore, brothers and sisters to one another.
Mahalo ke Akua. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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