In September I took a trip along the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. The purpose of the trip was to visit (and climb) several mounds built by the ancient Mississippian culture. On our journey we studied mounds built as early as 1700 B.C. and cultures that existed into the mid-1800s.
Many of the thousands of mounds throughout the Midwest were plowed over by farmers, raided for topsoil or fill by builders, and flattened for parking lots or development by cities. It has been only in the past few decades that the cultural and historical significance of the mounds has been recognized.
While exploration of the mounds has yielded information about the culture of the peoples who built and lived around the mounds, the most extensive information comes, ironically, from the records of the European explorers who decimated them.
Hernando de Soto spent three or four years (1539-1543) traveling from Florida up through the Carolinas into the Midwest, seizing town after town, demanding their winter corn storage and other supplies. He massacred entire villages as a lesson to others that they should do as he asked. Departing with the community food supply, he gave no thought to winter survival of his victims.
Shortly after my return from New Orleans, the Statesman reported the reopening of the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise and the dedication of the Marilyn Shuler Classroom for Human Rights. A new sculpture, the Spiral of Injustice, was also revealed.
The reporter described the sculpture as “an examination of ‘the Other’, or a person who is perceived by a group as not belonging, who are often targeted because of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ability, nationality or religious preferences ....” “The Other” is depicted wrapped around “a downward spiral of human behavior.” The spiral has words describing actions that grow increasingly more negative in treatment of others: language (criticism), avoidance, discrimination, violence and elimination.
The behavior I find so egregious in de Soto’s treatment of the native cultures continues today. We are still afflicted with ethnocentricity. Too many people believe that they, or their family, or culture, are the only ones who have it figured out. Those of different beliefs, whether political, social, religious or otherwise, are wrong.
“We are quick to demand tolerance but loath to extend it to others,” writes Senator Orrin Hatch. He argues people should recommit to pluralism, which “recognizes that there is not just one way to achieve the good life, but multiple — and it does its best to accommodate for each.”
Behavior resulting from a failure to extend tolerance to others may echo the Spiral of Injustice from hurtful, critical language down to the violence demonstrated in Pittsburgh and too many other places.
Why can’t we accept differences? I think it has to do with fear. A fear that we might be wrong and someone else right. A fear of change. A fear of the unfamiliar — whether people or ideas.
It may be uncomfortable to associate with people who are different, and it is difficult to understand someone if you are afraid of them. Yet taking the time and making the effort to get acquainted with others, listening to their ideas or beliefs, is the best way to allay fear.
You may learn that other people have the same fears, the same concerns, the same hopes and dreams that you do. They worry about the mortgage. They worry about their children. They hope to be able to buy a car — or maybe a house. They want a steady job so they can support their family, and maybe take a vacation.
You may also discover that they share many of your values. Family is important. Good schools and safe neighborhoods. Honesty. Kindness. Helping each other.
When Jesus gave the parable of the Good Samaritan, he was teaching about reaching across our differences to serve one another. He did not teach that we should all be the same. He taught that we should love our neighbor without regard to his nationality, religion or other differences.
If you haven’t done so, take time to visit the Anne Frank Memorial. Read the inscriptions. Look at the Spiral of Injustice. Ponder. Resolve not only to avoid that negative downward spiral, but to speak up when you observe such behavior.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.