The Righteous Mind: Rider and the Elephant 10-5-14

As we prepared for our annual church meeting on Tuesday, the Leadership Team went through their usual evaluation of the pastor. One of the comments was a kind word of appreciation that your pastor is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects in his sermons. I’m not sure everybody appreciates that about my sermons, but this month we are going to tackle another difficult and interesting subject, with a different kind of twist – reaching in a different direction. I ask your help and your prayer as we think together about insights from a book I read this summer called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, a book by a former Penn professor, Jonathan Haidt. Our assigned reading this morning is also a little tricky.

Matthew 21-33-46 “Listen to another parable.  There was a property owner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, installed a winepress and erected a tower.  Then the owner leased it out to tenant farmers and went on a journey. “When vintage time arrived, the owner sent aides to the tenants to divide the shares of the grapes. The tenants responded by seizing the aides.  They beat one, killed another and stoned a third. A second time the owner sent even more aides than before, but they treated them the same way. Finally, the owner sent the family heir to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my heir.’ “When the vine growers saw the heir, they said to one another. ‘Here’s the one who stands in the way of our having everything.  With a single act of murder we could seize the inheritance.’ With that, they grabbed and killed the heir outside the vineyard. What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do to those tenants?” They replied, “The owner will bring that wicked crowd to a horrible death and lease the vineyard out to others, who will see to it that there are grapes for the proprietor at vintage time.” Jesus said to them, “Did you ever read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; it was our God’s doing and we find it marvelous to behold!” That’s why I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to people who will bear its fruit. Those who fall on this stone will be dashed to pieces, and those on whom it falls will be smashed. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard these parables, they realized that Jesus was speaking about them. Although they sought to arrest him, they feared the crowds, who regarded Jesus as a prophet.

Oct. 5, 2014        

The Righteous Mind: Rider and the Elephant  

So in this book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt starts with his analogy of the elephant and the rider. The mind, he says, is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The elephant in his analogy represents the emotional, intuitional part of the mind, the part that has an automatic reaction to situations and events around us. He sites studies that show how we react in a split second to images shown to us on a computer screen, before our conscious mind could possibly register what we are seeing. We have gut reactions to people and situations that our more rational, conscious mind, the rider, doesn’t control. The rider serves the elephant, going along for the ride.
The rider, in Haidt’s analogy, defends and rationalizes the way the elephant is already going. For example, say a group of Pharisees are having a discussion about some controversial subject, maybe about purity laws – washing hands or eating with tax collectors and prostitutes. When the subject comes up, before the Pharisees even think about it, they have an opinion, the elephant starts to lean one direction or another. They have a preconceived opinion or intuition about tax collectors and prostitutes and they are going to justify that prejudice. By the time they start to talk, they are justifying the direction the elephant is leaning rather than having a rational discussion that has any chance of either side convincing the other.
Now, you remember who the Pharisees are, right? Who are we in the story? We’re the Pharisees! The Pharisees were the good religious United Methodists of the day, standing up for what is right and what is good, following the ten commandments and the other 603 commandments. Despite the fact that we’re not very good at following all the commandments, we’re really good at pointing out somebody else who isn’t doing it right.
So the early Christians in the Matthew community wrote this story that justifies their point of view of the killing of Jesus, blaming the Pharisees, people who had been their brothers and sisters only a few years before.

Now, you may have heard that this week an agreement was reached withdrawing charges against those of us who performed a wedding for two gentlemen at Arch St. Church last November. The agreement calls for a series of meetings for frank and open hearted discussion in our conference to try to find a way forward around some very deep seated disagreements.
You know where discussion is going to get us though, right? Everybody has their elephant on the path leaning the direction it’s going to go, and all of us little riders talking together are only justifying the way the elephant is already going.
The rest of this month we’re going to talk about some basic reasons people go in such different directions. Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind that progressive people value caring and fairness above all other values. Those of us of that bent make decisions and judgments based on compassion and fairness above all else. He says that conservatives value caring and fairness as well, in slightly different ways, but also value authority, loyalty and sanctity.
So over the next few Sundays, I am proposing to stretch a bit and explore particularly the values of authority and loyalty, maybe sanctity as well, these values which my conservative friends would probably argue that I undervalue. Haidt says that because of the elephant in the room, we are unlikely to change each other’s minds through argument and discussion. In fact, we can only really understand each other if we are willing to risk having our own opinions changed, putting our own values on the line.
I’m pretty attached to my own elephant, my own values and I do value caring and fairness especially. I’m not sure where the discussions in our conference or even in this church are going, but I am trying to at least understand the way other people think, and open myself up to being able to hear.

Haidt says that if you want to change people, you have to talk to their elephant, not to their rider. Discussion and argument may be less effective in changing people’s minds than we think. He suggests that a more effective way to move each other is to eat together, to care about each other around the table. Today, as we celebrate World Communion Sunday, participating in the most essential action that Jesus modeled for us – eating together.
We United Methodists specialize in eating together and when we do, we span all the different opinions and values. We come together from beyond all our prejudices and disagreements. When we eat together, we open ourselves to the Spirit in Creation, transforming our lives and our hearts by the grace of the Living God. This meal and this grace is a gift to us, not because of anything we do or believe, not because of any moral position or stance, not because we have practiced fairness, or caring, not because we have obeyed the rules or stayed loyal to our community or done the right thing. This meal and this grace is a gift to all the world through the power and love of the Living God in Christ, given to us no matter who we are or who we have been. This is God’s good news.

Offering – Communion offering for UMCOR for Relief for Ebola virus in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone

Communion Hymn:         620 One Bread, One Body