Tuesday, September 30, 2014

to treat all group members as individuals

I was walking at our wetlands, when I saw this magpie. He was digging around in the grass but I kept a wary eye on him because it's spring time and a few days earlier, I'd been savagely swooped by one of his kind. It had happened along another walking trail, beneath a line of gum trees which must have had nests in them. The magpie meant business. He zoomed straight for my head five or six times, and I felt the wind from his wings. Knowing that some of my friends had been pecked until they bled, I went running and waving my arms around my head, but could see him following from rooftop to rooftop with his beady eyes fixed on me, waiting for his next move. I reached my car safely, but around this time last year, my daughter and her best friend were so freaked out by another swooping magpie that they fell face down on the cement, afraid to move. Then, when they had dared to make a run for it, Emma lost her purse, which I'm glad somebody honest found.

Anyway, I walked past this fellow and said, 'Are you a bit of a stinker? I don't think I like your kind, especially this time of year.'  But he was cool with me being there.

It occurred to me that's exactly how any form of discrimination begins. I used to think it was crazy to base our expectations of a group of people on the behaviour of couple of individuals. I would have liked to think I was above doing that, but one innocent magpie showed me that I'm not.  

I read recently, in a passage by Thomas Merton, how absolutely convinced Adolf Hitler used to be that sin was unforgivable. You might say, 'I can't figure that one out. If that was his attitude, why did he commit so much evil?' The scary thing is, Hitler didn't think he was evil at all. He believed he was a zealous Christian who was eradicating the group of people he considered, 'Christ killers.' That is why sending thousands of Jews to concentration camps and gas chambers; mothers, fathers, children, professionals alike, didn't smite his conscience one bit. It's sickening to reflect upon.

Automatic discrimination even occurs in the Bible, from 'good guys.' I'm thinking of the time when Philip went off to tell Nathanael, 'We've found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about... and he comes from Nazareth.'

Do you remember Nathanael's response? He said, 'Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?' It would seem Nathanael's knee-jerk reaction probably had something to do with prejudice he'd developed, having met some people from the backwater province of Nazareth in his past, who he didn't think highly of. But I find it encouraging that Jesus didn't rebuke Nathanael for the way his mind worked. Just before their first introduction, he even said, 'Here comes an honest man. A true son of Israel.' Jesus knew that Nathanael was sound at heart, but simply prone to that quirk of human nature in which we jump to conclusions, basing every member of a group on the behaviour of a couple.

I think the biggest challenge is not to wallow in guilt when our minds automatically do this, but to get into the habit of reminding ourselves that we need to step back and consider everybody as individuals. It also helps to pause sometimes, and think about the sort of impression we might be giving others about groups we identify with.

Just today, I was reading some Amazon reviews of a book I was considering buying, by a well known Christian author. Among them was a One Star review by somebody who had issues with the Christian content. They had written that it would have been nice to have been warned from the blurb, because if they'd known, they might have steered clear of it. At the bottom were several angry comments from Christians. Although these were worded differently, they basically said the same thing. 'Our hero is a Christian author, you idiot, so of course he's going to include Christian content! You know where you can take your one star!'

 I thought it a bit lame that the twentieth respondent would bother to add his vicious two cents worth, even though he could see that nineteen others had already soundly ticked off this reviewer. If they wanted him to remove his review, none of their reactive ranting worked anyway, as it was still up there, along with all their unfriendly feedback. Saddest of all is the reputation they may be giving all Christians, including those of us who wouldn't kick up such a fuss.  It makes me squirm to think that, based on something like this, somebody who is introduced to me may think, 'A Christian! Ha, I know what your type are like.'

I'm glad that simple little magpie reminded me to be careful before making judgments about other people, and also to think about the impression my behaviour might give others about many people apart from me. I even looked up the Australian magpie on wikipedia, and read that the male breeding magpies who become aggressive and attack those who approach their nests are actually a small minority. I've got to remember to warn my daughter, every time she shakes her fist at another magpie and says, 'I hate you.'



  1. Well spoken...a good blog to remind us to stop and think before blurting out things. Our reactions in daily life say many things and some of them might not be good. I was reading something like that in the Bible this morning. It had to do with Jesus and what people were saying about him--and part of it was the same scripture you mentioned.


  2. Hi Karen,
    I agree with you. And since many of these reactions are quite spontaneous, it's definitely wise to stop and reflect first. Probably a good habit to get into. Thanks for dropping by :)

  3. Thanks Paula. . That's a reslly helpful and powerful"picture" to remember next time I start feeling judgemental towards someone based on my thoughts and ideas of "their group". Great blog.

    1. Hi Brian,
      Thanks. It's good to remind ourselves, but not so easy to do it :) I'll try to remember that magpie.

  4. Hi Paula
    A great reminder to not to judge individuals by their labels. My understanding is that the Magpies that swoop have had bad experiences - someone disturbing their nest or interfering with their chicks - and so they learn to distrust humans.

    BTW there is a lot of dispute about whether Hitler was a Christian (and if he was he was certainly a bad one) - he tried to use the church as long as it complied with his ideas and he made religious statements in public for political reasons but acted against the church in other situations. He rejected the Old Testament out of hand and much of the New Testament & claimed that Jesus was Aryan and a warrior, and he completely rejected any idea that we are saved by grace (rather, in his mind, one was saved by race). He was perhaps more deistic with God equated with nature (especially in its survival of the fittest mode) in his theology. Many Nazis also had strong links to a form of neo-paganism.

    1. Hi Jenny,
      He was a bad example of a Christian indeed, whether or not that was what he considered himself. When you break down his stances like that, it's so clear that whatever he called himself, he certainly wasn't. Thanks for the link.

  5. This is great Paula. Some of my FB posts over the last week have eluded to this same topic.

  6. Hi Paula,
    Yes, I've noticed that you have. It's a subject worth keeping in mind at all times, as it's so easy to let old attitudes creep up on us.

  7. I've been doing my best not to do the same to yellow jackets after getting stung twice in one day a few weeks ago. I'll bet the magpies are judging you as well. They don't realize you mean no harm to their nests. They simply see you as another threat and respond to that threat. See? They are not unlike us in their prejudices!

    My mother love the work of Thomas Merton. I guess I should really set aside some time to read his work.

    Peace and Laughter!

    1. Hi Cristina,
      I haven't read much Thomas Merton, but it is interesting to slow down enough to read the work of those old contemplatives whenever possible.
      As for the magpies, spring must be a very stressful season for the swoopers :)


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