There is an experiment done with white rats in a lab. A rat is placed in a chamber in which it’s trapped and cannot escape. Another rat is introduced into this experiment who has the ability to release the first rat from its captivity. When the two rats are the same variety of rat, this happens relatively easily. The second rat sees one of its fellows in distress and rescues it. However, when the trapped rat is of a different variety than the second rat, the second one is much more likely to pass the first rat by and not help. In short, lab rats are bigoted jerks.

About this Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Interfaith Chapel Service
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
September 7, 2016
Psalm 133; Qur’an 49:13; James 3:13–17

But all is not lost. If a lab rat is put in an enclosure with a rat of a different variety for a period of time, then when that rat encounters a trapped rat of that variety, it is much more likely to help. It seems that just knowing one member of a different group helps the rat to develop a sense of empathy for all the members of that group. In short, rats don’t have to remain bigoted jerks. They are capable of change and expansion of their “in” group.

It’s hard not to look at the world today and not to feel that the world is inhabited by individuals who would not even live up to the example set by these hapless rats in their laboratory cages.


Everywhere we turn we are confronted by division and difference. Everywhere we look there is some other to be frightened of. Some them that gives definition to our us: Muslims, Mexican immigrants, conservatives, liberals, Trump supporters, Trump opponents, Syrian refugees, young Black men, White cops, corporate leaders, labor leaders, and so on. There is no shortage of options for groups that are on the outside. The lab rats we don’t help.

Of course, this has long been a part of human society. From before recorded history we have been separating ourselves into us and them. Afraid to share our meager resources with those outside our kinship group, with those who weren’t sufficiently like us and who might not act in ways that benefit us directly. There’s a lot of biological and sociological programming in us that probably comes from a sense of scarcity. Perhaps we are forever destined to think in these terms. Perhaps we are forever destined to divide ourselves into us and them.

Our great religious traditions have always encouraged us to look beyond those us and them distinctions. The Psalm we heard read (and all sang) earlier speaks of the joy of living together in unity. The Hebrew prophets regularly pointed out that the God of Israel was the God of all the nations, and loved and cared for them, too. The Qur’an reminds us of the opportunity that difference creates—a chance to get to know someone and grow in relationship—and the Prophet Muhammad speaking to the essential equality of all human beings. The apostle James reminds us that the wisdom of God is “peace-loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others… full of mercy and … shows no favoritism.” Jesus reminded his followers that they were not his only flock, but that there were “sheep of another fold” that he cared for as well.

We are perhaps inclined toward division and distinction, but our better angels always seem to be calling us to do so much more. Now, to be fair, religion has produced plenty of particularists, those who would insist that they alone were close to God or Truth, that they alone were entitled to prestige or power or privelege. But each tradition always has carried that prophetic voice: the beloved community is broader than you think. The “in” crowd includes those you consider “out.” That voice of conscience has never abated, in spite of our inability to listen perfectly to that voice.

But here’s where we come in.

As a campus community, we are one of the more diverse places that any of us will ever live or work. There are people here from every state in the union, every racial and ethnic background, from every religious tradition, from dozens of different nations around the world. You’d be hard pressed to find this kind of diversity in the places that most of us come from or that most of us will wind up in.  So here is an opportunity that few of us will ever get again in quite so powerful a way. Here is an opportunity to demonstrate something vitally important to our world.

We have the opportunity to engage with one another in ways that draw people together. We could follow the pattern of the world at large and divide the campus into warring political camps, or we could attempt to see in one another not a sinister political operative of a dangerous ideology, but as a sincere person, trying to find expression for their hopes and fears. If we can find a way to help people develop empathy across the political divide, what a gift that would be to the world.

We have the opportunity here to have difficult conversations about race and privilege, to do so in a way that does not negate anyone’s narrative, but allows people to begin to hear one another in a powerful way. To learn from one another’s stories. To see through one another’s eyes. To build relationship that allows us to hear one another rather than build up defenses against one another.

We have the opportunity to open up our eyes to the presumptions and assumptions that we all have and that we all make about the world we live in just by encountering others who do not share those presumptions and make those assumptions. We can become conscious of the lenses we all wear that shape the world we experience.

And most of all, we can try to see in one another the common humanity that binds us. The great sin of the us and them kind of thinking is that it allows us on the inside to view ourselves as individuals but those on the outside are a terrifying, alien horde. Genuine encounter with one another destroys that distinction because we cannot help but conclude that all of them are really just like us. We all want the same things in life—love, security, happiness—we all strive for the same things. We are all ultimately the same, even in our differences.

We’re so used to identifying differences that it can be hard to see the unity that is available in those differences. We’re not used to seeing through the differences to finding out what there might be in common. Instead, to the extent we try to find commonality, we usually do it by a “lowest common denominator” kind of approach where we just hold on to the one thing that we have in common (a former colleague in this building used to joke that we here in Kay “shared the plumbing”). Or we pretend the differences don’t actually exist. We profess to being “colorblind” or “not seeing race” and in so doing invalidate the experiences and particular challenges—and gifts—of entire groups of people.


We here have the opportunity to find a kind of unity in the diversity. To acknowledge the differences, but not be limited by them. To embrace the idea of different identities and a shared community. To celebrate the differences, not to be intimidated by them. It seems to me that if lab rats can figure this out, we can, too.

Somewhere on this campus is someone who is not like you. Who thinks differently. Who looks different. Who talks differently. Who votes differently. Whose family situation is different. Whose cultural background is different. Whose religion is different. Whose ideas about the world are different. It’s okay. Those are not barriers to unity; they are opportunities for a kind of unity that can change the world.

A kind of unity that is built on empathy not for people who are exactly like us, but for those we have embraced as fellow members of the community. A kind of unity that does not erase distinction, but renders it powerless to divide. A kind of unity that can serve as a model for a world sorely in need of it. A kind of unity that will be so transformative that everyone will say, “How good and pleasant it is when people dwell in unity.”

The Texts

Psalm 133

A Song of Ascents. How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

Qur’an 49:13

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). 

James 3:13-17

If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.

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