Us and Them?

Genre note: this blog post is about suggestions and questions. It’s about thoughts clanging around that haven’t found a way to resolve in some sort of palatable harmony. Like real life, it’s a mess of happenings and thoughts and interpretations and rightness and wrongness.

Now that the caveat’s behind us…

I’ve been thinking about “us and them” a good bit this past week.

It started with a blog post: There Is No They. I was wrestling with my own tendency, more broadly observed in others as well, to distance myself from the folks to whom I’m joined.

No, there is no “they” that is the Evangelical church, for example, that’s doing it all wrong. It’s we. It’s I.

Sunday I gave a little talk on sexuality for a church group. Again, I found myself compelled to give a word of warning: despite our tendencies to adopt such a posture, there is no “they” who fail to live up to the gold standard in contrast to the “us” who attain to it.

When we gather to talk about sexual brokenness and sin, there is no “they” about whom we are speaking. We are all people whose lives are touched in every realm by some measure of brokenness and shame, failure and guilt. This includes our sexuality. And it includes even people who have only ever had sex with the one spouse to whom they’ve ever been married.

When we talk as Christians about homosexuality, there is no “they” about whom we are speaking. We are speaking about us, Christians, among whose number and in whose body are gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered sisters(-)and(-)brothers.

No, there is no “they” that are the sexual failures in contrast to the “we” who have our stuff all together.

Yesterday in the car a conversation with my seven-year-old went something like this:

    “Who’s more important, Jesus or God?”

    “Well, Jesus shows us how much God loves us. Like that Bible verse we sing about.”

    [Insert the singing of John 3:16 here.]

    “Did Oma believe in God?”

    “Yes.”

    “She died.”

    “Well, this is die in a different sense. John’s talking about life as knowing God forever.”

    “So people who don’t believe won’t get to go to heaven and know God forever?”

What kind of “us” are we talking about, what kind of “them” do I want my 7-year-old to carry in mind?

I started thinking about how people act in the world–not just the love God part, but the love neighbor part. If only “they” lived down to the lists of vices that pepper the pages of the Bible, and if only “we” lived up to the lists of Spirit-empowered virtues.

In the middle of all this messifying of the world, I was driving home today and debriefing the Mountain Goats concert I missed by being in Cambridge at the end of June. John Darnielle sang 1 Samuel 15:23:

The song lyrics sit in tantalizing disjunction to 1 Samuel 15:23. A crystal healer who, as AKMA put it,

is not a maleficent enchanter dedicated to a degraded deity, nor a mere charlatan; he provides clothing and shelter for outcasts, and heals the sick. His account of himself sounds more like the description of the works of the Messiah in Matthew 11:1-6, on the basis of which one might (biblically) say regarding the healer, “Blessed is whoever takes no offence at him.”(“‘What These Cryptic Symbols Mean’”, BibInterp 19 (2011): 124

“They” are sometimes more “us” than we are–a surprise reflected in the scene of Matt 25 as much as anywhere. “Lord, lord, whenever did we?” “Lord, lord, whenever did we not?”

“Us and them” can be a dangerous and self-serving weapon. For the most part, even if not always, we might want to put it away before someone gets hurt.

13 thoughts on “Us and Them?”

  1. Mark 9:40 ‘For he who is not against us is on our side.’
    Matt 12:30 ‘He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters abroad.’

    Please sort that out.

        1. It does divide the world into two, fairly starkly. Matthew 25 comes along with an interesting twist on insiders and outsiders. Both groups exist, and neither has any idea why they’re in the one they are. I don’t want to absolutize that, but perhaps it’s in step with the general tenor of this post: we need to be careful about how well we think we can put people into the “us” or “them” category, and what such a distinction might entail.

          1. Right; so we are accepting, then, that it is not wrong to separate people into categories, but it is very dubious when we try to assert which individuals are definitely in which categories? That doesn’t give me much of a problem.

            We should not, however, allow our carefulness about the inadequacies of our judgements of ourselves (and of others) to blind us to the implications of some very clear biblical assertions. First, there is what we might call a symphonic theme running throughout John’s Gospel, introduced by ‘He came to his own, but his own did not receive him, but to as many as did receive him, he gave authority to be called the sons of God‘, and continuing through the statement of Jesus that Jews (Judaeans?) who were to have a place in God’s kingdom needed to be born again; and making the pretty stark statement that ‘there was a division among the people because of him.. That idea runs through the book like a thread.

            And second, Paul seemed to have no problem with statements such as ‘Mark those that cause divisions, and avoid them,’ and, ‘They went out from us because they were not of us.’

  2. What do you think about connecting this to another of your on-going themes: people’s need for community? Do you think that part of the lure of creating an imaginary “us” is to fill the void left by the absence of more real community?

  3. Since you started this blog post by identifying its genre as “suggestions and questions”, I’m going to throw out a suggestion. One of the most critical ways we can move towards eradicating lines that divide is by becoming more mindful of our language. Whenever we use verbiage such as “these people” or “those people”, we are automatically setting up a hierarchy in which “these” and “those” people are somehow on the outside – i.e. inferior or different from us.

    Becoming more aware of our language isn’t just an exercise in being PC; it’s essential for becoming more unified as Christ followers. Language can promote stigma and stigma sharpens the weapon that can hurt.

    I recently heard someone in leadership falling into this trap. (I share this as a teaching example; it is not my intention to point a finger or denigrate a brother. We’re all on a learning curve and we absorb things best when we lift each other up vs. tear each other down). The speaker, who I know meant well, nonetheless repeatedly remarked,”The class will teach you how to help “these people.” By “these people”, he was referring to individuals who might be isolated and depressed, and in particular, the elderly. I know it sounds innocuous but any time we say “these people”, we’re implying that we’re completely different from them. Yet are we really that different from those suffering from loneliness or emotional pain, and if individuals are part of the body, then are they not a part of us?

    I certify people nationally to teach a course called “Mental Health First Aid” and one of the criteria I evaluate potential instructors on is whether or not they use stigmatizing language, for a key objective of the course is to bust stereotypes and to humanize mental illness. When we say, “those schizophrenics”, not only is this slipping into the “those” habit, but the term “schizophrenic” is not person centered. It is more helpful to say, “a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia” as opposed to labeling a person as his or her illness. This might sound petty, but not if we’re the ones on the receiving end of the label. And almost nine times out of ten, when we subconsciously use this type of language (because we typically haven’t been educated about stigma), we subtly crinkle up our faces while talking, communicating a certain level of fear or judgment.

    “A house divided against itself can not stand.”

    Thank you for this great post. I think this is an area in which we all need help. And there are so many ways in which we can learn and grow. We’re all vulnerable; we’re all broken; and we’re all magnificent in his love.

  4. Great post, Daniel. I have been wondering (since you brought up the topic of homosexuality) if, amidst all the yelling and screaming, that the gay community is holding up a mirror to the church and saying, “Are you able to see yourselves in us?” If we’re all on the continuum of brokenness, then maybe our conversations on that topic should begin with our broken, co-humanity rather than on polity or a sense of separated sexuality.

      1. Mike, I think you’re right. Recently, I’ve increasingly seen myself and all of us in those who are same-sex attracted – including in our struggle to actually believe that we’re sinners, that there’s something wrong with us that needs rescue.

        Mike and Daniel, along these lines, in our church’s weekly newsletter, I wrote something to our people a couple of months back emphasizing our commonality, as opposed to us vs. them:

        http://eepurl.com/lVx0v

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