Friday, November 7, 2014

The Myth of "Them"

The days are coming when men will go mad; and when they meet a man who is not mad, they will rise up again him, and say, "You are not like us, you are mad."
—Saint Anthony the Abbot

There have been a number of things going on in the world recently that have led me to reflect on how we view other people. There are grand world events—like the Ebola crisis, the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, or this week’s elections—and myriads of little daily new items that bring into focus the divisions that exist within our communities and even our families. I don’t think it is unfair to blame some of this on the prevalence and power of social networking. And, although the internet has, in many ways, become a great equalizer because of its availability and freedom (for the time being, at least), resources like Facebook and Twitter have provided platforms to anyone who chooses to use them, including one individual who recently commented on a news article: “ebola is cool. give it to me.” 

We often forget how powerful our words can be and, when we do become aware that someone has been hurt or angered by something we’ve shared, we are quick point out that we were “only kidding,” we were only protecting something or someone we love, or that we’re just exercising our “right” to freedom of speech. After all, weren’t most of us taught that censoring was bad? But we forget that every right comes with responsibilities. We are responsible to and for one another. To pretend otherwise is to fail as a Christian (see Matthew 25:31-45).   

Part of this means that we have to stop seeing those who don’t agree with us as this mythical monster we call “Them.” We can’t survive as a nation, a Church, or even as a race, if we allow the war between “Us” and “Them” to go on. History is filled with the names of kingdoms and religious communities that have torn themselves apart on the battlefield of partisan ideologies. At the moment, it seems the war is only gaining momentum and every ill-informed sound bite, thoughtless internet post, flippant comment, and self-promoting act only keeps alive the lie that we aren’t part of a greater reality that unites us all together.  

“What is there that is worth living for?” we ask, when the essential question of the human enterprise may more truly be, “What is the value of a life that lives devoid of anything worth dying for?”… The question is, is life to be hoarded for the sake of a private existence that is safe and secure, or is it to be gambled recklessly away on the chance of becoming more than a standard-brand human being with a standard-brand character? What is really worth the expenditure of a life? The answers plague and provoke us. One false step and we doom ourselves to the level of human cutouts, to a Ken and Barbie Doll existence that dulls the soul to tears. 
She continues,
Henry Van Dyke puts it very clearly, “Some people are so afraid to die that they never begin to live.” The dilemma is, of course, that we become so enamored of life at any price that we most stand to lose it just when it seems that we have merited it most. So afraid are we of losing what we have that we temporize with things that bring death and call them life-giving. We waste our most precious human resources on the cult of death, for instance, and call it “defense.” We swallow our ethics in board rooms and call it “business.” We suppress the development of half the human race and call it “woman’s role” for them. We crucify in others what we should be dying to in ourselves… “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. But Socrates was wrong. “The fact is that the unexamined life is no life at all.”
We see the system around us, taste its poison fruits, wallow in its acid, and never name its disease in us. We tolerate every manner of evil the world has ever known and call it good. We call gay bashing “freedom of speech” and the invisibility of women’s issues “the Divine Plan” and racism “the natural law” and the nuclearization of the globe “patriotism.” We see the laws that maintain the systems and we never ask, “Who said so? And why? And to whose advantage?” We fail to die to the old ideas so that a new world can spring up fresh.  

None of this is easy because, as Chittister observed, changing these perspectives and ways of engaging one another involves a kind of death—a letting go of politics, or agendas, or theologies that we use to build fences around ourselves to try to insure our own safety and security. The danger of fences, however, is that they don’t just keep others out… they also keep “us” locked inside. They also obscure our view of how our words and actions impact those outside of the comfortable and safe worlds we create for ourselves.

And this is where I think the real rub is. There is a lot to be frightened of in our world. It would na├»ve, at best, to pretend that isn’t true. There are people who take advantage of political and charitable institutions designed to help those in need. There are also individuals who have embraced ideologies that seem to be set on destruction and terror. People can be dishonest and do bad things. The innocent can suffer. But these aren’t phenomena that are unique to 2014. This is part of our broken humanity—our broken and shared humanity. This is why Jesus challenged his disciples to choose to live lives that weren’t based on fear and isolation (cf. Matthew 6:25-34 and 10:26-33). The mission and message of Jesus was expansive. That is how we are to live, as well. This requires faith and trust and if this seems heroic or extraordinary that’s because it is: living a life of discipleship is countercultural. This way of life opens us up to graces and blessings but also to the possibility that we could be hurt. But as the life of Jesus so perfectly teaches us, death, when part of a life lived in God, is followed by resurrection; resurrection is only possible where there has been a death. 


For us, as believers, this means that we can’t be truly alive until we confront what is inhuman in ourselves. And so, we have to trust that every death we die, including dying to the lie of “Us” and “Them,” turns into something new within us. Perhaps this is what the writer of Ecclesiastes had in mind when he taught that “there is a time to die.”  Blessed Teresa of Calcutta summed it up beautifully when she taught, "If we judge others, we have no time to love them."

So, where do we go? We go out to others. We begin to tear down our fences by being thoughtful, careful in our ways of engaging each other, and by being compassionate. This means choosing not to gossip or share views that are built on half-truths; this means recognizing that none of us has a monopoly on the truth. It also requires that we pay attention to contexts and backstories when we look at the lives of those around us, especially those who need our help. Ultimately, we can learn to embrace “Them” only when we accept that they are a part of “Us.” This is an essential part of the life of conversion. And conversion is ultimately about learning to love and allowing Love to change us. 

To end, a story told by Rabbi Moshe Leib Rabinovich.
“How to love is something that I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn along with other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all the rest, but when he was moved by the wine, he asked one of the men seated beside him: ‘Tell me, do you love me or don’t you love me?’ The other replied: ‘I love you very much.’ But the peasant replied: ‘You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.’ The other had not a word to say to this, and the peasant who had put the question fell silent again. But I understood. To know the needs of the other and to bear the burden of their sorrow—that is true love.” 

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