The “besiegement narrative” that the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson talks about in his recent article found on The Daily Beast is indeed a theme I frequently saw and heard during my sojourn through many of this country’s more [religiously] conservative religious denominations.
Such an “us vs. them” theology has a long history in Christian thought, going back to at least the time of the persecutions and martyrdoms of the early church, and even further back into ancient Judaism. And, in fact, in examining other faiths, you quickly find that it is a universal theme. This is because such a narrative is a good way to define the boundary between who is and who is not one of “us” (whoever “us” is). It is a theme that can bind people together; generate and focus emotional and physical energy upon a (real, potential or imagined) threat; and define what it means to be “us” by making it crystal clear who and what we are not.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Being able to draw a line that separates “us” from “not us” seems to be necessary – because if a group cannot define that boundary, it has a very difficult time explaining who they are, what they stand for, why they should continue to exist, and why you might want to be one of “us.”
Many of the more Progressive people of faith in today’s world (and the religious traditions of which they are a part) are struggling with this issue because Progressive faiths tend to “fuzz” that boundary – seeing and emphasizing our common traits and interests across boundaries that once seemed so hard and clear; widening the circle of whom we see as human beings: just as frail, fallible and loved by God as we. In other words, the “We” in progressive thought is hard to define, because it moves in the direction of including everyone, eliminating the very idea that there is a “them.” The boundary between us and them disappears, erased through our realization that “The Other” – no matter who they are – is us.
Further, when that boundary between “us” and “them” disappears, it has a very unsettling consequence: one can no longer externalize blame. If “they” are “us” then when we seek to lay blame on another, we are in fact acknowledging their fault as our own. This theme, of recognizing that ultimately we cannot in good faith judge others runs deep in Christian and Jewish theology, and is a recurring theme in the teachings of Jesus.
So, where does this leave us with respect to Rev. Robinson’s disheartening experience in that San Francisco megachurch?
For me, it means that I must continually seek to build bridges with those who disagree with me or whose view of the world is foreign to me: try to see God working in and through them, no matter how difficult or painful that may be.
Some, particularly those I know in the LGBT community, really struggle with this when I give voice to such a concept. They feel threatened by much that the “religious right” teaches, and rightly so: many in the LGBT community have been deeply hurt by such teachings. Many who have been hurt by such teachings – whether it was because they were LGBT, or for some other reason – have struggled with that condemnation their whole lives, and many of them felt they had no choice but to choose the option of no life at all, or had that option forced upon them.
One of my friends, when I stated that God is in those who voice such hate and so we must learn to listen to them, understand where they’re “coming from” in their views, and to love them and respect them as God does, said: “But Allen, how can you even think that when they are just plain WRONG!!” … That pain she had experienced so deeply from such teaching and in such churches erupted out of her in that statement; and I understand – it is difficult to embrace those that hurt you, and also even more difficult to acknowledge and internalize the realization that the very same fallibility that is in those who hurt you is in you, too. We are them and they are us. I am similarly challenged in stepping beyond the hate that I have encountered in the past, and finding release from the great pain and loss that I, and those I love, have experienced because of it.
And yet, Christ, in his mercy, knew that the deep wounds we carry – such as those that would be inflicted upon the disciples by the betrayal of Judas – would take time to heal. Therefore, he did not demand they forgive Judas, because he knew that demanding forgiveness for Judas on the spot would not benefit them – nor Judas, for that matter.
When I see religious leaders preach and teach such hateful things as Rev. Robinson witnessed, it makes me sad, because such teaching is a trap. Once you begin painting someone else as less than human, you are dehumanizing yourself, you make the boundary between “us” and “them” so firm that it becomes brittle – your faith gets to the point where the puncturing of that boundary becomes a scary thing, because you realize that weakening that barrier will threaten your own concept of who you are and why you exist, why you believe what you believe. You come to believe that your community of faith will cease to exist if that line is crossed, allowing “them” to intrude. In other words, such teaching makes fear the controlling factor in your relationship with God.
This is the source of the fear that Rev. Robinson saw in that church that day. And yet, the Bible is clear that we need fear nothing but God, and even there – that fear is more a respect for God’s power and authority than it is the panicky sort of fear we usually envision the word to mean. So, how can such teaching, which cultivates that panicky sort of fear, be of God?
So, we are back to the thought that started this meditation: “us” vs. “them” and how do we respond to it. How do we maintain our own sense of identity and faith when we are constantly, as people of faith, seeking to erase the boundaries that define who we are (and which separate us “The Other”)? How can our community of faith persist when we cannot concretely define who we are?
I’ll answer that by relating a story…
When I was traveling in the West Bank and Palestine a couple of years ago, everyone I met there, whether Jew or Palestinian, whether they prayed to Allah, Christ or YHWH (or no God at all for that matter), had this tradition, when they first met someone, of introducing themselves by defining who they were in three ways.
First, they named their faith, then their nationality, and finally they named where they (or their family) came from. For instance: “I am David: an Orthodox Jew living in Tel Aviv, and I was born in Southern France.” Or, “I am a Mazen: non-practicing Palestinian Muslim, for centuries my family has had a farm in the Kidron Valley, between the Old City and Mount of Olives.”
In other words, there are three things that define who you are in that part of the world: Faith, tribe (or nationality), and point of family origin. The idea of boundaries between “us” and “them” exists in each of these dimensions, but the one that is most intriguing is that of “point of origin” – a recognition that Israel and Palestine are a crossroads, a land comprised of a mix of immigrants and those who have been here for centuries (but who are – ultimately – immigrants themselves). The United States is very similar – we often label ourselves as “a nation of immigrants,” or “the world’s melting pot.”
But, in the case of the Israel and Palestine the ultimate identifier is who our family is, and what our family stands for – it is the ultimate answer – defining ourselves by where we come from.
Paul makes this same point in 1 Corinthians chapter 15: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
In Paul’s view, we are all of the same family, all descended from the original Adam, and that kinship with God was reaffirmed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are all members of the same family, the family of God.
A quote from the Epistle of James 4:11-12 is perhaps a good way to end this meditation: Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?
So the answer to the challenge of defining who we are is to embrace that we are all neighbors. We are all brothers and sisters before the Lord. We are all of the same family, the Family of God. We should not, and ultimately cannot, judge one another or even draw a line between “us” and “them” because such a judgment is the Lord’s prerogative, not ours. If we judge another, we are setting ourselves up in place of God. …Therefore, is judging others wise, let alone Christian? “Fear Not!” Isaiah said, “for God is with you…”
So, I come to the same conclusion as Rev. Robinson: “Within only a day or two after the Hobby Lobby ruling, prominent evangelicals called upon President Obama to declare broad religious exemptions to his upcoming executive order banning discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people by federal contractors. … Just stop and think about the image of religious people pleading for the “right” to discriminate against certain fellow citizens. What would Jesus do, indeed?! … [such] sentiment is waning in American society, and with that forward progress, conservative churches will see a loss of credibility and a diminished effectiveness of their fear-mongering. That is as it should be. Neither the church nor the state is served by it.”
In other words, how can we maintain or justify a “besiegement mentality” when our faith’s deepest truths teach us that “they” and “we” are one and the same? Those who seek to justify and sustain their faith using fear and claims to the contrary will eventually be inescapably confronted with an existential crisis rooted in the deep and undeniable contradictions they are creating for themselves. They will have no option but to choose between denying our kinship with “The Other,” or embracing it; between rejoicing in their participation in the Family of God, or repudiating their kinship with God and with those who love God, as they claim to do…
We need not fear…
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)