Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Us and Them

Brian McLaren’s spectrum of religious identity— the strong/hostile end valuing Truth and the kind/weak end valuing Tolerance—has helped our family grow in understanding the way people of faith are at different places on this spectrum. And we also appreciate what McLaren writes about the identity distinction between Us and Them. We know how easy it is to see Them as the enemy, as wrong, as needing to be changed/converted, and brought over to Us, the right side.

And we know first-hand how the Other can see us in exactly the same way.

We were dinner guests in an imam’s home one evening, several months after we moved to Lanzhou. And while we enjoyed the delicious food prepared for us by his wife and daughter, it was quite difficult for us to swallow the way he unabashedly tore apart both Christianity and the Bible as being corrupted and infinitely inferior to Islam and the Quran. Unless we converted to Islam, he articulated clearly, we were lost. Destined for hell. His greatest desire was to see our entire family become Muslim.

Because of that experience, we know how very uncomfortable it can be to be on the receiving end of such aggressive evangelism. The kind that doesn’t respect the Other or want to understand the Other, but only has eyes to see the wrong and unacceptable. To believe that the only answer is for Them to be converted to Us.

And because of that experience, we also know how natural it is to get angry when someone attacks the core of what you believe. There’s a strong desire to defend those beliefs and to want to attack back. Isn’t that what’s at the heart of much of the religious conflict in the world?

Charly has continued a good friendship with this imam, and they recently talked about that night in his home when he tried to convert us. Charly told the imam that Zhen Zhu (True God) had been teaching him how we can choose not make assumptions or judgments about each Other. We can choose to speak well of each Other. We can choose to seek true understanding and to walk in righteousness on the Straight Path, in our common desire to please Him in all that we think and do and say. The imam graciously received Charly’s challenge and said he also wanted to grow in being able to respect each Other and to see the value in helping each Other in our search for the Truth.

McLaren writes in “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammad Cross the Road?” about how our sense of identity can be strongly shaped by understanding who We are in relation to a common enemy. And how harmful the resulting hostility can be.

He says: “When we increasingly understand who we are in relation to an enemy—whether that enemy is legitimate, innocent, or imaginary—we develop an increasingly hostile identity. Such an identity teaches us to see sameness as safety and otherness as danger. It is characterized by duality: us and them, right and wrong, good and evil, light and darkness. It promotes a mentality of us versus them, us apart from them, us instead of them, us oppressed by them, or us occupying them, but never us for them or us with them.

It teaches us to see the long-term existence and well-being of them or the other as unacceptable, perhaps as an offense or threat to us and our religion, and perhaps even as an offense to God. It requires us to believe that the world would be a better place without them in it as them, and it only allows us to accept the other by converting them to be part of us, so they are no longer other. Ultimately, a hostile or oppositional identity values us as inherently more human, more holy, more acceptable, more pure, or more worthy than them. After all, if they were good, they would ask to be admitted under our sacred canopy and they would join us in circling around our sacred center.”

Could we instead believe that both we and they can choose to remain in our different identities? Them and Us. Does the answer have to be getting rid of Them, or Them becoming Us? Ultimately, we can choose how we see and treat the Other. We can choose not to be enemies, but friends. Who think the best of and want the best for each Other.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)


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