Monday, April 18, 2005

Karen's Sermon #2: There's Only Us

The pulpit at St. Michael'sMy little "sermon" of last week seems to have gone over pretty well, so I'm going to chance another one. Like last week's entry, it's based on one of the pronouncements in the My Philosophy (Your Mileage May Vary) section of my home page, and it's something I feel strongly about.

Humans have a fatal flaw in the way their minds work.  It lies at the heart of most war, injustice, inequities, bullying, even crime.  And I can sum it up in three words:

"US and THEM."

Or, as I put it on the aforementioned home page:

* Guard against the human tendency to discriminate against others because they're "not like us." Labeling people as "Us and Them" leads to war, bigotry, and most of the evil in the world.

Let me explain.  I'm going to mangle grammar here, but it's all to illustrate the point.

People tend to gravitate toward others with whom they share common characteristics. In high school, the cool kids hang out together, the music kids haunt the music department, the drama kids share kinship and good times, the bullies and hecklers stake out their territory together, and the nerds hang with the nerds.  This tendency, so pronounced in high school, doesn't go away later on.  On a baseball team of white guys, black guys from the U.S. and guys from Latin America, the players will tend to eat and sit and play cards (or whatever) with others of the same ethnicity.  In addition, pitchers will hang out with pitchers, position players with position players.  At a large office, the smokers will go out and smoke together.  Socially, golfers will spend leisure time with other golfers, science fiction fans with other science fiction fans, bloggers with bloggers, teens with teens and old people with old people, and political activists with other activists--the ones with the right politics, of course.

Now, all this is perfectly natural.  We like talking to people who have the same background, the same perspective, the same opinions we have.  It's reassuring to be around someone else with the same taste in clothes, the same religion, the same politics, the same favorite books and movies, the same outlook on life.  It makes life easier, safer, less lonely than if we try to be the square peg in the round hole, a nerd surrounded by cool kids, a Democrat surrounded by Republicans, a Beatles fan at a Snoop Dog concert.  We like our clothes, our religion, our books, our politics, our friends, and that's fine.

But on the flip side...

The moment I form a group with people who look, think, or act as I do, "I" become part of a We, and that We becomes an Us.  We like Us.  Us are the best.  Those people who are not Us are, by definition, Them.  The problem with Them is that Them are not like Us.  Them are all wrong in their politics, their body shape, their clothes, their religion.  Us are smarter than Them, morally superior, more beloved of God.  Them are frightening, alien, because They don't look or think like Us.  Them are not really even quite human, are They?  Them live disgusting lives, worshiping the wrong gods, living in their own filth, killing Us from sheer depravity. Them are in the way.  Clearly, the world should belong to Us, and Them bring their own problems on Themselves.  It is our sacred right, even our duty, to crush Them, to kill their men and assault their women, to drive Them off the land, and finally rule Them with a stern hand, for Their own good.  Only then, if ever, can Them become more like Us.

This dynamic is extremely popular, and probably always has been.  It works to divide Jews from Muslims, Catholics from Protestants, Islamic sects from each other.  It justifies genocide and incarceration and torture.  On a less dire level, it allows science fiction fans to speak snidely of "mundanes," and conservative Christians to believe they can only "defend" marriage by denying it to gay couples.  To a liberal, a conservative is a Them, and vice versa.  To a corporate executive, environmentalists, consumers, trial lawyers, and the poor may all be different groups of Them.  The corporation, its board, its executives and its stockholders need and deserve this regulation or exemption or tax break, and if that means there's no money in the federal budget for Medicare or Medicaid, well, Them should pull Themselves up by their bootstraps rather than look for a handout.  Anyone who looks Middle Eastern is clearly a Them, a probable terrorist who should be locked up or deported on the flimsiest of excuses.  And Us aren't getting the breaks we deserve, because Them are keeping us down. Why bother to try, when Them just get in the way?  Why believe anything said by this politician, or that activist?  He's clearly one of Them.  But we must always listen to this leader, or that talk show host, or this other preacher, because he's the best of Us.

And, in its most extreme form, Us becomes an I, and everyone else is a Them. Only I am real, and only what I want counts.  I am therefore justified in robbing or raping or killing Them.  Them deserve it.

I don't care what groups of Us you're in, although I admit it's more likely we'll be friends if you're one of my particular Us groups--fat, gentle, fan of science fiction and fantasy, Democrat, dog lover or whatever.  But if you're a thin, sharp-tongued Republican who keeps no pets and has never seen Star Wars, you're still not a Them in my book.  There is no Them.  We are all human, all wondrous and worthy and flawed and foolish, all a mixture of the best and worst of the human psyche.  And if there's no Them, then no one should be tortured or beheaded, rousted for "driving while black," or beaten up for being gay or skinny or fat or nerdy or Jewish, or for wearing the wrong colors in the wrong neighborhood.  We're all We, and we all deserve to be treated better than that. 

If only We learn to understand that, We'll finally treat Us better, listen to the different perspectives each of Us have to offer, and finally work out the differences between Us in goodwill and good faith.

If this is a sermon and not a rant, then I should mention one or more specific Christian doctrines in connection with all this.  Well then, aside from the Golden Rule and loving your neighbor as yourself (neither of which are exclusive to Christianity), the most relevant teaching is the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In that story, it was the Samaritan, that First Century AD epitome of a Them, who cared for the robbed and injured traveler.  In so doing, the Samaritan ignored the divisive lies of Us vs. Them, and proved that even Them are part of Us after all.



daephene said...

That grammar was a little painful.  But good points.  And reminds me of this strip:  

ryanagi said...

A universal truth we should all take to heart. :-)