Friday, December 17, 2010

Us and Them

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the "Us and Them" meme seems to weave its way through our world. I don't know if any of this is particularly deep or informative to you, but it just seems pervasive to me, at least lately. How have we divided ourselves, let me count the ways.

It is obvious in church life on so many levels. Where does separation begin there? It might be easier to ask where it doesn't exist, because it seems to be everywhere. There are obvious separations - we have Catholic/Eastern Orthodox/Protestant division in the big-C Church. I am not terribly familiar with anything but Protestantism, so sticking with that, it's obvious that we have a multitude of denominational (even non-denominational!) separations. Within denominations, there's frequently further division between conservative/liberal(hate those words) factions. Then there's racial/ethnic separation, which is a whole other can of worms. And then there's the clique-y separations within a particular congregation, with all the silly power struggles over the minutiae of church life. At this level, I sometimes think about the conflicted groups facing off like the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story. time there's a conflict like that at our church, I'll suggest a dance off. Hope no one breaks a hip.

I guess there are a couple things going on right now that have brought "Us and Them" to mind. One is the kids from out in the country that we've been bringing in to church. It is a joy to have their energy in our building. I expected more backlash from the older folks, but as I mentioned before, they have been almost entirely gracious. Several have been trying to get involved as best they can in welcoming the kids and in helping by teaching Sunday School or driving the van. It is wonderful to have a tangible mission - we can see that these children are being changed and so are we. But still....."us and them"'s there, even if it's not explicitly stated. Our temptation is to think we are saving them when it is God who saves. And I mean no disrespect to our parishioners, but I think that if the families of these kids came in greater numbers, they would be welcome - as long as they know their place as outsiders, as less-than those who have been here all along. I don't say that to pick on the folks in our church - this happens at most churches, I think.

The other, more personal "us and them" lately refers to my family as "Us" and the church/town as "Them," and vice versa. We are not from here, and "here" is a small town. My wife and I have always been suburbanites, though all 4 of our parents grew up in a rural environment. There are people who have been in this church/town for 30 years and are still thought of as "new." The different lifestyle has at times been a difficult transition for us. For example, we have found that most people know who we are, even if we haven't met them. That makes sense to me in a small town. What I was not prepared for, though, was that almost none of them will introduce themselves. They are almost unfailingly polite and will not be explicitly unkind. If I am driving through town and wave to other drivers or pedestrians, they will cheerfully wave back. It seems friendly, and I think it's meant that way, but something is being held back. Now obviously, self-introduction is a two-way street, and I have made efforts to do so. But it's a bit exhausting to be the only one doing it. To most of these folks, we are "them." That's not necessarily thought of negatively, of course.

The differences we see between these folks and us are many - please excuse me for painting with a broad brush, but here are some of them. My wife and I both have more than one graduate degree while many folks here have not been to college. A high percentage of the population here uses Fox News as their source for information about the world. We, um, don't. Most of these people do not read the newspaper (the major papers in the state don't even offer home delivery here) or much of anything, really. There is a strong work ethic here that is admirable - to a point. The problem is that the need for sabbath is hardly acknowledged, at least that's my impression. Now having said all that, I realize that we must seem like over-educated intellectual snobs to these folks. It's probably more true than I care to admit. I know with every fiber of my being that I am no "better" than them, no less guilty of sin, no more loved by God. But we sure are different!

So how do we live together? How do we minister to each other and love each other? I think we'll always be "us" and "them," but we have to make it work. Why do we separate ourselves this way? Why do we objectify and dehumanize each other? Is it all about power and control? And by power and control, I don't necessarily mean power/control over "them." As a white American male, I am not familiar with being an oppressed minority, but I'm sure that oppressed minorities will think(justifiably) in "us" vs. "them" terms too. But thinking this way can be a coping mechanism that gives one power in some sense by defining reality for oneself. (ok, I'm getting in over my head here - I'm just an engineer)

I have not addressed the most personal way "us" vs. "them" has manifested itself in our life - that of pastor and congregation as us/them. I will leave that for another day, I think. I will have to tread carefully there.