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'Us' and 'Them'
Fr Dennis Smith, November 17th, 2013

 “Who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ in your world?”

The question may take you back to childhood, being the first or last chosen for a particular sports team, being part of the various temporary ‘in’ groups or not. Who is ‘us’? Who is ‘them’? Listen to how we talk about others. The ‘us/them’ talk happens frequently in church circles.

There is the old joke about one man stranded on a desert island who, when rescued, was asked why he built two churches, and answered:  ‘well this is the one I go to and that is the one I don’t go to’.

Even in a single congregation we can hear ‘they–language’ referring to noisy children, negative adults, leaders, groups and the kike. The ‘they-ness’ can be based on all sorts of factors that differentiate one group from another. One of the basic factors being I belong to this not to that. ‘We’ speak the same language, see things the same way. ‘They’ have got other ideas! There are bible passages that encourage some of this us/them thinking: sheep and goats; clean/unclean; those that revere God’s name/evil doers.
If you were having a bad hair day, feeling ‘got at’, then Malachi sounds like just the thing! ‘See the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers (ie. ‘them’) will be stubble… but those who revere my name (ie. ‘us’) the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.’

A misunderstanding of this verse reminds me of the very worse of prayers of intercession. Praying for others, assuming I’m not one of the greatly mixed-up mass of humanity is always a temptation. For example, praying for the rulers of the world to work for peace and justice sounds as though this has nothing to do with my political choices and voice. Praying for a just and more equitable sharing of resources can sound like getting ‘them/others’ to change ‘their ways. Praying for dignity for all the marginalised peoples of the world can sound as though we’re okay, we’re in the centre and ‘they’ are oddly on the margins.

Too often our image of and relationship with the rest of humanity is egocentric. I and those like me are the norm, but ‘they’, well, they are ‘they’.

This season of Remembrance-tide can raise this we’/’they’ dichotomy in ugly and damaging ways. ‘We’, those on my side, those of my clan, my nation, my persuasion are in opposition to the ‘them’, who are different in identity, nationality, outlook and intentions, apparently.

Last Sunday, Remembrance Sunday, there could have been a glorification of the ‘we’ to which we belong. It’s understandable and right to celebrate the courage and the good in our and other communities. Yet the rub comes when we then tar everyone of the ‘them’ with the same brush, as though all of ‘them’ were totally opposite to the ‘we’ to which we belong, as though the ‘sun of righteousness’ only can only shine on ‘us’.

The bible writers knew all too well how unjust and violent the world is. They also knew it’s where we may grow into God. Life on this globe is both tragic failure and miraculous success; success in terms of co-operation, respect, more inclusive, more just. The negative, evil side of life is often portrayed on the news and in the papers. At times it seems that only no news is good news – how upside down is that?

Remembrance-tide is very biblical. The theme of remembering has been a central teaching of Hebrew Scriptures; remember Abraham setting out to make a new life, knowing not where. Remember Moses and how God led the Hebrew slaves away from the pharaoh’s work camps. Remember the slaying of the first born of the Egyptians as the climax to the plagues, remembered and retold in the Passover celebration of the Hebrew people through the centuries, crossing through the waters of the Sea of Reeds. Remember the wanderings through the wilderness years and God’s  sustaining presence. Remember the entry into the Promised Land and the powerful sense of chosen-ness.

“Remember to teach your children to remember” was of the essence. Remembering is not only to choose the stories of the saving of grace of God, remembering also needs the stories of the judgement of God. There is judgement of God in the wilderness, the judgement of God as they learn in this fragile occupation of the promised land, the land of others, that they are to share it with the stranger, the other in their midst.

One of the oldest creeds of the Bible in Deuteronomy chapter 26, often read at harvest festivals, talks about the wandering Aramean who was our ancestor, referring to Abraham. But this creed is clear, that God’s partiality knows no sectarian divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The creed ends with the instruction to celebrate this gift of a fertile home with the alien and stranger.

This is why after the Falklands war the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, was right to insist on praying for Argentinians, despite Mrs Thatcher’s anger.

The Gospel passage we’ve heard read today recognises that even the faithful followers of Christ cannot avoid the realities and animosities of life. The talk of wars and terrible things happening are reality. Hope is given as these things are put in the context of God’s intentions (which is different from saying they are God’s purpose or plan). Jesus knew hatred and persecution. Being one of his followers is not an entry ticket to unreality, but engagement with and living to bring hope to reality. Hope is judgement and healing.

In the words of the Letter to the Thessalonians: this call is the privilege of not becoming weary of doing the right, of not letting the unbeliever undermine your calling as the disciples of Jesus.

Remembrance-tide becomes genuine when it’s not confined to ‘us’ and ‘ours’. To remember those who we are tempted to see as ‘them is the calling and judgement of God whose grace even dares to welcome ‘us’ amongst his flock and chosen. We don’t need to disinherit those who were enemies, we don’t need to abandon those whose poverty protects our wealth, we don’t need to deny those whose difference justifies our lack of respect for their dignity and humanity.

The remembering doesn’t merely glorify our own achievements or sacrifices. True remembering recognises the call to make this world work and reflect God’s will: peace with justice. Remembering goes behind the wars that have and are being fought, to recognise the follies that have allowed this failure in the human community to result in atrocities. Learning from the mistakes of history is an activity which allows hope for future generations to develop. 

The evil doers, referred to in the reading we heard from the Book of the prophet, Malachi, who will become “stubble” and those on whom “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wing” are one and the same community for God. Here the cross, the centre of all Christian remembrance, dominates. For those who wrong and for those who suffer are called to live reconciled lives.

The persecutions St Luke speaks of in today’s Gospel bring both camps together, for in God’s sight there are no camps, merely the one created universe, one adored human family to which God has already shown what he desires.The path, the future of all remembrance, is not only that all wars shall cease, but also that God’s Kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. The Kingdom in which that dignity that Jesus showed the marginalised and foreigner, the unclean and the woman, the outsider, the ‘them’ of his religious upbringing is the “sun with healing in its wings”.

This Remembrance-tide isn’t about who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. It is with God’s eyes and affection to remember all, well!


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