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Religion Column

August 20, 2011

Unlearning the 'us' and 'them' tendency

Human beings seem predisposed to see differences, to divide the world into good vs. bad, safe vs. dangerous, self vs. other.

Perhaps it is a gift from our ancestors of long ago. When every day was struggle for survival and death might lurk behind every tree, it was probably important to notice things that were different. And different -- well, different was probably dangerous.

Human beings are also social animals -- we naturally wish to belong, to form groups. We bond as families, make friends, form tribes. This social nature combined with our predisposition for divisions created an early tendency to "other." We classify people as either "us" or "them." If you are one of "us," then you are probably good, safe, normal and right. If you are one of "them," then you are suspect -- likely bad, dangerous, weird and just flat wrong.

When I was a young man, I worked at a worker-owned cooperative, a democratic workplace. At the urgings of my co-workers on the night shift, I ran for the Board of Directors. With their support, I was easily elected to the Board, where I did my best to represent them. Soon, I noticed a difference in my night-shift peers. They didn't talk to me quite as much. Some were actually hostile. When I questioned them about it, they said, "You aren't one of us anymore, you're one of them." Which I was -- but only because they had elected me to that position. It was a heart-breaking lesson in how easily, how readily we "other" one another.

Today, I see it happening even more. People focusing on differences, creating unnecessary, dangerous divisions. Young vs. old. Men vs. women. Gay vs. straight. Citizens vs. illegal immigrants. Residents vs. students. Liberals vs. conservatives. Christians vs. Muslims. Atheists vs. believers. Jacob vs. Edward. Gryffindor vs. Slytherin. (OK, those last two are fictional -- but no less passionately defended by folks than the "real" divisions so many cling to.) Reading the online comments section of any newspaper or website (even that of this paper) is a rude course in the practice of "othering."

How does this "othering" serve us? We ARE different. Each of us IS unique. Our lives, our experiences, our stories -- all of them divide us. And yet, we share a common humanity. We share a common world. We share common needs, common spiritual questions, and quite often, common hopes and dreams. It is right and natural for us to disagree, to debate, and even to work at cross-purposes sometimes -- but it no longer serves us to vilify, denigrate and attack the human being opposite our imaginary line of Us vs. Them.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus said, "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you." In the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an, it is written, —¦ God will ordain love between you and those you hold as enemies." Even the Humanists, in their Third Manifesto, wrote, "(We) long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence … Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, committed to diversity, and respect those of different yet humane views." Similar passages exist in the holy scriptures of Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Confucianism and many other world religions. "Love Your Neighbor" is as universal as "Do Unto Others As You Would Have Done Unto You."

We've known the danger of Us vs. Them for centuries -- and yet, more and more, it seems we are encouraged to "other" one another; to vilify, disrespect and even assault those we perceive as different, those that disagree with us.

Political ads, editorial cartoons, and yes -- even religious columns -- they all seem to be encouraging us to demonize those we disagree with, to persecute those we don't understand. Such behaviors are based on fear -- fear of the other. It's time we learned the truth about the "others" in our world. There is NO "other." There is NO "them." There is only "us." We are they; they are we. And WE could all use more understanding, greater acceptance, and a deeper, abiding, transforming love.

It isn't going to be easy. Nobody ever said it would be. We are still going to disagree. We are still going to fight (though maybe we'll figure that one out some day, too … we can only hope).

Through it all, though, if we can resist the urge to "other," if we can pick just one of "them" and redefine them as one of "us," we can move one step closer to a world made healthy and whole -- a world where all are loved and there is no "other."

So may it be.

The Rev. Craig Schwalenberg is minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Oneonta.

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