Us Vs. Them: Variations on a Theme

best-time-to-send-email-campaignSeptember was a rough month for our college family. We were hit with the one-two punch the anniversary of 9/11 and a tragic van accident which resulted in the deaths of 3 of our friends.

Soon after our campus was besieged by a plague of hyper-Calvinism. For awhile, it seemed like every other week another friend was “coming out Calvinist”.

I couldn’t help but feel that this was an emotional response to recent events. Naturally, they believed my rejection of these doctrines was emotional as well. I was so adamantly opposed that one student suggested I might be a vessel of wrath.

The arguments had become ubiquitous. Charity, civility, and friendship were casualties. It wasn’t long before I grew weary of fighting and so I retreated from fights believing they could not accomplish anything.

“Peace, peace’ they say, ‘but there is no peace.’” Jeremiah 8:11

A week had passed since the anniversary of 9/11 when I was in theology class one day. At the outset of class, a discussion on the nature of the attacks, the necessity of war, and the appropriate Christian response took off with great intensity.

One student, a fiery spirit full of impassioned pleas, cited this verse from Jeremiah. That very week, on a television in the cafeteria, several of us had watched a John Lennon tribute concert. He uttered his protest, scoffing at John’s unholy “imagined” utopia.

I suppose that we were in agreement as I also preferred the biblical portrait of heaven. I kind of liked the song and this dude was killing the mood. I didn’t see anything worth getting upset about. The people on the TV couldn’t hear us anyway. I saw no reason to be personally offended but then maybe I was too much of a pacifist.

I wasn’t so much of a pacifist though. I liked it when Bill O’Reilly famously said of the Libyans, “Let them eat sand.” I defended him enthusiastically to my friends who believed that O’Reilly had been unnecessarily cold. I didn’t realize at the time that he was talking about Libya. I didn’t know where Libya was or how it fit into the current situation.

Nonetheless, I was convinced that the people there had it coming, that they were responsible for the actions their government had taken, whatever those were.

Our tiny campus had bonded closely in the wake of the attacks. Even at our small school way down in Florida, there had been a few students who were concerned about family members they hadn’t heard from yet, people who worked in the World Trade Center or at the Pentagon.

In the confines of a dorm room, I gathered with friends and we talked about the historically unprecedented nature of the attacks, that we had never been attacked on our soil. We sprinkled profanity into repeated exclamations that this was the worst day in American history.

It’s The American Way

I was familiar with the case for just war. I believed that military intervention had been necessary to stop Hitler (I still do). I was less familiar with any real arguments against war or at least circumstances under which war would not be an acceptable solution. The way I saw it the United States was taking action others were afraid to take.

I worried about my friend, Jonny, when he was called into active duty from out of the reserves. I knew that he was doing something I could not do. I was proud of him. Store bookshelves filled up with books arguing against Bush’s policies. They did not manage to respectfully disagree. I was unnerved to find one book which included paper dolls of the President whose title suggested punching out our commander in chief. Could they get away with that? I wondered.

I didn’t mind when the CIA started listening in on our phone calls. I figured I didn’t have anything to hide. I didn’t object to the torturing of Al-Qaeda operatives. I figured that they deserved it. The ends justified the means, without question. If we didn’t take some kind of radical action, i.e., preemptive strikes, we’d surely be overthrown.

They had to know better than to mess with us, the U.S. Military, Texas, Chuck Norris, or Toby Keith. Anyone who disagreed was just some sick terrorist sympathizer, ready to rush the end of our great nation.

Voices of Dissent

As the first couple of years of that war waned on, I heard voices of dissent more frequently. I wasn’t comfortable in Sunday School when someone suggested that they weren’t certain they’d vote for Clinton in the upcoming election. I respected their right to an opinion but worried that church was not the place to express dissent. Something like that could mislead people. Indeed, there was only one reasonable answer.

I was even more put off when a growing number of my friends expressed similar feelings. More upsetting though was that some of them had come to believe some pretty terrible things about the administration of our college. They believed that the school had been corrupted. I defended our college saying that there was more to it than we could see. I held out for awhile, even after two of them dropped out to pursue education elsewhere, but eventually I came to share their doubts.

My friend gave up on our college, then his republican politics, and later he let go of his faith, the same faith that we had shared. For awhile, he was so riled up and convicted and his opinions were naturallly opposed to my own that it felt like an assault. I no longer knew how to carry on the conversation. We didn’t talk as often. Meanwhile, I became more disaffected.

I voted for Obama in 2008 and even sat up all night to watch the returns. I wanted to be sure nothing hokey went on while I was asleep. To me, it seemed like the immediate future was at risk of contracting terminal illnesses by way of idiotic politics.

I was finishing school, sticking with what had been my plan. It was easy then to feel proud to be on the right side of things. I was one of the good guys, an American, a Christian, a student of the Bible. However, when I graduated my job situation didn’t shape up like I had hoped. Out of a small pool of contenders, I believed my odds were favorable to land a position with the Alumni office.

Instead of hiring me, they closed the position. I visited churches expecting to be greeted and swooned over for my expert knowledge. Instead, I got the impression they thought I had never been in church and that maybe they should keep a close eye on the offering plate when it came passed me. Maybe I could be trusted to hand out bulletins. While this was going on, many others also from my graduating class had gotten the jobs they set out to get. I felt increasingly disenchanted.

I couldn’t see how I fit into their vision of the future. This is always how disenchantment works. This feeling had been planted in me by way of seemingly insignificant occurences along the way. At first, my questions were treated generously. Gradually, my inquiry was taken as a sign of spiritual immaturity. Seeing that I would not relent, it seemed that I was no longer one of them. I was a rebel.

Some people get tired of fighting. I did. In the same way that I lost interest in debate, others fled the battlefield completely. While many of us tire of fighting, others tire of losing and so, they migrate to another team, a team whose vision they share, a team who they beleve can win, but most importantly, a team where they have a function to serve.

Us Vs. Them

For awhile after college, I embraced the idea that there is no Us Versus Them. In this, I was mistaken. We will always have our differences and as long as we allow those differences to define us more accurately than Christ does there will be division.

The list of things we can be split over is infinite: politics, economics, bible versions, church government, the age of the earth, ecumenism, creation care, hermenuetics, communion, baptism, the age of accountability, education, social justice, health care, military involvement, homosexuality, the ordination of women, types of worship services, and the eternal destination of canines, to name a few.

On second thought, there is so much division that Us Versus Them is a far too simplistic rendering of the problem. The theory overlooks the dignity and humanity contained within both parties, presuming that each person, with no great difficulty, can file into one of these two categories; but at best, the division breaks down into many smaller groups: us versus them and them and them and them. If we are most concerned with division, we will eventually notice the battle is Me versus You. You is everyone who is not me.

I hope that’s not the case, because I am tired. There are many days in which I know how my fellow student and the prophet Jeremiah felt. There are many days when I proclaim, “There is no peace.” We are commended to “never grow weary of doing what is right” (2 Thess. 3:13). I know often this may mean to testify to the truth, to provide sound debate, and to confront erroneous thinking but I hope that in all our bold proclamations and our standing up for what we believe in that we don’t forget the mercy which has been granted us and the love that Christ had, even for his enemies.

“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. and in all things, charity.” Augustine

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