Us vs. Them
Because I routinely spend my Urbanas squirreled away in the conference office, I almost never hear the plenary sessions, and certainly not in full. I mean, it’s been years since I sat through a full talk at Urbana.
So, for me, the week or two after Urbana generally involves watching the sessions to see what I missed.
The other day, I got a chance to watch Dr. Christena Cleveland‘s talk from one of Urbana’s morning sessions.
What a powerful word about us vs. them.
Dr. Cleveland talked about what she called the “power of us;” that is, the group we choose to become a part of goes a long way to forming our perceptions, and the ways in which we see the world.
And this has plenty of implications. On the plus side, as a part of an “us,” we experience deep belonging, and a strong sense of relational affirmation. Indeed, being in an “us” is a fundamental part of what it means to be made in the image of God, as our trinitarian God exists a perpetual, loving relationship between Father, Son and Spirit.
On the other hand, being in an “us” can spark division, because the second you opt into an “us,” you tend to create a “them.” And as soon as someone is a “them,” you can put them in a box and draw conclusions about them. These us vs. them. divisions can therefore dishonor the image of God.
The hopeful news?
According to Dr. Cleveland, bias can be overridden. We can change the way we perceive others. And, with effort and intentionality, a person can recategorize who fits into their internal definition of “us.”
In this we take our cues from Jesus, in Matthew 12:46-50, who radically redefines the definition of family, in the process abolishing the wall between “us” and “them:”
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
And though her primary context was race, Dr. Cleveland’s words likewise speak to the context of gender divisions. Because of course Tertullian and his ilk have led us to believe that there is an “us” and a “them” when it comes to gender and our faith communities.
The “us” are men, and, well, membership has its privileges. As a member of “us,” we can expect to receive respect, deference and our choice of leadership roles.
By contrast, for centuries women have been relegated to “them” status, pushed to the margins of church live with limits put on how they are permitted to express their God-given gifts and passions.
As with race, Jesus is our way forward. Jesus will break down the walls.
In closing this post, I was going to work on a paraphrase of Matthew 12, in light of gender divisions in the church. I was going to try to work the text to demonstrate Jesus’ commitment to ushering women from “them” to “us.”
But then I realized that Luke has already done the work for me, in telling Mary’s story from Luke 10:38-42:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Thanks be to God that we follow a Lord whose habit it was to welcome women from traditional roles into the position of disciples, from the kitchen into the community…
…in the process inviting women to move from “them” into “us.”
Want to join me in watching Dr. Cleveland’s full message? Here.