27 September 2009

Ours vs Theirs

I do not often post from other blogs, but, recalling District-9, I found this, from Catholic Exchange, quite affecting:

Stranger Is a Dangerous Word

September 26th, 2009 by Monsignor Dennis Clark, Ph.D.

Num 11:25-29 / James 5:1-6 / Mk 9:38-43,45,47-48

About a fifteen years ago, Time magazine reported on a curious experiment conducted by the sociology department at Stanford. It seems the department took a late model automobile into a nearby residential neighborhood and abandoned it for a week. They hadn’t really abandoned it, of course, because they were watching from a hidden vantage point to see what might happen. What happened was absolutely nothing. Adults and kids walked or drove by, looked at the car, and obviously wondered whose it was and why it was there. But nobody laid a finger on it.

After a week of this the hidden observers ended their vigil and drove the car away. But not very far, just a few blocks, to a spot on the side of a well-traveled road that wasn’t part of any particular neighborhood. Once again the car was "abandoned" and the observers took up their binoculars to watch from a distance. But this time they hadn’t long to wait. Well-dressed adults and teenagers in decent cars - the same kind of folks who lived in the first neighborhood - descended like locusts on that car and took what they wanted, tires, stereo, seats, doors, engine, the works! Within five hours only the frame remained.

The same car, the same community, two locations just blocks apart. What made the difference? The scholars thought a lot about that and finally concluded that the difference lay in a simple distinction: ours vs. theirs. Even if we don’t quite know the details, a car parked in our neighborhood is presumed to be one of ours. Whereas a car parked out in no-man’s land is labeled "theirs," the property of one of the faceless "them," who have no connection with us, who are outside our circle, and thus merit no consideration from us.

That ugly little distinction, we vs. they, ours vs. theirs, is constantly in play, always sneaking up on us and trying to take over. It labels a person as a "stranger" — not one of us — and then gives permission for just about anything.

How could a person kill someone entirely unknown to him in a drive-by shooting? Easy. The victim was a "stranger," not of the group, so his life just didn’t count.

How can an airman drop bombs on innocent non-combatants below? Because they are strangers and not ours.

How can we sometimes be so callous about the sufferings of the homeless and destitute? Easy! Because they are strangers, people without faces, not one of us.

And how can some of us be so rude and aggressive to other, perfectly decent drivers on the freeway? Because they are strangers, not one of us. Can you imagine acting that way if you knew the other driver was a friend or a client or your mother?!

The pattern shows up in even the tiniest of things. I’ve learned that even cigarette butts can tell us the same tale. At the end of a typical Sunday morning, when more than a thousand of our own parishioners have passed through these doors, hardly a cigarette butt is to be found anywhere on the grounds. But have a handful of visitors here for a 30-minute wedding, and you’ll find butts everywhere, even ground into the floor inside the church. To some of those visitors, we are strangers, not one of theirs, so anything goes.

In this gospel, Jesus had the disappointment of hearing his best friend John make this same ugly distinction, we vs. they, ours vs. theirs. "Jesus," he said, all puffed up with pride, "we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him, because he was not one of ours!" What a disappointment for Jesus! John had already heard the Good Samaritan story at least as many times as we have. For nearly three years he’d seen Jesus befriending everyone who came along, showing no preferences, making no distinctions, welcoming everyone into his life, and leaving no one outside the circle of his love.

John had seen and heard all that, but just like us, he still hadn’t taken it all the way into his heart. His old instincts were still in charge. But Jesus didn’t give up on him. He just told him again: for us there can be no such thing as a stranger, only brothers and sisters. For us there can be no "them," only an all-inclusive "us." The circle of our love has to grow so wide that no one is left outside. This is our life’s task and we’ll achieve it only with God’s help.

So let us turn to God in prayer.

Lord, we have set limits on our love and have been willing to call many of your people "strangers." Help our hearts to grow ever larger. Teach us to recognize all people as brothers and sisters, and show us the way to bring all people into the circle of our love. Amen.

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