One of the (dis?)advantages of being a pastor is that I accumulate a great deal of information about people. In the normal course of pastoral activity, I see, hear and deduce a great many things about the people I work with. Some of the things I know, they know I know. Some, well, they don’t know I know. And because I am a pastor, a lot of what I know needs to be kept confidential.
So, imagine this scenario which happens with great regularity. We are in a meeting–Bible study, coffee party, potluck, business or whatever. The talk turns to something topic, say whether tea or coffee is the better beverage. A convert to coffee begins to testify–they drank tea for years and only after starting coffee did they realize that tea was so bad and evil. Then, they begin to discuss tea drinkers–“they” are all deluded and have possibly been seriously harmed by tea. “They” are also trying to trap people, especially good coffee drinkers, and get them mired in the tea trap.
So, I am sitting there, listening to this. I know the convert’s story and can understand their antipathy towards tea. But I also know that two of the people at the meeting need to drink tea regularly because of serious medical problems that only regular doses of tea can prevent from becoming terminal. As the coffee convert becomes more agitated, I know that the tea drinkers are becoming more and more uncomfortable. Generally, if I have any means to do so, I gently guide the discussion into a different direction, trying to avoid breaking confidence or creating a confrontational situation.
It seems to me that often when we talk about “they”, we are forgetting that “they” are actually real people. We all have an all too human tendency to see anyone outside our comfort zone as suspicious, dangerous or just plain wrong–and even more, we somehow manage to let ourselves see them as not human.
When I studied anthropology a long time ago, I remember reading about groups of people who had very strong rules against killing people. In their language, their group name was “people”, making everyone outside the group not people, who could therefore be killed with no penalty. I think our modern use of “they” accomplishes the same thing.
We dehumanize people when we “they” them. We make them less than people–they don’t need respect, they don’t need justice, they don’t need understanding, they may not even need God’s love because, well, “they” are like that.
So, go back to the fictional tea/coffee dichotomy at the fictional meeting we started with. I know the tea drinker story and I know the coffee convert story. I know that the coffee convert and the tea drinker are really good friends. I also know that the tea drinker has never told the coffee convert about the tea–and so I know that as the coffee convert is talking, the tea drinker is shrinking inside and their friendship is dying a little bit. Fortunately, this is a fictional story so I don’t have to figure out how their pastor is going to help them deal with this issue.
I have been as guilty of the “they” process as anyone. And I have also learned the best and maybe only way to deal with the “they” process. The more I get to know “them”, the less I am willing to dehumanize them. As I spend time with “them”, getting to know who they are and why they do what they do and where the differences come from, it is harder and harder to lump them into a group called “they”. The more I get to know people, the more “they” become “we”–and given the realities of life, “we” is much better for all of us than “they”.
And in the end, God wants us to be “we” not “they”. The Bible is based on God’s love for us, a love he wants us to take to the whole world. We all need the same thing–the love and grace of God. God’s love doesn’t exclude or ignore or dehumanize “them” because it sees no “they” or “them”. God’s love makes us “we”–and our call and privilege is to be used by God to make that love available for all of us.
May the peace of God be with you.