Us vs. Them

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
A man was walking across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge when he saw a woman looking lonely and despondent.
Fearful that she was about to do something desperate, he ran to tell her that God loved her.  A tear came to her eye.  Then he asked her, “Are you a Christian, Jew, Hindu, what?”
“I’m a Christian,” she said.  He said, “Me too!  Small world.  Protestant or Catholic?”
“Me too!  What denomination?”
“Me too!  Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
“Northern Baptist.”
He was delighted.  “Me too!  Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
“Northern Conservative Baptist.”
“That’s amazing!  Me too!  Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?”
“Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist.”
“Remarkable!  Me too!  Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Eastern Region?”
She said, with growing excitement, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
“A miracle,” he gasped.  “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?
She answered, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
Whereupon he shouted, “Die, heretic!” and pushed her off the bridge.
That joke, written by comedian Emo Phillips, was voted the funniest religious joke of all time by the website Ship of Fools.  What makes jokes funny, of course – painfully funny – is when they mirror a reality that everyone recognizes.
The mission of Ship of Fools, which was founded on April Fool’s Day 1998, is “to help Christians be self-critical and honest about the failings of Christianity, as we believe honesty can only strengthen faith.” Simon Jenkins, the Ship’s editor and designer, adds, “As committed Christians ourselves, we can’t help laughing at the crazy things that go wrong with the church, and we’re also drawn to those questions which take us beyond easy believing.  In the end, we want to make sense of the Christian faith in today’s complex world.”
People who get excited about their faith sometimes surrender to a strange, sad impulse – to divide the world into Us vs. Them.  They even do this in the name of Jesus, despite the fact that Jesus never provided the least encouragement or grounds to do so.
At one point in the Gospel of Luke (9:51-55), Jesus and his disciples are journeying toward Jerusalem.  They ask permission to walk through a Samaritan village.
This would be like a group of North Carolina basketball fans asking if they could hold a rally on Duke’s campus.  First century residents of Judea and first century residents of Samaria couldn’t stand the thought of each other, and regularly consigned each other to the fires of hell.
Predictably, the Samaritans inform Jesus and his disciples that they can take a hike in the opposite direction.
The disciples are incensed.  They decide to take a stand.  “Lord, do you want us call down fire from heaven?”  In the 21st century that might sound something like this: “Do you want us to bomb them back to the Stone Age?”
This is one of those texts where it’s clear that Jesus’ own apprentices haven’t yet remotely grasped the true nature of his mission.  Instead of rebuking the Samaritans, Jesus rebukes them. 
As one commentator puts it, Jesus treats people on the other side as if they are people on our side. 
That’s because in the reign of God there are no “sides.”  There is no Us and there is no Them.  God’s hands are extended to everyone
Letting go of the Us vs. Them mentality is one of the hardest things God will ever ask us to do.  But in order to grow up spiritually, we have to surrender to its deep wisdom.
Otherwise, when it comes to being identified as passengers on “the ship of fools,” the joke will certainly end up being on us.