Them and Us

BY SEÁN MULLAN

By Seán Mullan

I'd like to write a word (ok, a few words) on behalf of “them”. Them? Yes, “them” who are not like us, the ones who are different. Their identity depends on your definition of “us”. Who is “in” your particular in crowd?

The definition of “us” can vary. It can depend on skin colour, gender, musical taste, education, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, place of birth, political convictions, bank balance, place of residence, language, accent, appearance, clothing, weight, football club or any one of a thousand labels you care to choose. Only two things matter - who is in and who is out.  As soon as that is established, we have created a place of safety for ourselves: we are “us” and they are “them” - the others, the ones not like us.

This process of creating networks of “people like us” may seem a natural and harmless exercise. Even children in the playground do it. But it is also the basis of every war ever fought. Once we have decided that they are “them” and not like “us”, waging war against them becomes easier - a logical next step. 

And truth be told, religious people have developed a significant reputation for this kind of segregation and discrimination. Since it’s a safe guess that most people reading this have some religious inclination, then perhaps that’s the place to begin.

What if the standards you use for excluding others become the standards that are used to exclude you?

It’s far too easy to label someone an “unbeliever”. It assigns them a place in the company of the other side - “them” - those who don’t accept the truths we believe. Once labelled they can be talked about when they’re not around, spoken of with a certain degree of condescension, analysed and categorised. 

Though often this comes from a genuine concern for someone’s spiritual welfare, it can just as easily become a reason for not taking someone seriously, not seeing them as an equal. It’s worth remembering that the Latin word for “unbeliever” is “infidel” - and if you follow events in the Middle East, you know how that word has been used to create religious, social and political division across nations. The “infidel” is a lesser being.

That reputation for looking down on “the ones who aren’t like us” seems to go back a ways. Jesus of Nazareth, although not at all averse to practising religion Himself, saw the dangers in religious segregationalism. His solution was simple - remember that the measure you use to measure others could be used to measure you. Think about that before you speak out at someone else. What if the standards you use for excluding others become the standards that are used to exclude you? Look inside yourself before you look out at them. 

That is advice worth heeding by both sides in our contemporary moral and ethical debates. While people with sincere religious convictions always run the risk of being judgemental, they are not the only ones. These are days when the ultimate put-down - in this little segment of the planet - is to be labelled “judgemental”.

We often protect ourselves from such accusations with a collection of blindingly obvious generalisations like “everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” But a brief scan of Twitter or Facebook shows that the Judgemental Club has a large and active membership. And they’re not confined to any one side of a debate.

How do you label someone as judgemental without being judgemental? Being judgemental about judgementalism is still being judgmental.

It’s not so much that you disagree but the way you express that disagreement. Instead of saying “with all due respect” why not just give respect? Instead of telling someone they are entitled to their opinion, how about letting them express that opinion and giving it due consideration? Who knows but you may be awarded the same respect in return?

Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a new project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.