When I was about 12 an older relative of mine said something to me I’ll never forget. We were watching the news, and the story switched to a high-profile couple undergoing a divorce, because the husband had cheated.
My relative said: ‘Don’t judge people who do that. The only thing that separates us from them is grace.’
In other words, self righteousness makes us forget who we are.
Those words have rung true since the old days when God first introduced the idea to his people, that they are his treasured possession out of all nations not because they are great or worthy, but because he loves them (and would have them bring this relationship to all the nations); and even today they ring true.
Today on the news, there is division everywhere, us versus them: ISIS vs the rest of the world; pro-Assad vs anti-Assad; in Hong Kong, pro-democrats vs pro-establishment; religious vs atheists; blacks vs whites; gays vs homophobes.
I’m not going to propose some grand theory on how to get over this, but I think drawing attention to a recurring historical trend might shed some light. How do we see past us vs them?
One of the best ways to see this is through the lens of radicalisation. You see it in today’s newest ISIS recruits, many of them loners who travel great distances to achieve something they consider worthwhile. But this shouldn’t be news; this is something we’ve always lived with. There has always been wrong and evil, people have always found it in themselves to make the wrong choices. But how do we get past simply condemning wrong choices?
There’s a scene in the film Fury which gets my blood boiling. For about two-thirds of the film, the director did a good job in portraying total war: how it had gotten its tentacles around Germany, how no one was safe from war, how everyone – men (both young and old, able or wounded), women, children – was involved, either in the fighting or caught up in the crossfire. He builds a certain pathos for the German people, how on the one hand there is this unspoken assumption that they are responsible for horrors like the Holocaust, but on the other hand, the German people aren’t exactly getting off scot-free. There are German civilians being blown up, German soldiers consigned to death but who just want to go home, but despite all this the director makes it very clear: these guys are the enemy.
And then around the two-thirds mark something changes. The Waffen SS are singled out as the main bad guys (this had already been foreshadowed at the beginning of the film but hadn’t come out as a theme until near the end). During the final battle scene one of the main characters guns down legions of SS grenadiers while growling ‘F*cking Nazis!’ All the pathos of the German people built up till now has just been chucked out the window. Now we’re back to ‘Hurr durr kill all the Nazis,’ as if the Waffen SS are the main bad guys, instead of the tip of a rotten iceberg that they really were.
The point is, we like to demonise certain groups. We assume the people we hate are not quite human. We assume the radicals hatch out of eggs. So we fix our hatred on the SS grenadier, the rampaging Japanese infantryman, the Kamikaze pilot, or the suicide bomber. We look at them and say ‘He’s the problem. He’s the demon. Without him it would have been different.’
Yet we forget that the vast majority of Nazi soldiers were churchgoing Catholics and Lutherans, citizens of an intellectual, artistic and scientific powerhouse; the Japanese infantryman was a simple farmer before he was shipped to China, the Dutch East Indies or the Philippines; the Kamikaze pilot was a student who, judging from the letters he sent home, often just wanted to be somewhere else; many of the men who demolished the antiquities at the Mosul museum were wearing everyday clothes, not the black ‘uniforms’ worn by many ISIS fighters; and Mohammed Emwazi was a studious computing major before he became Jihadi John.
Hitler was a painter who loved chocolate cake. Mussolini was a schoolteacher.
These were ordinary men who lived ordinary lives before they were caught up in these major conflicts. And yet these ordinary men found it in themselves to commit acts of unspeakable evil: churchgoing Catholics and Lutherans gave the orders for, and operated the machinery of, the Final Solution; simple farmers gang-raped and decapitated hundreds of thousands of girls, boys, men and women; simple students found it in themselves to crash their planes into enemy battleships; ‘everyday’ men and computing students found it in themselves to capture and abuse girls for sexual slavery, and saw off people’s heads on video camera.
The best lesson to learn from this, and the best way to honour the memory of their victims, is not to sigh and think ‘What a bunch of monsters,’ it’s to remember these were ordinary people who through a combination of poor choices, personal weakness and the irresistibility of their circumstances, found it in themselves to commit acts of great evil that dumped them on the wrong side of history. When we see that we should remember:
The only thing that separates us from them is grace.
At the risk of over-spiritualising this and putting a Jesus rubber stamp on it, consider this: the Pharisees, arch-villains of the Gospels, went through this process too. They didn’t hatch from eggs, bent from day one on oppressing people and swaggering around in self-righteous stoogery. They arose because they were looking forward to a Messiah, they wanted kingdom come. But somewhere down the line they treasured moral superiority over their people’s salvation. They cared more about looking good than taking care of the poor. They began to despise the very people who needed help instead of teaching them God’s word. They became… radicalised. Because they forgot it’s not us and them. They forgot grace.
And in a way that’s what Jesus repeatedly calls the religious men out on: in the parable of the prodigal son, he tells them that actually they’re not so different from the younger brothers they so despise; in the parable of the Good Samaritan, he tells them that they don’t have a monopoly on goodness, that us vs them is no way to live. And Jesus, in reaching out to the Samaritan woman by the well, repeats this idea: it’s not about us vs them, it’s about worshiping God in spirit and truth.
But back to my original point: while division is sometimes good – we are different from the radicals, the ones who made wrong choices, the suicide bombers and the head-sawers, and thank God for that – self righteousness is not. If we content ourselves with being us without trying to reach out to them, they will keep being them. And we will have failed as bringers of grace. Self-righteous swaggering, scoffing at the people we think are wrong, will breed radicalisation. This repeated story that we live with today is a result of our repeated amnesia. We forget the uncomfortable conclusion that ‘them’ is not so different from ‘us’. That often the ‘thems’ actually had been ‘us’ at some point.
You’re not as ‘you’ as you’d care to think, and they’re not as ‘them’ as you’d be comfortable with. What difference there is comes not from us being better than them, but saving grace. Grace, not goodness, makes us ‘us’ and them ‘them.’
If we forget this, the radicalisation will continue. We will not learn the lessons of the past, and we will not be able to honour the memories of people who died because ‘us’ and ‘them’ went to war.
The capacity for great evil is inside all of us. All of us could make make the wrong choices at the drop of a hat. If we forget that, it makes evil’s job a lot easier to snag vulnerable people, marginalised people. Because we forget what separates us and them, good from bad, is grace and grace alone.
And so grace must reach all. Grace divides, as it must. Because there is real right and wrong in this world. But grace must not be only ‘ours,’ but also ‘theirs’; it must reach not just us but also those in danger of becoming them. Grace must build those bridges, grace will honour the memories of the dead. If we forget grace, we forget who we are. Us versus them will continue.