Healing Us-vs-Them Thinking as a Keystone to a Revitalized Gospel Message

March 2023

Dear People of Bethlehem,

Lent is traditionally a time to reflect on our sinfulness and to seek healing from it. This month I would like to lift up one category of sinfulness that most directly affects us in our wider culture right now, including at our little church. The so-called Culture Wars that divide us in this nation, and are increasingly leading to political violence, threaten to divide folks everywhere. Here’s the unfortunate truth: if those Culture Wars divide us at Bethlehem, that will likely mean the end of our congregation. We are too small to undergo polarization in our family-sized congregation.

But the Gospel is also about turning such threats to survival into opportunities for new life. What if we could be a place where some of the causes of the Culture Wars could find healing? What if we could be a community of disciples who could model how to not let Culture Wars be divisive and violent? Do you think that could help us to grow by inviting others to join us? Others who are also looking for healing in the midst of this divisive culture?

The first step would be to identify the causes for the sinfulness behind our culture wars – to correctly diagnose the dis-ease as the first step to finding healing. On the First Sunday of our Lenten Journey (February 26; Lent 1A), the First Reading was the familiar story of the ‘fall’ into sin from Genesis 3:1-7. When we look closely, we see that the sin involves much more than simple disobedience. It’s not just about God saying not to eat of one tree and the woman and man disobeying.

First of all, the story injects the serpent, who is the symbol of what I find helpful to name as “mimetic desire.” Human beings don’t simply have desires pop up in them. Our desires are a matter of complex, mostly unconscious modeling of other people’s desires. We ‘catch’ our desires from each other. The woman in Genesis 3 doesn’t all of a sudden desire the fruit of the forbidden tree on her own. The serpent suggests the desire to her through a circuitous route. The serpent craftily asks about eating of the trees in the garden. The woman quotes God’s prohibition, which we can read for ourselves in Genesis 2:16-17, so notice that in Genesis 3:2-3 she doesn’t quote God accurately. The serpent takes advantage of the fact that the woman misses the mark and begins to feed her a conspiracy theory. He convinces her, without offering any evidence, that God is prohibiting the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because God is hoarding that knowledge. Mimetic desire often leads to rivalry because we end up go after the same objects of desire (like kids fighting over toys or adults ‘keeping up with the Joneses’). Here, we have the mimetic desire and the rivalry packaged together by the serpent. He convinces the woman and man that God is (falsely) in rivalry with them, and so they find the fruit desirable.

The rivalry with God is also the ‘fall’ into Us-vs-Them thinking as symbolized by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The name of the tree is not an incidental detail. Again, the fall into sin goes far beyond simple disobedience. It involves mimetic desire leading to rivalry, which leads to the thinking that goes with rivalry: Me = good. My rival = bad. The constant reality of rivalry in our lives leads to seeing the world through a lens of judging everything good and bad along the lines of our rivalries. In short, it leads to what I’ve been naming as Us-vs-Them thinking.

This includes the level of communities and cultures. We grow up in communities and cultures in rivalry with other communities and cultures. Us-vs-Them thinking becomes a constant which feeds into “Culture Wars,” and, of course, literal wars. Our long history of conflict, division, and war is anchored in the story of Genesis 2-4, where from our human origins we fall into rivalry and conflict, fueled by seeing the world through a lens of Us-vs-Them.

So Culture Wars are very much connected with our human sinfulness. They are a big part of what God sent Jesus to save us from. We can be healed, “saved,” from our warring madness! In our Gospel Readings during this season of Lent, we will encounter the wondrous Good News of God offering us rebirth as children of God into a human family marked by unity and peace, not division. In our Sunday Bible studies, using Richard Rohr’s book Breathing Under Water as a guide, we will learn about life in the Holy Spirit as a life of healing from our addiction to Us-vs-Them thinking.

Join us on our Lenten journey of healing! Peace be to you, to your family, and to God’s family! Pastor Paul

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