Beyond Us and Them

Jesus and Gandhi on the Politics of Polarization

When I was younger I used to go to protest marches. Although initially energized by the solidarity and sense of positive power that gathered around the protesters I usually found that by the end of the march I felt alienated and dispassionate. I felt that way not about the cause, but about the gathering. It was hard to put my finger on what the problem was at first. Something about the tone: angry, self-righteous. Confrontational. In one phrase: us against them.

I don’t deny the existence of bad guys in the world. But I do think they are exceedingly rare. Duplicity, self-absorption, ignorance, opportunism- these are very real, and all of us are guilty, or at least I am. But real villains- they are few and far between. What I disliked about the energy of the protests was the sense that we were on the side of heaven- righteous, possessed of the truth, and in a holy wrath- and our opponents were benighted, evil, ignorant, and even subhuman- “pigs”, as one common slur goes.

There are three things I dislike about this approach. 1) It is not true. 2) The sense of righteousness- the sense of moral and intellectual superiority- can itself become an addicting brew, intoxicating the conscience and leading one to a view life through a distorting glass that renders everything falsely black and white. 3) This approach, so often hostile and dehumanizing, is both violent and ineffectual. It is violent because it is tainted with ill-will, and ineffective because it blocks off communication between parties in conflict and instead of reaching out to and activating the good in the other side. It provokes defensive postures with all the blindness they also bring.

Of the three the last may be most serious. As long as we demonize our opponents we will provoke them to withdraw behind defences and in turn demonize us.

Gandhi developed a strategy of political transformation which worked in precise opposition to the above dynamic, which he called satyagraha. It consisted of a combination of a commitment to non-violence with an appeal to what was highest in one’s opponent. “I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion….there must be no impatience, no barbarity, no insolence, no undue pressure.” (Prabhu and Rao, The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi).

Interestingly, Jesus used a similar method. A case in point is the story of Jesus and the tax collector Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). In this story Jesus is passing through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, having avoided the town’s desire to give him hospitality. A tax collector (ie. a wealthy Jewish collaborator with the Romans) runs ahead of Jesus and climbs into a tree to see him. Jesus, seeing Zaccheus, tells him that he will stay at his house. The crowd, up until now in love with the new celebrity preacher, becomes incensed. They would have expected Jesus to upbraid Zaccheus for being of the “1%” and lecture him on how he should quit cooperating with Rome and make restitution to his own people, a people afflicted with poverty and crushed beneath the heel of the Romans. But he doesn’t do that- instead, recognizing the potential good in Zaccheus, he appeals to that good point, showing the man honour and going into his house. Zaccheus, moved, in fact does pledge to make restitution to those he impoverished. He decides this his own free will, as a transformed man.

As the great African-American mystic Howard Thurman, a colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in Jesus and The Disinherited, it is surely a very important fact that when the great messenger of God arrived he was born as a dirt poor member of an oppressed minority living under colonial domination. As such Jesus made three important choices: 1) between resistance and accommodation he chose resistance; 2) between violence and non-violence he chose non-violence; and 3) rather than hating his enemy and cataloguing their wrongs he preached, “Love your enemy” and catalogued his own people’s wrongs.

This takes courage. When the Roman government is taxing you to death, outlawing your religious freedoms, killing your leaders as political dissidents, and who knows what else, it takes amazing hutzpah to wander the villages pointing out to your fellow Jews what they need to do to set their own spiritual and moral integrity in order.

What most interests me this approach is the way it undercuts the us versus them approach on two counts: 1) it slays the two-headed beast of self- glorification and denomination of others, with all the blindness it brings in its wake; and 2) makes room for dialogue through appealing to common humanity.

It is so nice to feel one is on the side of angels. Canadian and not American is how it sometimes goes where I live. A worker and not a boss. With the Palestinians and against the Israelis. A treehugger, not a resource manager. An atheist and not a religious nut. Or vice versa. But people, and life, are endlessly more complicated. Only with a careful, loving understanding can we come to anything like the truth of our common humanity, common needs, and common guilt.

And why do we need the truth? An old Jewish saying points out that the Hebrew word for truth (אמת) when written in in Hebrew, uses three letters that all have two legs. Falsehood, by contrast (שקר) is written with three letters that each have one leg or sit on a curve. The lesson? Falsehood is a bad foundation; only truth lasts. Denomination, half-truths, and manipulative propaganda will not produce lasting good. That can only arise from the complex and humbling truth.