Us and Them

John Tucker

*I am not a professional linguistic philosopher.  I am not sure what I think about most of what I read about linguistics.  I have found George Lakoff stimulating, especially his book “Metaphors We Live By (Co-Authored with Mark Johnson).”  I am also indebted to Ludwig Wittgenstein and his insight that the meaning of words is determined by how they are used and in what context they are used rather than by previously agreed upon definitions.  

There are many different “us/thems” in our world today.  As an Alabama football fan, I am part of an “us” group that would include many “thems” if we were talking about anything else.  We may cheer the same football team, but many of my fellow Alabama fans are on what I consider the wrong side when it comes to race, gender, sexual orientation, taxes and healthcare.  I am part of other “us” groups as well.  In this essay, I want to consider two different “us” groups where I supposedly have membership.  The groups are “citizens of the United States” and “members of the United Methodist Church.”

Nationalism is on the rise. Fueled by the election of our current president, many of our fellow citizens have formed a group that I would not consider joining.  To me, they are a “them.” They would call me the same thing.  In the United Methodist Church, there is a denominational purity movement calling itself the Wesleyan Covenant Association that I would also consider as a “them” in contrast to my “us.” I am not going to talk about bridging the gulf that lies between these particular “us/thems.”  Instead I want to talk about what constitutes my “us” in a way that I have not heard articulated elsewhere.

Truth be known, I have more in common with progressive minded Buddhists and atheists than I do with Christian fundamentalists or Wesleyan Covenant associates.   We may all talk about Wesley and Methodism and scripture but my “us” group tends to use these words in different ways than the “them” of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  I am tempted to call these words homonyms.  The sentence, “The baseball pitcher drank from a pitcher of water,” is an example where the homonym is pitcher.  I would suggest that this is a similar sentence, “The Wesleyan Covenant Association honors a scripture not present in scripture.” Whatever the case with our word usage, the fact remains that I feel like my progressive kinfolk in other faith or no faith traditions are closer to me than some of my denominational kinfolk in United Methodism.

What I have said about the church I could also say about our nation.  In some ways, I have more in common with progressives in other parts of the world than I do with conservatives in the United States.  When I hear conservatives using the word “patriotism” it sounds just like fundamentalists using the word “faithfulness.”  Both groups are using these words in service to larger conceptual narratives that I regard as evil and dangerous.  They would say the same thing about me and my group.  What this means is that much of what we call “unity” is defined by shared histories and/or shared geographies rather than shared values.  I do not offer any judgment about what that means or should mean, I simply comment on what I take to be an observable fact.

Many of my progressive kinfolk will raise the issue that there should be no “us/them” groupings.  While I applaud the aspiration, I think it is conceptually naïve.  I think that “us/them” distinctions are as necessary for the development of human identities as is the “I/you” distinction.  These distinctions need not always be adversarial, but I am always going to have people with whom I identify and people with whom I do not.  Should we seek understanding? Of course.  Should we insist that we ignore important differences? Good luck with that.  I believe that when progressives try to eradicate the conceptual distinction between “us/them” they are forgetting that the concept of the Kingdom of God (or Kin-dom of God if you prefer) derives its meaning from contrast.  The usage of “Kingdom of God’ occurs when people are living in unjust, non-empathetic, predatory communities.  The usage has no meaning apart from the context of drawing a desired contrast.  Because it is a contrast based concept, it creates an “us/them.”  As Jesus said on more than one occasion, some have ears to hear and others do not.

To clarify the conceptual nature of “us/them” so that it can be separated from visions of utopia where such a concept disappears, consider how human beings learn spatial orientation concepts.  I would imagine that one does not learn the concept “up” without simultaneously learning the concept “down.”  This may be because we are not dealing with two different concepts. “Up/down” may be the name of a single concept of vertical orientation so that one learns both “up” and “down” when one learns either.  The same is likely true for “above/below” and “top/bottom.”  It may be true, though I am not certain, for “right/left” which would be a concept of horizontal orientation (actually, “here/there” or “this/that” would be more analogous with “up/down”).  It would not be true of “east/west” however as that involves learning more concepts than directional orientation.  It might be true of “right/wrong” in that one may not be able to learn how to use the concept of “correctness” without also learning the concept of “incorrectness.”  Again, “right/wrong” may simply refer to a single concept relating to accuracy, measurability or accountability depending on the context.

There are other word pairings that tend to also be learned together but that are not conceptually related and do not stand in opposition to one another.  “Salt and pepper” is probably an example of associated learning though they do not stand in a conceptual relationship like “up/down.”  What unites “salt and pepper” with “up/down” is that they are both learned in a community that trains its members in how to think and talk.  I imagine that “insiders/outsiders” or “us/them” are pivotal to community development and coherence.  Again, this coherence would only arise when contrast arises.  If my “us” is the only group I know, I do not even conceive of my group as an “us.”  It is just the way things are.

I say all of that to say that we live in a world where contrast plays a tremendous role in how we learn to think and speak.  The “us/them” contrast makes it possible for me to call myself a follower of Jesus (in contrast with those who are not), a progressive (in contrast to those who are regressive), and a desired citizen in the Kin-dom of God (in contrast to those who equate Christianity with nationalism or doctrinal loyalty).  The point I am making is that currently, I have membership in communities with titles like The United States or The United Methodist Church and these titles are becoming decreasingly descriptive of the real communities I inhabit.  I do not think I am alone in this experience.

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