So I started thinking a few days ago about us vs. them vs. Jesus. And I brought up this business about our needing to join with “them” in becoming “us” if we’re to have a Jesus-like influence in this world. Loving neighbor as “self” kind of stuff. The option being to fear neighbor as “other” and as opposed to “ourselves.”
There’s more to say about this stuff.
Matthew 18:12 and Luke 15:4 have been difficult verses for me to read over the years. These quote Jesus as asking his disciples which of them, if he were a shepherd, would not leave 99 sheep in the fold to go in search of a single lost sheep.
From my days of pastoring a parish, I can easily recall being aware of one person leaving the fold, so to speak. I cared about it, sometimes more than others depending on the individual (just being honest here), but I rarely got carried away in leaving the rest of our congregation to go looking for that one that got away. In my own mind as a prior clinician whose triaging of patients was to help those I could and not worry about the rest, I often told myself “they will return on their own when they are ready.” Occasionally they did. Mostly they did not.
Now it’s embarrassing to admit that if my own dog wanders the neighborhood away from home, I’ve been known to scour the yards and even streets nearby in search of her until I can finally coax her into her leash and return her to our own house and yard. But the notion of leaving the 99 behind and searching for one lost sheep, per Jesus’s example of God’s love, seemed altogether irrational to me. I would only rarely do as Jesus said in Matthew 18 and Luke 15 even as a pastor, supposedly shepherding Christ’s own flock.
Why this is now an issue way beyond myself these days is we, including the church here in this statement, are so busily engaged in being divided between the “us” and the “them” that we mostly lose sight of the “he” or “she” who belongs neither to “us” nor “them” and instead feels more like an “it.” These are the individuals, call them lost sheep, who fly beneath everyone’s radar until that day they tragically make the news. Investigators and even neighbors then describe them as “loners” who kept to themselves, “never caused any trouble” but were most often “alone” in the world.
So last night another apparently lone terrorist drove a truck through a busy street in Nice, France and killed 80 or more people in a pedestrian mall of sorts as they celebrated Bastille Day. Clearly it was an act of suicide that, once again, involved the idea I used to hear, on thankfully rare occasions from my counseling clients over the years, of “first taking out as many other people as possible” before committing what we call “suicide by cop.”
Not to alarm anyone, but my own educated guess is that on any given day there are millions of people around the world who are suicidal. Chances are the USA has its share among those millions. Many of these folks who are thinking about suicide that day are what might be called lost sheep. They feel little sense of “us” or “them.” Of these only a few hundred have an actual plan to commit suicide, and of those who do only a few dozen have a plan that includes homicide first before suicide. And even fewer of those actually have the means available to carry out that fantasy of “them first and then me.” Breaking numbers down a bit more one probably can rightly assume that some in the homicide-suicide category have somehow communicated the plan, at least vaguely, to at least one other person as a sort of “cry for help” in advance.
Treating this only as a numbers game and nothing more, tens of millions of lost sheep in today’s world suggests a risk of millions of suicidal individuals where maybe a single dozen or so individuals each week end up in a cry for help because they have a plan and a means that involves killing someone else first before taking or losing their own life. From there it is perhaps on average only one individual every day, one lost sheep, who will successfully carry out such a plan.
Now you may be thinking that today’s terrorist threat, both at home and abroad, is really the problem of “them” trying to kill “us.” Speaking only for myself, I used to think terrorism meant “them” killing “them” and didn’t get too worked up inside until Sept. 11, 2001 when my dear brother-in-law, Chuck Jones, happened to be a passenger on American Airlines flight #11 out of Boston bound for Los Angeles. That flight, you may recall, struck the first (north) tower of New York’s World Trade Center. And in doing so, “them” became for our grieving family and even to our grieving nation a new “us” on that day. From that day on, the problem of terrorism seemed like “them” trying to kill “us.”
I’m thinking that today’s primary terrorist threat is the problem of “them” trying to recruit “him” or “her” who feels painfully like an “it” and is tired of being a lost sheep. Who wants nothing more than to have an “us” with whom to belong and to identify.
Further thinking of my own “us” as a Nation, and even in smaller circles as a community of Jesus followers sometimes called the Christian Church, the only solution for “us” that comes to my mind is doing what Jesus himself said to do. That is when he challenged us to leave the insiders and go out looking for the outsider. When, as part of that larger command to love neighbor as self, he called us to make all outsiders, every last one, insiders. Because doing so would serve even our own best interest in the long run.
To the lost sheep, the isolated individual, who still has no “us” to identify or belong with, everyone else is a “them.” Everyone else could mean ISIS, Al Qaeda, United States, France, Belgium, or even the Church of Jesus Christ. And so the question is which “them” will be first on the scene to offer an “us” identity that will end the pain of being an “it?” Which group of insiders will be first to help each outsider feel he or she belongs, feel needed, feel worthy, feel like one of “us.” And, bear with my own clinical assessment here, feel the suffering of his or her own suicide will at least have the meaning of helping “our” cause.
Now the real danger comes.
That is when we turn a deaf ear to the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:12 and Luke 15:4 and just assume he didn’t really mean what he said. When we assume the lost sheep is not really lost but is part of them, so why bother looking or finding. When we instead, pouring oil on our current grease fire of terrorism, keep the outsider outside. Keep him out. Build a wall. Turn him away. And then imagine we are somehow protecting “us” in the process.
There is the danger. There is the risk. There is the reason Jesus may have brought up that sore subject in the first place of turning away from the insiders of “us” in search of the outsider who God created to also belong with “us” in this world. With Jesus there is no “them” and no “it” that must hide behind a wall of despair and exclusion. Be they lepers, demoniacs, or any other form of outcast, there is to God through Jesus only an “us.”
When we have us vs. them, we also have us vs. Jesus. We are, if you will, separated from God by the oppositional nature of our own sin. To connect with Jesus, we must leave the “us” who opposes any neighbor as “them.” We must in losing the old “us” lay down our own lives as a lost sheep who feels now like only an “it.” For that is when Jesus comes to seek and to save the lost “wretch like me.”
Jesus saves us to use us to then become the greater “US” in this world who find each lost sheep before ISIS, the neighborhood gang, the “hate” group’s social network or flashy website, and anyone else can. Which leads to the question of how do we do that? The answer will include your own brainstormed “what if” kind of ideas in the comment space below. The answer is up to “us.”