Getting past the "They"

I've been thinking a lot recently about the concept of "they" and this habit we have of lumping people into groups. We're so good at doing that. We automatically separate everyone into various groups and slap labels on them so we can refer to them as some aggregate entity. I get why we do it. It's easier to deal with people that way. We don't get bogged down in all of the details that don't matter to whatever the topic of the day is. It's much easier to say "They said this" and "They want to do that."

It's such a natural part of our lives that we do it without even thinking about it. Here's a quick thought experiment to try. Be honest with yourself about what comes into your mind when you read the following description of me.

I am a white, middle-class, Christian who leans conservative politically, wants to reduce abortion, owns a gun and thinks taxes are too high.

Most of you labeled me into a certain political subset instinctively. And you most likely have made assumptions about my views on a lot of things based on that label. You folks are wrong.

I'm also against the death penalty, in favor of some forms of affirmative action, think Rush Limbaugh is a gigantic blowhard, and don't believe all gay people are automatically going to hell.

Some of you may have just switched that label to something else. You're wrong, too.

The problem is that when we categorize people blindly into groups like that, we start to see them only as members of those groups and we end up never seeing any of the details, mostly because of the assumptions that we have attached to the group as a whole. Oftentimes, we won't even try to connect with someone based on those assumptions because we think there just won't be anything in common to connect on. And that is the real tragedy for everyone involved. We end up hiding in our own self-assigned groups and never forming any relationships with people who can open us up to new viewpoints and new experiences, and for whom we can do the same. It's like our own little filter bubble where we only associate with people who think the same way we do. And that only reinforces the pre-existing assumptions.

This type of grouping isn't anything new. It has been happening throughout all of human history. It has played a major part in every war or political struggle down through the ages. During World War II, the US went to war against the "Germans" and the "Japanese" in spite of the fact that the vast majority of those people didn't have anything to do with the reasons for the war. We say that the "Christian Right" want to do such and such or the "Liberal Elite" are against something or other. Whether it's race, gender, social status, economic group, sexual orientation, or what multinational corporation they work for, we usually end up viewing — and treating — people however we view their respective groups. It's much easier to justify our viewpoints that way.

It's easy to go to war against "Germans" but it's a lot harder to pull the trigger against a guy named Hans who has a wife named Ilse and two young kids at home and is just doing his job the same as you are. Governments have always known this. In order to send people to kill other people you need to dehumanize them. To make them a part of something bigger and more ominous than they are by themselves. They are then guilty by association and you're chipping away at the big thing and it's not about individuals. And while there is some measure of validity to that, that doesn't really matter when Ilse and the kids get the news that Hans isn't coming home.

These groups that we create in our minds are just that. They are mental creations that only exist for the purpose of segregating and dehumanizing people but they are made up of people — real people with real lives and real families and real concerns — and how vigorously we define people into them depends a lot on how removed we are from them. For example, the question of whether gay marriage is important to you or not changes drastically when you have friends or family members who are gay. Issues of homelessness and the poor mean something different to people who live and work in urban neighborhoods. Racial differences are viewed solely from the frame of reference of your race. And so, the concerns and views that are nearest to you become the right ones and the others are, by definition, wrong.  Or worse, you don't even know what they are.

What I tried to point out earlier is that people are complex and intertwined and nuanced and don't fit into our neat little cubbyholes very well. It's entirely possible to agree with some group whole-heartedly on one thing and disagree just as strongly on others. It's not neat and tidy but it's reality. And God doesn't see us as groups. He sees each of us as our individual selves with all of the complexities and intricacies of our unique personalities. He is, after all, the creator and designer of that uniqueness. He sees and understands us as we really are and He loves all of us as if we're the only one there is. To Him, we're not Christian or Muslim or Atheist, we're not conservative or liberal, we're not white or black or asian, we're not gay or straight. We're His creation and Christ died for all of us. For each of us.

We are all the same when it boils down to it. Despite the external differences, the opposite opinions about this or that, we all want and need the same things. And we all need Jesus. And in order to help each other through this life, we need to find the things that unite us and lose sight of those that divide us because, ultimately, it doesn't matter.

News flash - there won't be white people in heaven. There won't be black people either. There won't be straight or gay or poor or rich or American or French or German. There will only be those who have accepted Christ as their Savior. That's all it comes down to - is Jesus your Lord or not? Not only does the other stuff not really matter in the long run, it generally gets in the way of us being able to be effective conduits of God's love. In order to love people, you have to know them. The real them. That means getting past the labels, past the group mentality. We have to get past the "they" and into the "we".

I'm not even close to being there yet but this is what I'm working on. My prayer for this post is that God will open my eyes to the uniqueness of everyone, that I will break out of this grouping mindset, and that I might be able to see people as He sees them.

And since we all need to be reminded now and then of what our default setting is and of the need to break free of it...