Here’s a picture that I have. The human brain is set up to identify things in pairs. Foreground and background, up, down and so on. The human being is a social animal so that being part of a group is important to us all. It is the group that can keep us safe from potential danger. So one of the pairs that we are hard wired to have is ‘them and us.’ Having a ‘them’ group makes for cohesion in the ‘us’ group. Having a ‘them’ group stops us from really looking at the problems of the ‘us’ group. Politicians of all ages have known this, and so play up the fears of the ‘us’ group in order to create cohesion, and to make for a docile population.
All you have to do is to look at the period of the ‘cold war’. Then the Russians were the enemy. There were senate hearings and a black listing of left wing people. The famous question echoed in our ears ‘Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party?’ The threat of nuclear war made for all kinds of legislation that ‘kept us in line’.
With ‘détente’ instead of the Russians we had to go into Vietnam to stop the ‘Downward thrust of Chinese Communism’. But soon the Chinese became our new best friends, the Russians ‘lost’ the cold war, and we had talk about the ‘Peace Dividend’ for about five minutes. I think that this period of time was so short partly because the absence of an ‘other’ the absence of a ‘them’ made us more anxious than having an enemy did.
Obligingly, in rush the Muslims to fill the gap. We are having no more deaths from terrorism now than in the 1970s when we had the Red Army Faction, and the Red Brigade, and the PLO. There are more deaths on the roads, and in plane crashes, and by the Police in the US than from terrorism. But we are more afraid of terrorism now than we were then. Then, terrorism was a by product of the cold war. Our need for a ‘them’ was already full up, so we have to find another place for the terrorists. But now, the major sources of ‘them’ have gone! It is time for other groups to become ‘them’ for ‘us’.
The thing is, that this basic structure, then filters down into a myriad of small events and anecdotes that reinforce the ‘them-ness’ of ‘them.’ This is how the fear is perpetuated. This is how at the micro level of conversation in the supermarket, or over dinner the larger social movement is perpetuated.
All this re-writing of ideas that I have had for a while was occasioned for me by the fact that two people last week either sent me e.mails about Muslims, or told me stories about them. One was an e.mail listing the number of mosques built in European cities in the last little while. The comment was ‘This is scary’. But why should it be so? Why do we not say ‘What a brilliant example of multiculturalism and integration. Look how all the Mosques and Churches are getting together to help the poor and refugees and to help newcomers get to know their neighbours!” This is an entirely possible and reasonable response to the building of mosques. But I think, that because of the fear that has already been engendered, the most common reaction to the building of mosques is ‘This is Scary.’
Another person spoke of the terror that a mother must feel hearing the news that her son has been beheaded. This is a genuine comment. It shows the real grief of a person whose loved one has been killed. The manner of their death was designed to strike terror into our hearts. It does. But this terror ought not be multiplied up into supporting our ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking.
Recently a Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down by a Russian built ground to air missile. Who launched it? We don’t know, but it came from the Ukraine. Hundreds of people were killed. But we don’t go around saying ‘Oh, there are too many Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in our land. Those Ukrainians, we shouldn’t trust them!’. We don’t make a ‘them’ out of this situation because our ‘them’ space is already full, and because we all fly, we can’t afford to build into our reality the fact that we might be killed. But we can displace our generalised anxiety onto the ‘Muslims.’
Another person told me that they saw a video of refugees refusing food packages because, being Muslims, they came from the ‘Red Cross’. The problem is that this is not so. The refugees were saying ‘No’ because they had been waiting, in the rain, to cross the border and were not being allowed to do so. Their ‘No’ was not to the Red Cross, but to the Police, refusing to let them cross. Here is a link for this information. http://www.ilpost.it/2015/08/25/debunking-migrants-video-red-cross-macedonia/
But it is conservative Christian groups who are being duped into repeating these stories. Conservative groups are especially prone to ‘us and them’ thinking, and so are especially vulnerable to being exploited by the fear-mongering of those in whose interests it is to stur up fear.
One of the worst effects of making others into a ‘Them’ is that they start to act like ‘them’
An Australian Muslim spokesperson described how, that if a group of school children or young people perceive that they are being made into a ‘them’ then they will respond in kind. She says “If you alienate a community or there is a level of perceived injustice from young people, you will create the very thing you fear”
In the same newspaper, came a story about a protester who was demonstrating outside a mosque. The worshipers went over to her, engaged her in conversation, and then one of them gave her a hug. The protest ended.
My response is something like that. I think that we should be putting more effort into getting to know where the mosques in our area are, and in going to visit them. Instead of making them into an ‘us’ we should get to know our neighbours, and love them!
Second, I think that instead of looking over the fence at what ‘they’ are doing, we can be more committed to what we are doing as Christians. Instead of saying ‘We are all right, and they are not, we could ask ‘How can we improve our Christian commitment’. This would send a message that Christians are not decadent, lazy ‘cultural Christians’ but that there is a real commitment, and something worth dying for in the Faith. We are not prepared to kill for it, but to suffer for it. This has been the way of the Church ever since St. Stephen was martyred.
“Yet cheerful he, to suffering goes, that he his foes from thence might save.’ Why don’t we sing this hymn instead of doing the job of the fear-mongers for them by spreading stories about Muslims.