Us and Them

Romans 4:13-end, Mark 8:31-end

I spent this week in a place I knew well from a distance, but had never previously been. Together with 50 other Anglican clergy, I’ve been in Northern Ireland. I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s hearing about places like the Shankill and Falls Roads, Londonderry, Bogside, and Armagh. These were the names of places that we heard about on the news. They were places far away where bad things happened - places associated with the IRA and the UVF, with Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, with bombings, atrocities and terrorism.

And this week, for the first time, I was there. We went to Belfast, where we met people who had been very senior in the IRA and the UVF, and Londonderry and then to a beautiful Christian community called Corymeela, which has been dedicated to peace building since the start of the Troubles. 

And what I saw is that in Northern Ireland everything is contested. Everything is a source of disagreement. Everything is part of a struggle to define communities as ‘us’ or ‘them.’

Most obviously there is a fundamental dispute about land - is Northern Ireland British or Irish? Locally, on the ground, that’s shown in the way different spaces are marked out; Union Jacks in the Unionist areas, Irish orange and greens in the Republican areas; murals sing the praise of the UVF and UDF fighters in East Belfast, the same kind of wall paintings remember IRA heroes in West Belfast - and in between the two, huge ‘peace walls’ which even now divide the communities from one another. In fact these walls are higher now than they were in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed - and more shocking than that, the gates through which the main roads pass are still locked at night.

But it’s not just the land; language, history, education, religion - everything is a way of defining identity. Everything says ‘us’ and ‘them’. Everything says ‘our identity’ and ‘their identity. ‘

The word identity is related to the word identical - it’s about being the same. Our identity comes from people who are the same as us. We like to be with people who are like us. People who see the world like we do, who care about the same things as us, decorate their houses in the same way, have the same values. That’s as true in Kent as it is in Northern Ireland. And at one level that’s good and right. We need to have an identity - without it we’re rootless and lack a sense of who we are and where we’ve come from. 

But the trouble is that it is very easy to over-identify with those who are the same as us. We define ourselves with people who are like us, and as we do that, it’s very easy - very easy indeed - to begin to define ourselves as different from the people who aren’t like us. For our identity to become about how we’re ‘not like them’. 

And we see that played out throughout human history and in every setting. From school playgrounds to local communities to nations.

And because this is all about identity - about who I am deep down - any threat to our identity becomes a threat to our very existence, which therefore has to be defended. The trouble is that those we have decided are a ‘them’ also think they’re right, and perceive our defence as an attack and so defend themselves and so we get into a cycle of attack and defence in which both side is sure they are right and the other is wrong. One of the very striking things about Northern Ireland is that both sides of the conflict are absolutely convinced that they are the victim and the other is the attacker.  

It seems as if there is a constant fault line running through all this identity stuff - we need to know who we are; we need an identity - but there is always a temptation for our identity to be defined over and against others.

And it’s in that context that we hear the gospel story today. 

In Mark 8 Jesus is shifting gears. Up to this point in Mark’s gospel he has been healing people, telling stories about God’s kingdom and performing astonishing miracles. 

And now for the first time he clearly says what’s going to happen. He tells them that he is going to be arrested, that he’s going to suffer and that he will be killed. 

But Peter is having none of it. He takes Jesus to one side and ‘rebukes’ him - and ‘rebuke’ is a strong word. Peter is telling Jesus that he is wrong.

Peter has already given up his life to follow Jesus. He has become his disciple. And the job of a disciple is to become like his Master - to let his identity be shaped by his Master. And that’s fine while Jesus is doing amazing things - who wouldn’t want to identify with someone who can cure the sick and tell great stories and turn 3 loaves into food for 5,000?

And Peter thinks he gets what Jesus is doing; Jesus is the Messiah. He has spoken about the Kingdom of God. At his baptism, he has clearly been blessed by the Holy Spirit and his heavenly father who have declared their pleasure at Jesus. This all makes sense. Jesus is part of the Jewish ‘us’ and he has come to sort out ‘them’ - mainly the Romans, but also the system of Jewish leadership which has failed Israel. This is Peter’s culture - this is his identity and he understands it. 

So when Jesus challenges that identity by suggesting he’s deliberately heading for colossal failure, by dying on a cross, Peter is furious. He goes on the attack. Jesus is suggesting he isn’t an ‘us’ after all - in fact he’s going to give in to ‘them’. This is not an identity Peter can accept.

But Jesus, in front of all the disciples, rebukes Peter in turn in words that even today, 2000 years later, shock us -  ‘get behind me Satan’. Not - ‘you’re mistaken’, not - ‘let me try to explain again’; ‘Get behind me Satan.’

This is Jesus facing the temptation that we all face - the temptation to turn our identity into a form of defence and division, and Jesus is not there for that. He has come to break the cycle of victim and attacker.

How? By going to the cross as a victim, the victim of all the hatred of the crowds and the Romans, and as the victim of the hatred of every other ‘us’ who sets themselves up against a ‘them’ and he is going to break the cycle. He takes it all into his own body and he looks down on those who have done this to him - to the soldiers, to the crowds, to Peter who has just denied him… and to you and to me, as we join the same endless cycle of us against them, and as he does so we realise there is no ‘us and them’ for him. We are all ‘them’, we have all done this to him, we are all the attackers, we are all guilty, and he says…..Father forgive….he is the victim who refuses to respond, the victim who says ‘no more’. No more us and them. He is the victim who takes it all into himself and says ‘it ends here’. I forgive you.

Reflecting on what that meant a few years later, Paul understood that this means that when we accept Jesus as Lord, we get a new identity, an identity which can celebrate who we are, but which cannot allow us to find ultimate meaning in our nation, in our colour, in our language or our race. Galatians 3:28 - ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.’ And he might have added in Northern Ireland, ‘neither republican nor loyalist, nor Catholic or Protestant.’ 

And we might want to ask ourselves what he says to us here in Goudhurst / Kilndown. What is the cycle of ‘them and us’ that we are part of?

If you are baptised, marked with the sign of the cross, you are changed. You no longer belong to the cycle of ‘us’ and ‘them’ - you belong to Christ in whom there is no difference between any of us; we are all guilty and we are all forgiven. 

If you are in Christ that is where you belong, that is where your deepest identity lies. Not in your family background, your bank account or who you voted for. Not in any of those things you think make you ‘you’. Your deepest identity is in Christ. It is Jesus who tells you who you really are. It’s Jesus who tells you who you are to be like. It’s Jesus that you are called, step by faltering step, to become identical with. 

While we were in Northern Ireland we met all sorts of people - including men and women of violence who had taken steps towards peace. But all of them remained deeply suspicious of their opponents and all of them were still fundamentally defined by their republican or loyalist identity. 

But we met a few who were different. People who had stepped out of their community identity and who we could see were ‘a new creation’. People who were friends with people from the other side, and who had forgiven those who had hurt them. They knew that their deepest identity lay elsewhere - not in the land, in their history, in their language or their experience of suffering, but in Jesus Christ.

They are witnesses to us here too - far away from the struggles of Northern Ireland -  but just as tempted to hang on to our own, human identity. They point us to a different and better way, the way of identification with Jesus Christ in whom we live and move and have our being. In whom we find our identity. 


Hugh Nelson