Ben O’Dell has worked with the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships (formerly the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives) for over 14 years. Over the past two administrations, Ben has had the opportunity to advise and support partnerships between the federal government and faith and community partners. Ben received his Master’s Degree in Organizational Development and Knowledge Management in 2007 from the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. He resides in Centreville with his wife, Kristin, and their two daughters. All views expressed here are the personal views of author.
Me, we, them and us. Four pronouns that affect so much. They can lead to words we don't like including racism and partisanship. They can catch us in traps, even in our own minds, as we just read them. They conjure up notions for each and every one of us, whether we think about it or not. They are words we live by, words we need in our vocabulary even when we leave them unexamined and don't reflect on their meaning.
Even when examined and known by the speaker, these powerful words more often lead to struggle than to answers. Those who wrestle with these words place themselves in others’ shoes, seeing the world through the eyes of someone else to see what these words mean to someone else. They are challenged by what they see, but they might not know what to do about it.
But let’s examine them. They are important words to wrestle with, so let’s wrestle with them now. It will be worth your time. These are the words that allow you and I to understand what you and I mean, to me, to them, to we, and to us.
Today, there is far too much me. I can't speak for your "me," so let me just tell you a little about my "me," and you can let me know if anything resonates: I am selfish. On some level, I crave fame. I don't think I should be famous for doing anything. I think, and I think I was trained to think, that "I" am something worth celebrating, regardless of whether or not I actually do anything. I think my culture reinforces these base tendencies, telling me that if I buy this product or go on this vacation, I will finally be something. I seek what I can get. I am mad when I don't get my way, because I think I deserve my way. I think I am so important and so valuable to the world that I deserve my way.
While I don't know about you, increasingly, this "me" is getting tired of being selfish. Marriage will push this out of me, will push me out me. I am finding that being a parents is driving what remained of selfishness out of me. Me seems so small these days. I seek, I desire, I want less of me and more we.
So often, we turn to we after we grow past me. This is important—we is a powerful word. It can bring people together, and we certainly don't have enough of people coming together these days. We can do much more than me alone. We is worth getting excited about. We is going to go somewhere.
There is jut one little problem with we: Far too often, we is defined by me. We is the people who are similar to me, who get me, who relate well to me. We gets caught in that selfishness of me that I so desperately try to put aside.
And when we is defined by me, a them is inevitably created.
We often define we not by saying what we are for, but in comparison to who we are against: them. We don't define who we are together, but instead often define ourselves by saying, "Well at least we are not them." This is especially true in an increasingly polarized political environment. We becomes a particular political party or people who share a specific point of view; those who disagree with us become "those people." Them becomes demonized and made the enemy. In the end, we are shocked when someone in our we turns out to be one of them.
And on top of that, we is a whole lot easier when we are more similar than we are different. We is easy when we are all the same. We each know where the others in we are coming from. We can assume certain things are similar and they probably are. And that just reinforces for us that all the thems out there are different.
From a Christian point of view, here is the problem with them: Them are children of the Living God, imbued with the image of God, as is all of his creation. Them are brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we will stand shoulder to shoulder at the Throne of God, when every tribe, tongue and nation declares God as King.
Them are the marginalized and broken with whom Christ chose to spend time with over the we of Israel's elite.
Them are both the individuals in the street advocating for Black Lives Matter who feel their very lives are threatened by the color of their skin or the color of their friends' or family's skin.
Them are also the police officers who serve valiantly, often in the face of danger to their own lives.
In these, and in so many more circumstances that have come before these days, and in so many more circumstances that will come after these days, them are the people you are called to love rather than ostracize.
On our path to have more we, we have to grow past making “we” just more “me’s.” To seek the flourishing in our communities and with those around us, to seek the good of the city, we have to learn how to have more "us."
Paul points out in his first letter to the church in Corinth that we are a Body made of many different parts: hands, feet, toes, fingers and all points in between. Paul points out this temptation toward them differences in the body. Hands want to be feet and feet want to be hands. But Paul's metaphor points out the problem with we and them: The eye unto itself is not much good without the diversity inherent in the body. Paul encourages us to to celebrate the inherent interdependence of our diversity. He brings together that which is different into a unified whole.
We rejoices when we get all the hands together and clap, celebrating all the great things hands can do. Intentional or not, the hands are implicitly dismissing the great work of feet and toes, while feet and toes are made to feel sad that they can't clap.
Us rejoices when there is not just clapping, but dancing—hands, arms, torso and mind all working together in symmetry. Clapping is fine and good, but dancing is an opportunity for greatness, for wonder.
Us is the flourishing of not just the we who are like I but also of those not like we. Us requires diversity and acknowledges the strength that such diversity brings to our collective function.
But us is not easy. When you get right down to it, our collective functioning might be better described as miracle rather than natural. It takes work and yet, in some ways, when we consider the body analogy, it takes no work at all. It is how we were meant to be.
So let’s work, me and you, toward more us, bringing in those other people, and do some more dancing.
"Dance" With Your Church or Small Group
Are you looking for ways you can put this vision of "us" into practice this election year? Our new Bible study and discussion guide, Light to the World: Making Politics Safe for Christian Community, is a great place to start.
Ben has worked with the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships (formerly the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives) for over 14 years. Over the past two administrations, Ben has had the opportunity to advise and support partnerships between the federal government and faith and community partners. He resides in Centreville, VA, with his wife and their two daughters.