Us vs. Them or Just Us?

Over the past two weekends, I’ve been performing in the chorus for a Christmas concert with the local symphony orchestra. Among the many prepared remarks the director used to transition between pieces, he always commented on one particular moment during the sing-along portion of the concert, when the orchestra would briefly stop playing and the choir and audience would sing a few measures of “Silent Night” a capella. In that moment, he said, it didn’t matter whether we were male or female, black, white, Hispanic or Asian, gay or straight, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, we were just 1800 human beings in harmony; in a world that keeps trying to make everything about “us vs. them,” we were just “us.”

This message invariably received an enthusiastic response, which made me wonder how it can be so broadly resonant and yet so unreflective of society at large. It’s clearly a message we want to hear, yet we remain stuck in “us vs. them” mode in spite of ourselves. More cynically perhaps, were audiences applauding a message of unity and harmony and then going right back into tribalism? Were some simply wishing that “they” could hear this speech?

Maybe we are simply war-weary. Maybe most of us on some level want to believe there is no “us vs. them” because we’re tired of fighting. We’re tired of everything being made an epic battle for everything that matters. And yet the fatigue is compounded by fear: the fear that if “we” let our guard down too long, “they” will win. We are war-weary, but still afraid.

And so maybe we want to be “just us,” but we’re not there yet. And if the occasional ripple of knowing laughter at the mention of political labels is any indication, the audience knew this. And while an auditorium full of 1800 people singing in harmony can’t be a bad place to start, it will take more than a few measures of “Silent Night” to get us there. It will take something that goes deeper, beyond either “us vs. them” tribalism or sentimental indifferentism. Somehow, we will need to work through the real differences that do exist, rather than wishing them away by pretending they aren’t there.

To the director’s credit, he did go a step further by encouraging the audience to be “more radical” in offering hospitality and forgiveness and asking forgiveness. Maybe something like that, if it goes beyond merely a nice sentiment, is at least the beginning of an answer. It may even begin to touch on what are traditionally called the theological virtues, as this appeal to radical hospitality and forgiveness led into the concert’s final piece, an arrangement of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” that highlighted the turning in Longfellow’s text from despair to an eschatological hope for the here and now, to a faith that is the opposite of fear, to the radical practice of charity – yes, even toward “them,” from Trumpers to Berniecrats, or whoever that insidious “them” is to each of us.

And in despair I bowed my head.

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

 

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