I am convinced most [humans] hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don't know each other. They don't know each other because they don't communicate with each other. And they don't communicate with each other because they are separated from each other. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As a child, I had a penchant for dividing things into boxes. I remember standing in the grocery check out line frantically putting misplaced candy back in its proper box, long after my mom had exited the store. My mom's hairdresser paid me to sort through her big box of curlers and retrieve anything that did not belong - spare change (my payment!), bobby pins, bottle caps, combs and the like. I craved that sense of order, everything in its right place, nothing that did not belong.
I have to confess, I did the same with people. With the naivete of a child, I sorted people into good guys and bad guys, us and them. My religious education largely supported me in this; I was taught to believe God sorted people - wheat from chaff, children of light vs children of darkness, sheep from goats. Those who believed the right things, prayed the right prayers, did the right things, did not do the wrong things, we were in God's box. And everyone else was outside the box; we'd pity you and pray for you, but hey, you chose to be out there. It was a neat and orderly system. And how convenient that I was always in the right box!
Thankfully, God is merciful and kind, and started working in me. I came to see quite painfully that I was not all that. I could believe and pray and do the "right" things, but I knew my heart held both light and darkness, love and judgment, wheat and chaff. Some days, I could be very sheep-like, but other days, I was pure goat. I didn't live out a tenth of what Jesus taught. I had far more in common with the Pharisees, whom Jesus regularly criticized, than those with whom Jesus usually hung out, the ones who knew they were not all that. And my little proclivity for dividing people into insiders and outsiders had no place in Jesus' life. He was always breaking down those divisions, hanging out with those considered "other," the marginalized, the "unclean." His was a radical ministry of inclusion. If anyone was left out, it was the self-righteous ones who looked down upon others.
God also started orchestrating encounters with the "others." Having grown up in segregated Savannah and gone to an all-white Christian school, I was paired with a black roommate in a summer honors program. On a college foreign study trip to the Middle East and Africa, I had my first real conversations with Jews and Muslims, and with people in the "third world." When I went to seminary, I was hired as a youth minister along with an openly gay Christian classmate. Before I was ever hired as a pastor at Saint Mark, I had my first exchange with a transgendered woman. I won't lie to you; I sometimes thought and prayed God would use me to change them. I humbly learned I was the one in need of conversion. God was out to liberate me from my dividing, labeling, judging mind, to slowly but surely expand the capacity of my heart for love, to wash my eyes clean so that I would come to see everyone, everyone, everyone as a beautiful, beloved child of God. There is only Us. We're all in the same box together. And being Christian is not about being right, but about being in right relationship.
In our current socio-political climate, much of the discourse is bent on exploiting our fear, if not inciting hatred, of the "other", dividing us into good guys and bad guys, scapegoating the "Them." I pray we don't fall prey to this fear mongering and divisiveness. I pray we seek leaders who come closer to embodying Jesus' mercy and radical inclusivity. And I pray we open ourselves to the lives of those who are "other" than us. We may just be surprised who God wants to convert.