The other crowd. Do you know who I mean? Them. The ones not like us. The ones we would like to be friends with if only they would get their act together and start seeing things my way.
What do we do about the other crowd? That question can start a war, destabilise a country, spark a riot, divide a religious denomination or split a family. It has done all of those. Many times. Like dust particles in the air that are seen only in a beam of sunlight, the issue of “the other lot” is always there, whether seen or not.
If there’s an “us” there’s a “them.” Any grouping or gathering of like-minded people will have its version of “the other crowd” – the ones who are different when measured by race or politics or religion or learning or taste or wealth or folk-dancing ability. “Them”’ are the ones who don’t think like us, act like us, agree with us, and maybe don’t even tolerate us.
For people who consider themselves to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth the issue of the other crowd matters. It is also complex. Wasn’t one of Jesus’s best known injunctions that his followers should “love your enemies?” “Enemies” is really just an extreme version of the other crowd. The notion of loving them produces all sorts of dilemmas. How do you love those you can’t stand? What if they have no interest in being loved by us?
Would it be easier to start off a little closer to home? “The other crowd” could be seen as a spectrum rather than a single camp. If Jesus followers are the “violet” then the enemies are at the far end of the rainbow, the “red” end if I remember the rainbow rhyme correctly. They are those who oppose followers of Jesus, perhaps through violence, imprisonment and murder. Such people do exist.
But much closer to violet on the spectrum is “indigo,” perhaps those who don’t follow Jesus but do believe in one God. Who might belong where on the rest of the spectrum? Where do you put the agnostics who admire Jesus? And the pacifist atheists? This kind of pondering shows that while “us” and “them” language may be needed for clarity, it is a simplification of a complex and nuanced collection of people and views.
And while we ponder is it worth asking how we think God views the other crowd? Some of our own crowd have extreme views on this. Some hold that everyone, no matter what they have done in life, is loved by God and will be forgiven all in the end. No exceptions. All saved. Then there’s those that believe only those who hold their particular beliefs will make the grade – all others damned.
Most Jesus-followers reject these extremes. But how God might view people who don’t appear to follow Jesus and don’t want to is not a simple question. And Jesus doesn’t make it any simpler. He frequently seems to use black and white language and just as frequently seems to prefer the company of the non-religious to the religious. And he goes out of his way to connect with morally suspect people.
My wife remembers a conversation with her friend Breda years ago. Breda mentioned that a friend was coming to visit. My wife asked if the friend was a Christian. “I don’t divide my friends like that, “ Breda responded, “she’s a good friend.” This non-judgemental stance may attract us but following Jesus also means sharing his offer of “life in all its fullness” and that means working on the assumption that many people don’t have it and do need it.
Sit a while and eavesdrop on Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4. She is a quadruple outsider to Jesus – gender, religion, race and morality. But he starts, not with her “otherness” but what they have in common – they both need water. He asks for help, then offers help. He doesn’t shirk big questions but refuses to be bound by what divides them. He pays attention, listens carefully and respectfully. Eventually she leaves, not with a new certainty but with a new question – “could this be the Messiah?” Jesus’ posture in the conversation is based on the idea that God has already been at work in the woman’s life and their interaction can move that work forward. It seems it did.
Both Jesus and, later, Paul assume that God works in people’s lives though they may not know it. That work, invisible to a religious leader but clear to Jesus, brings a “sinful” woman to Jesus’ feet with perfume and tears (Luke 7). That work brings people in Athens who have lots of mini-gods to construct an altar to the unknown God (Acts 17). Paul tells them that this God they don’t know has been at work deciding the important “whens” and the “wheres” of their lives.
Perhaps the issue of how to be towards the “other crowd” starts with asking how “other” are they. A healthy interaction with an “other” will include listening and asking questions that reveal where they might be on the spectrum and what kind of God-work might already have been occurring in their lives.
And if there’s integrity, the questions won’t be a strategy to manoeuvre an opening for your own views. Nor will it be a way to avoid the challenge of the Jesus message. It can arise from the conviction that the right questions may help them discern the God’s activity in their life and open up the possibility of next steps. It can also be shaped by the awareness that ultimately none of us knows how “other” the other is.
The thoughts and views expressed in this are the author’s own.