The Danger of “Us v. Them” Thinking in Our Work for Social Change

wall-streetSo far, I’m a fan of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). It has swept the country like a breath of fresh air—inspiring people from all walks of life to get involved and re-claim our democracy. There’s this crazy idea floating around that our actions might be able to make a difference (gasp!), which is so refreshing, and OWS is reframing public discourse about a wide range of issues. Overall, I am happily surprised by OWS and wish it well. Today, though, I’m holding up something of a “caution” sign. 

This morning I watched a short video that’s making the social media rounds called, “Keep Wall Street Occupied,” and it has my alarm bells ringing. In the video, a young man in a dress shirt and tie goes through his mail, advising that we use those business-reply envelopes in our junk mail to send a message back to the offending credit card companies. We should fill the envelopes and mail them back—the heavier the better—so the credit card companies are charged more for postage. (Roof tiles, he suggests, might be an ideal envelope stuffer.) The main point of this exercise, he emphasizes, is to establish communication—so he encourages adding short notes in support of Occupy Wall Street. He also encourages us to fill the envelopes with the credit card offers and whatever other junk mail we receive. To demonstrate, he inserts a baby products catalog into his envelope because, he says, “being immoral doesn’t make you infertile.”


Of course, the guy on the video doesn’t speak for OWS as a whole—in fact, no one does or can; that’s part of the beauty, and perhaps the some of the challenge, of this movement. But this video, as of this writing, has been viewed almost 370,000 times on YouTube, and has been shared over 250,000 times on Facebook. Its message must be resonating.

I know it’s easier, when there are disagreements, to see the “other side” as completely wrong and “our side” as completely justified. But there is real danger in casting any conflict as a black & white, us vs. them scenario. Doing so can pretty quickly start to sound like a holy war: good vs. evil, righteous vs. infidel, saint vs. sinner. Are people who open the mail at credit card companies really “immoral,” just because they work in the financial industry?

Recently, a similar issue came up during a local interfaith discussion about climate change that I attended. One of the speakers talked about pollution being a “sin against Creation,” and an affront to God. The message was that because in the Jewish and Christian traditions God created the earth and called it “good,” because we are created in God’s image, and because God instructs us to care for our neighbors, we should not pollute our neighbors’ air or water or land. As a person of faith, I find these arguments well-constructed and compelling.

One clergy member in the audience, though, raised an important concern: “Sometimes people on the left,” he said, “can sound just as closed-minded and fundamentalist as people on the right, especially when you start bringing God into the picture. Are you trying to say that God is on your side?”

The speaker immediately answered, “No, I don’t claim that God is on my side—I just pray that I am on God’s side!”

The audience member continued, “Let’s say that you serve a congregation in Houston, and there’s a man in your church who works for the oil industry—an industry that pollutes air and water and land—that, in your terms, sins against Creation and is an affront to God. What do you say to him? How do you minister to him?”

And this, my friends, is the important question today:  “How do you minister to him?

This is the important question not just for the religious environmental movement, but also for the OWS movement—and for any other movement for social change. See, that oil man in Houston and that bank clerk in Chicago or New York City don’t deserve to be blamed for the actions of the large corporations that are so much bigger than them, even if they are a small part of that machine.

We are all, by the way, a small part of those destructive machines. For all our righteous indignation at the stark inequality represented by the 1%, compared to the rest of the globe, most all Americans are part of the 1%. Our economic, trade, and food policies contribute to keeping “third world” countries third world, wreak environmental destruction on the poorest of the globe, and create demand for cheap and slave labor overseas. One of the terms I’ve learned in seminary and find helpful here is “systemic sin;” unless we live completely off the grid, we are none of us carbon-neutral or slave-labor free. We are all caught up in systems that are destructive to the earth, our neighbors, and ourselves.

This is why it is so important to work for systemic change, to advocate for policies and ways of relating that honor all people and the planet. We need now to re-evaluate our priorities as a human people, to re-orient our relationships away from destructive patterns of exploitation and toward the valuing of life—all life, even the lives of bankers and oil men, for they, too are created in the image of God. Even as we work to dismantle unjust systems of corruption, undue influence, and oppression, we need to hold onto the basic humanity of people on all sides of the issues.

In this moment of possibility, let’s think and dream in big, all-inclusive ways. Let’s ask, “How do we minister to him, to her, to them, to the planet, to ourselves, and all of everything, all at the same time?” If we let ourselves fall into old and familiar patterns of “us vs. them” thinking, then we won’t get at the deeper roots of our financial, environmental, and moral dilemmas—and real change will elude us.


This post originally appeared on State of Formation. Photo in the public domain, courtesy of Paul Sparkes. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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