most of us of a certain age will immediately recognize those three words as a reference to West Side Story, a mid-20th century retelling of the Romeo and Juliet saga, set in NYC, with "American" and Puerto Rican gangs standing for Capulets and Montagues, and the tragic consequences that flow therefrom, despite the very human connection of Tony and Maria.
This morning I was reflecting on how many Us versus Them frames dominate our thinking
Clearly here we think of Democrats versus Republicans
Whites versus Blacks
Catholics versus Protestants
North versus South
Management versus Labor
Capitalists versus Communists
Christians versus Muslims
Christians versus Jews
... please keep reading
Muslim versus Hindu
Sunni versus Shi'ite
Liberals versus Republicans
Tea Party versus RINO
Progressives versus DINO
Hindu versus Buddhist
Cowboys versus Indians (Redskins?)
Yankees versus Red Sox
There is something seemingly comforting in identifying one's own group as in opposition to some other group, upon which one's insecurity can be deposited in the form of hatred, demeaning, attempting to convert one's fear into some sense of superiority
Americans versus "terrorists"
boys versus girls
And yet, once we begin this process, where does it end? Into how many categories of opposition can we divide ourselves?? I think of words from an old song by the Chad Mitchell Trio, "The John Birch Society," that there's no one left but we and thee, and we're not so sure about thee.
Cops versus Robbers
Patriots versus Traitors
Hutu versus Tutsi
Makers versus Takers
These divisions can have tragic consequences, as those of one group us them as a rationale to oppress or attempt to destroy the perceived opponent
Moderates versus Extremists
Too often the divisions are made artificially
Indians versus Pakistanis
Iranians versus Iraqis
Serbs versus Croats
"Europeans" versus everyone else
Americans versus everyone else
the 99% versus the 1%
and too often when we are within our group we are reluctant to see how these divisions, which may be useful insofar as understanding differences, can also be limiting of our own lives and experience, and destructive to all.
Perhaps the most famous campaign advertisement of all time officially ran only once, on September 7, 1964. It was called "Daisy":
That text has always resonated with me, and I cannot get away from it, because I always share this among the political ads my Government students watch.
The first sentence: These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark.
To divide, whether for political, social, economic, nationalistic, religious or any other reason can too quickly contribute to a world in which we do not believe that all of God's children can live. It is to go into the dark.
And the second: We must either love each other, or we must die.
The inevitable result of refusing to acknowledge the "other" category as not merely equal to our own, as fully human as we consider ourselves to be, is to start the process of dying.
It is bad enough that we thereby deny ourselves the richness of humanity taken together.
Too easily we degenerate into war, metaphorical or actual.
Let me be clear.
I have been an athlete and a coach. I have no trouble with competition, with trying to win the contest at hand.
That contest can be athletic.
It can be political.
If we become consumed by winning at any cost, then the profound words of Pogo will become true for us:
We have met the enemy, and he is us."
As one politically active, I am well aware of the argument that unwillingness to counter whatever the "enemy" is willing to use is to concede defeat.
That mentality was very present as I grew up:
Better Dead than Red!
There is a strand that resonates through our history, perhaps clearly seen in the warning by the man most historians consider our greatest President, Mr. Lincoln, who warned that the nation could not continue half slave and half free.
Lincoln's observation was true, yet this same man thought preserving the Union a greater priority than moving immediately to ban slavery.
Yet his expressions on slavery clearly contributed to the fear of many of the slave-owning class that he would move to abolish slavery, as he eventually did.
I have some gift with words.
Words have consequences.
How I use words can contribute to a culture of violence and division, or it can seek to overcome the the divides that too often hurt so many.
Sometimes the divides seem rational, yet create a framing that can limit our understanding of our mutuality:
Teachers versus Students
wherein we see our roles as oppositional rather than complementary.
I claim no great insight. People have said - and written - far more eloquently than can I on this and related topics.
As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.
If in the inevitable disputes I will have with those with whom I have real differences, I lose sight of her humanity, than I have lost sight of my own.
Because I understand this, I have no excuse for behavior that ignores that understanding.
Because I am human, I will fail at times to live up to what this requires of me, and perhaps is the reason that the words of George Fox, that we must walk gladly across the earth answering that of God in each person we encounter, speak so loudly to me.
Perhaps because I have wandered through multiple religions and seen them from the inside, I am more sensitive that I otherwise might have been.
I do not know.
I offer these words because they were on my mind today, and I thought they might speak to someone else.
Us versus Them, Good Guys versus Bad Guys, however it is framed, it is a sundering of our common humanity.
Jets versus Sharks.
Hatfields versus McCoys.
We must either love each other, or we must die.