Sun, Sep 30, 2018

Boundaries and belonging


A man who wanted to blow up three buildings in Melbourne--

the Melbourne Anarchist Club...

the Resistance Centre...

and Trades Hall--

has gone on trial, charged with "planning a terrorist act"...

and "collecting material in connection with a terrorist act";

the latter charge relates to his efforts in producing an "instruction manual" on bomb making and torture techniques.

But no, he wasn't of Middle Eastern or African origin.

And he wasn't a radicalised Muslim.

In fact, quite the opposite!

He is of white, European descent;

and he's the co-founder of the Victorian branch of the ultra-nationalist group, "Reclaim Australia".

According to the prosecutor, his terrorist activities were aimed at...

"the advancement of extreme right wing ideology to overcome the perceived Islam-isation of Australia". 

Dare I say...

if he had been a radicalised Muslim of Middle Eastern or African origin...

this story would have been all over the news.

But here, as elsewhere, militant right-wing extremists are just as much a threat to our peace and safety as are radicalised Muslims--

perhaps even more so.

Recent reports show that incidents of verbal and physical harassment of Muslims...

in Australia...

continue to rise.

And, sadly, the more that young Muslims are targeted...

the more that they are told that they don't belong...

that they're not welcome here...

the more vulnerable they become to radicalisation.

It truly is a vicious circle.


Mark Juergensmeyer--

a Professor of Sociology from the University of California--

argues that strident Islamophobes and Muslim extremists are, in fact, "kindred hatemongers". 

More than that, he suggests, "There is a symbiotic relationship...each needs the other".

In a twisted way, that makes a lot of sense.

Each group believes that they are absolutely right...

and that the other lot is absolutely wrong.

There is a parallelism both in their fundamentalism...

and in their hatred of 'the other'.

But each group needs 'the other'--

their relationship truly is symbiotic.

Without the hated 'other'...

they would lose their sense of purpose, and identity, and worth.

And I think that what we see here is something of a universal truth.

So often, we humans define ourselves over and against each other.

We define ourselves by what we are not...

and, in particular, by whom we are not.

In part, that is inevitable.

And it's not necessarily a bad thing.

Earnest engagement with those who are different can lead to greater understanding--

both of 'the other' and of the self.

It can force us to reflect--

in a way that we wouldn't necessarily do otherwise--

on what we actually believe and on how we see the world.

That was certainly my experience when I was on the staff of an Anglo-Catholic-- 

or High Anglican-- 

theological college.

I encountered so much that was different to my own ecclesial and theological tradition.

It forced me to clarify what I believed and why; 

and it forced me to articulate that more clearly.

The problems come with this when we're actually insecure in ourselves--

in our beliefs...

and in our sense of identity and worth--

even if that sense of insecurity is dressed up with bravado... 


and an apparently unshakeable certainty.

When, at heart, we're insecure in ourselves...

the sheer existence of 'the other' will be translated into a threat...

even though, without realising it, we need them--

we need 'the other'.


But don't we see this harmful process of 'othering', all the time?

Don't we see it with politicians railing against gay people;

and, especially, against Islam and multiculturalism...

fearful of some sort of "take-over" and the destruction of "our" way of life?

Of course, Pauline Hanson is a perfect example of this.

She burst onto the political scene...

back in nineteen ninety six...

proclaiming that "We are in danger of being swamped by Asians".

Between the demise of her first political career...

and the onset of her second...

that sort of Asian-bashing seemed to lose its popularity...

and Islamophobia took its place.

She was re-elected, then, calling for a total ban on Muslim immigration and the building of mosques...

and demanding a Royal Commission to investigate Islam.

She desperately needs some 'other' to rail against--

without it, she loses her raison d'être.


And haven't we seen this dynamic, as well, in a religious sense?

Haven't we seen insecurity of belief, identity, and worth--

dressed up with bravado, dogmatism, and an apparently unshakeable certainty--

leading to arrogance and animosity directed towards 'the other'?

Don't we see this, so often, between the different religions--

between Christians, Jews, and Muslims?

Don't we see it between modern, militant atheists and religious people?

And don't we see it as well within Christianity itself--

until quite recently, between Catholics and Protestants...

and, even now, between fundamentalists and liberals?

Don't we see it behind all of the self-righteousness denigration and damnation of the other:

we're right, you're wrong;

we are true followers of Jesus, you're not;

we're saved, you're going to hell?


The fact that all of this continues to plague Christianity is actually quite ironic...

given our story from Mark's Gospel this morning.

The disciple, John, came to Jesus and said: 

"Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us". 

And Jesus replied, "Do not stop him...Whoever is not against us is for us".

On the surface, this story is quite clear.

Leaving aside the whole issue of exorcism--

of what it meant within the symbolic world of the first century...

and how we would understand it today in terms of anthropology and psychology--

this is a story about boundaries and belonging.

The disciples are engaged in a process of 'othering'.

In their insecurity, they're trying to define who's in and who's not;

trying to define what is and what is not of God.

And they want to confine it to those who belong to their group--

to those who think like they do and who act like they do.

Note, they're actually quite blatant about it.

The sole accusation that they level against the exorcist is that "he was not following us".

But Jesus won't oblige their insecure insularity.

Jesus is quite willing to embrace someone who is completely 'other'.

Sadly, most commentators miss the full sense of that.

They take the fact that the man is exorcising "in the name of Jesus"... 

to mean that he's a follower of Jesus but just one who doesn't belong to their group.


That misses the socio-historical context.

As the author constructs the scenario...

the exorcist is using the expression, "in the name of Jesus", as a sort of magical formula--

something that was quite common within the first century world.

There's not the slightest hint that he's any sort of follower of Jesus.

This exorcist is, and remains, completely 'other'.

And yet, clearly, Jesus doesn't perceive him as a threat.

Jesus accepts this man because he doesn't see him as 'other'.

After all, the man's actions are compassionate.

He works for justice and liberation.

His aim and intent is, ultimately, the same.

He's doing the same work that Jesus is.

He is, therefore, of God--

regardless of what he believes...

or how he lives...

or whom he is perceived to be.


Would that we could do the same!


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