When I began work on my master’s degree in theology in the 1980s, there was intense focus on the words “believing” and “belonging” in the context of what it means to be Church. A little later (1994) Grace Davie’s book, Believing Without Belonging, documented the rise of secularism following WW2. Her research showed that although people were not attending church as often as they once had, they nonetheless claimed to have some kind of belief in or about God. In the book, she suggests that an increasing number of people don’t want to be part of a specific religion – either because they are tired of the terrible atrocities and abuses committed in the name of religion, or that they simply aren’t interested in making it a priority. There have been other books and articles on the same theme using the words, ‘Believing’ and ‘Belonging’. For instance, a fair number of Italian scholars have argued that a large number of Italian Catholics belong to the Church without really believing in what the Church teaches. It’s been suggested that people choose to “believe” primarily because they want to “belong” to a group that gives them a sense of identity.
This discussion invites us believers to ask ourselves several questions: Why do we belong to this church? How do we look at someone who does not belong – someone who is not one of us? What if this someone-who-is-not-one-of-us believes, shows a greater commitment to Christian values, and even has some visible gifts of the Holy Spirit? Do we use our faith to create a group that is “in” and juxtapose that group with those who are “out?” Are we maybe trying to contain the God of the Universe in buildings and structures and try to insert our own beliefs so that the Spirit is not fee to blow as She wills??
Today’s readings give us two different stories about believing and belonging: one from the time of Moses and the other from the time of Jesus. The first story (Num 11:25-29) tells us of two men who had stayed back in the camp while the Lord God descended in the form of cloud on the Tent of Meeting: one was called Eldad and the other Medad. Even though they were not among the seventy elders initially chosen by Moses, the Spirit descended on these two men and they began to prophesy. Moses is open-minded enough to see the Will of God revealed here, so he adds these two men to the 70 elders to make 72, six each for each of the 12 Tribes of Israel. Through this event Moses gets a glimpse of how big Our God really is. When Joshua wants to see the action of God only within the procedures and policies of the institutional religion headed by Moses, Moses invites him to open up his understanding: “Moses replied, ‘Are you jealous on my account? If only all Yahweh’s people were prophets, and Yahweh had given them his spirit!’” (Num 11:29).
In a similar situation presented in the gospel story of today, when John (an apostle who was close to the heart of Jesus as Joshua was to Moses) says, “Master, we saw someone who is not one of us driving out devils in your name, and because he was not one of us we tried to stop him” (Mk 9:38). Jesus emphatically tells him, “You must not stop him; no one who works a miracle in my name can talk trash about me later.” (Mk 9:39). Jesus reminds us that the Reign of God isn’t about boundaries, it’s not about institutions, and it’s certainly not about the IN group (the church people) and the OUT group (the non-church people.) It is about the human heart, and guess what? God can work however God wants in the hearts of people without any help from us.
So what is our problem?? Why are so many Christians so far off the mark on this issue of taking Jesus at his word, which is clearly his attempt to make all of us disciples more tolerant: “ If someone isn’t against you, he is with you.”
We have a long history in the Church Universal of doing and believing just the opposite: we have drawn lines in the sand, separating “us” from “them”, and adopting a stance of stern judgment instead of tolerance. In other words, we’ve taken the words of Jesus and twisted them to mean the opposite: “If you’re not 100% for me and like me, you are 100% against me!”
We all know people like this, some of them in our own families, who believe that unless we agree with everything they have come to believe, we cannot be “saved.” Even if we go to our church regularly, even if we are a priest/pastor of a church, even if we are doing good things in the world, even if we sing the same hymns, none of that matters. These are clearly the ones in today’s text who say: “Lord, we met these people who are trying to do good things in your name, but we told them to stop because they didn’t agree with us on everything!”
And there it is. The us versus them mindset that is the evil power behind every form of sexism, racism, fanatic nationalism, and every other “ism” you can think of. If we could only stop that way of thinking, and stop that way of comparing, we might actually have a chance of changing this world. The people who are never in church on Sundays see this attitude of ours, by the way, and that’s why they’re only here for funerals and weddings. They see very clearly that they themselves, without benefit of church, are more loving and accepting of people—so why on earth would they come hang out with us on Sunday mornings??
Where does this concept of us versus them come from and how can it be explained? Psychologically the answer seems to be that insecure people are drawn to ideas and groups that make them feel superior. Fundamentalists fear the research of the scriptures in a scientific era; white supremacists fear what their country will look like if people with tan skin take over. So they become intolerant and act in ways that violate their most deep seated integrity as humans in order to reassure themselves. That still does not explain, however, why anybody chooses to see compassion and tolerance as weaknesses!
When the disciples bring up “that other guy”, the one not part of their club, Jesus reminds them of a basic truth that whoever is not against us is for us. But the Greek word here “hyper” has layers of possible meanings, so another interpretation would be, “Whoever is not against us is one of us.” Hit the pause button! If that’s right, then how can mere mortals determine who’s in and who’s out?? We cannot. Therefore the message of Jesus is clearly that the only way people can find themselves outside God’s Kingdom is if they deselect themselves, if they choose to exclude themselves.
We are supposed to accept people of good will and not try to hinder them. There is no place in the Kingdom for the old us versus them mentality. So knock it off already, you intolerant judging people who are so smug and sure you’re right about everything!
Oh, wait. The fact that we can even have that thought or speak those words proves that we can only change ourselves. WE have the same problem as everyone else, and although it’s easier to believe everybody else needs to get with the program, the reality is that we can only change ourselves.
So, let’s give it a shot, trying to live in this expansive vision of Jesus, this vision of acceptance and tolerance. What’s the worst that could happen? We might have more friends, a wider network of people from all backgrounds and interests in our life, we might be able to open ourselves to a richer wisdom and a deeper spiritual life. We might even have a better sense of what “truth” is all about.
So what does evangelization look like if we take Jesus at his word in this reading? We are called to evangelize, yes we are, but instead of sharing doctrine and church polity and structure, maybe our evangelization is supposed to be nothing more sharing our own experience of God while respecting other people’s experience? When we meet people who don’t see things the way we do, rather than lining up our intellectual arguments to rebut them, we could maybe be thankful and awe-struck by the ways God works in their lives.