Those Against Us and For Us
No one has ever accused George Lucas of writing snappy dialogue. If anything, the actors who have worked with him on any of the films of the Star Wars saga have often noted that the dialogue is clunky and hard to say. And it certainly doesn’t lean heavily toward character development or emotional connection. (Anyone who’s sat through the forced romance between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala is witness to that; why Lucas thinks “I hate sand” is a good pickup line is a mystery to, well, everyone.)
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
September 26, 2021
The clunky dialogue is evident throughout the Star Wars prequel trilogy and is nowhere as evident as in the final confrontation between Anakin Skywalker—now Darth Vader—and his old friend and mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. As they meet on the volcanic world of Mustafar, where Obi-Wan has tracked Anakin hoping to stop his descent into darkness, Obi Wan challenges Anakin’s newfound loyalties to the evil powers consuming the galaxy:
Obi-Wan Kenobi: You have allowed this dark lord to twist your mind, until now, until now you’ve become the very thing you swore to destroy.
Anakin Skywalker: Don’t lecture me, Obi-Wan! I see through the lies of the Jedi. I do not fear the dark side as you do. I have brought peace, freedom, justice, and security to my new Empire.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Your new Empire?
Anakin Skywalker: Don’t make me kill you.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Anakin, my allegiance is to the Republic, to democracy.
Anakin Skywalker: If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Only a Sith deals in absolutes. I will do what I must.
Now, aside from the fact that Obi Wan notes that only a Sith deals in absolutes by making a statement which itself is an absolute—the line that jumps out of this clunky exchange is “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.”
It’s not a line that Lucas made up. It, or some version of that sentiment has been uttered often over the course of history. In fact, it’s important to bear in mind that this movie, The Revenge of the Sith, came out in 2005, in the early years of the “War on Terror” launched in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Many people noted that Lucas seemed to be weighing in on some of the excesses of the War on Terror, and much of the rising Empire’s focus on “security” and “stability” can be seen as a critique of the U.S. political establishment’s focus on those values over the values of individual liberty and privacy.
Anyone with any doubts about this association would note that in an address to Congress on nine days after the 9/11 attacks, the president said, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Even at the time, many of our closest allies noted that the world is rarely so simple as that.
Now, while that example may have been foremost on George Lucas’ mind as he wrote the clunky dialogue for Revenge of the Sith, it was not a sentiment that President Bush alone shared. Indeed, seven days earlier, Hillary Clinton noted, “Every nation has to either be with us, or against us.”
This is a sentiment shared by historical figures as diverse as Benito Mussolini, George Orwell, Vladimir Lenin, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and Joshua in the book of Joshua.
We are often prone to such binary thinking: you’re either with us or against us. Our friend or our enemy.
II. THE TEXT
It certainly seems like even Jesus says as much in tonight’s gospel lesson. In it, the disciples let him know that they’d seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but they didn’t know who he was. They tried to stop him but he didn’t listen to them. Jesus’ response is: “Don’t prevent him: no one who can do miracles in my name can curse me soon after.” Jesus suggests that by virtue of having invoked his name, a person is incapable of then cursing Jesus. In effect, the Holy Spirit will not grant power to someone to act in Jesus’ name and then act against Jesus. But then Jesus follows this up by saying, “Because whoever isn’t against us, is for us.” In effect, saying, “Don’t worry—that person hasn’t opposed me—in fact, he can’t, having invoked my name—so he’s on our side.”
At first blush, this sounds like Jesus is joining in with the chorus of voices over history who have articulated this idea. But on closer inspection, we realize he’s done the opposite.
The usual sentiment is “Whoever isn’t for us is against us” which makes enemies of all those who don’t profess fealty or alliance. In this scheme, someone who would consider themselves neutral are nevertheless enemies. But Jesus’ statement does the opposite: it declares that whoever isn’t against us is for us, making friends of all those who do not profess enmity. In this scheme, those who are neutral are friends.
III. FOR AND AGAINST
Now, it is fair to ask whether this is an idealized statement. Is it really true that those who aren’t against us are for us? Are there not some times when the situation really is a binary choice, an either/or?
George Orwell certainly thought so. The quote that I referenced earlier was made during the middle of World War II, in which he spoke out about British pacifism:
If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security.George Orwell, Pacifism and the War, 1942
His point is that in an existential conflict such as WWII, if you do not help the side that is fighting for freedom then you are de facto on the side fighting for tyranny. Indeed, there has been a fair amount of criticism over the years of those nations that in the middle of WWII opted for neutrality.
A similar argument is made today by those fighting for racial justice. They point out that racism opposes the basic idea that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of racial identity and that people of different races are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. They say either you support that idea or you don’t; there’s no third option. There are only those beliefs and opinions that are racist or anti-racist; there is no “non-racist” option. In their thinking, if we are not actively working to dismantle the racist structures of society that perpetuate injustice, then we have cast our lots in with the racists. As I have said elsewhere, there is a lot to commend about this idea.
And all of this echoes the late historian Howard Zinn’s statement that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train,” meaning that history is in motion and those who claim to be “neutral” in the great movements of history are swept along by their inaction, whether they want to admit it or not.
Is it not true that it is possible to do nothing to harm someone or oppose someone and nevertheless allow harm to happen? Isn’t that at the heart of MLK’s statement: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”?
And so, is it really the case that “those who are not against us are for us”?
IV. US AND THEM
But here’s the thing: I don’t think that what Jesus is talking about is really about who’s for us and who’s against us. I think he is making a statement about the whole question of who is “us” to begin with.
See, the disciples see someone they don’t recognize casting out demons and they assume that he’s up to no good. Precisely because they do not recognize him. He has not gotten clearance from them to be doing this kind of ministry. Doesn’t he know who they are? They’re the apostles after all.
By saying that those who are not against us are for us, Jesus is in effect saying, “Don’t worry about him—he’s one of us.” The disciples have once again misunderstood. They think this man is an outsider because they personally do not know who he is. “We saw someone…” they say, not, “We saw Joe the tanner’s son…” And because they don’t know him, they assume that he cannot be a part of what Jesus is doing. That he is improperly invoking the name of Jesus and casting out demons.
We do this kind of thing all the time. We assume that those who are not in our little corner are not really part of our community. Even to the point where we assume that they’re enemies.
A few years ago, I happened upon a group of people in Lafayette Park, with bullhorns and big signs demanding repentance. I began to ask them whether they thought this tactic was the best way to make disciples. When I told them I was a minister they didn’t believe me. When I produced my little ID card they scoffed, “Just because man has said you’re a minister doesn’t make you one.” I said, “I’m willing to accept the legitimacy of your own ordinations, can you not do me the courtesy of accepting mine?” They didn’t really have an answer to that. Because they had been of the mindset that because I was not one of their “us” and worse, assumed that I would feel the same way about them.
So, Jesus’s statement that those who are not against us are for us is really a statement designed to remind the disciples that they belong to a bigger us than they realize.
Looking over the entire gospel, we come to understand that Jesus’ statement is consistent with one of the overall themes of Mark’s gospel in which there are not high walls of separation between insiders and outsiders. In fact, throughout the gospel, the insiders—the disciples, the religious leaders, the members of Jesus’ own family—are shown as not fully grasping who Jesus is or what his mission is about, while outsiders—a ritually impure woman, a Syro-Phoenician woman, demon possessed people, Roman centurions—recognize him for who he is and what he is doing.
Jesus’ extreme examples about cutting off your hand if you sin, and gouging out your eye, are given in the context of his statement about “tripping up the least of those who trust in me.” That is, rejecting someone who has placed their faith in him, whether that person is sufficiently credentialed or not, is a sin worthy of cutting off the offending organ. Because you have cut off a member of the body of Christ, so, too, ought you be willing to cut off a member of your own body to avoid such a wrong.
Of course, it’s not just Jesus’ disciples then who have trouble with this teaching; we still have trouble with it. We still fall prey to the temptation to divide the world into us and them. We’re still inclined to see those who don’t profess their undying love and support for us as opposed to us. We’re still inclined to see those who aren’t properly credentialed as being outside the community.
So, I guess it’s a good that Jesus keeps making this point over and over and over again—“us” is bigger than we think. It includes more people than we expect. It includes people who may not agree with us on all points. They may lack the training or the education or the “real world education” or whatever other credential we look for. They may speak a different language, they may have a different culture, they may be unfamiliar to us altogether.
We get so wrapped up in which people are for us and which against us that we lose sight of the most important truth of all: God is for us. When St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31), it occurs to me that it’s more than just confidence in the face of our enemies. That statement is meant to do more than simply assure us that God shows up to our fights and has our backs. It means that if we truly accept that God is for us, that God is working in our lives to transform us, that God has extended grace and mercy to us, then we would discover that no one could be against us. For we would finally have understood that there is no us or them, there is only an us. And accepting the love and grace of God helps us to see others not as undeclared enemies, but as siblings and family members we have not yet known.
Johanan replied, “Teacher, we saw someone getting rid of demons in your name and tried to stop him, but he didn’t listen to us.” And Jeshua said, “Don’t prevent him: no one who can do miracles in my name can curse me soon after, because whoever isn’t against us, is for us.
“Whoever gives you a cup of water because you come in the Anointed One’s name—trust me when I say this—that person will not lose their reward.”
“Anyone who trips up one of the least of those who trust in me will find it better to have your head put through the hole in a donkey’s millstone and get thrown into the sea. And if your hand trips you up, cut it off; better go through life crippled than to go two-handed into the Hinnom Valley, into the inextinguishable fire. And if your foot trips you up, cut it off; it’s better to go through life with a limp than to be thrown two-footed into the Hinnom Valley. And if your eye trips you up, throw it away; it’s better to go into God’s Kingdom with one eye than to have two eyes and get thrown into the Hinnom Valley, ‘where their worm never dies and the fire never goes out.’
“For everyone will be seasoned with fire. The salt is good, but if the salt were to lose its saltiness, what would you season it with? You have salt in yourselves and have peace in one another.”