How do we treat those who are similar but different to us?

Liz Stuart, 26 September 2021

Numbers 11: 4–6, 10–16, 24–29; James 5: 13–20; Mark 9: 38–50

I wonder if you ever watch Derry Girls. If not you should – it’s one of the funniest programmes on television. It’s about a group of teenage friends living in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. In one episode a group of Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren come together, and they’re asked, encouraged, to think about the similarities between them. Their response is to immediately start listing the differences between them: ‘Protestants are British, Catholics are Irish’, ‘Protestants are richer’, ‘Catholics really buzz off statues’, ‘Protestants like to march, Catholics like to walk’, and my favourite, ‘Protestants hate Abba’.

We often find people who are similar to us but not quite the same as us much more threatening than people who are very different from us. I suspect that this is because people who are similar to us but not quite the same suggest the possibility that we might be wrong on the issues and matters where we are different. All our defences go up and we focus on our differences rather than what we have in common, often distorting and demonising them into enmity. How much of Christian history has been taken up with anathematising, persecuting and even killing those who are similar but not quite the same as us – people who worship the same Lord Jesus Christ? Next year the Church of England’s General Synod will debate whether to bless gay marriage and we will be reminded again of how difficult some people find difference.

Jesus cuts a swathe through all this in our gospel reading today. The disciples do not like the look of someone who actually looks remarkably like them, does things like them (in fact better than them, because we’ve been told earlier in this same chapter that they tried to drive out a demon but couldn’t do it); but this chap is not one of them. Jesus is having none of that attitude: ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’. He knows that there is enough of God’s grace to go around. It does not need to be protected or defended, in fact it needs to be set free like the Spirit that fell on Moses. It can be shared and we should be glad that it can be, not resentful that others can be included.

In the second part of our gospel reading Jesus is even more forceful: ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones [those who believe in me] to stumble, it would be better if a large millstone was hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea’. These little ones are the ones who believe in Jesus and act in his name but are not one of us. This is about how we treat those who are similar but different to us. It is not just that anyone who is not against us is for us, it is that these are precious children of God who we are not to cause to stumble on their pilgrimage towards the kingdom of God.

One of my favourite Early Church theologians is a chap called Origen. He was a highly influential third-century theologian who believed that in the end all would be saved, even the devil, and he crafted a method of studying the Bible that posited that there were different levels of meaning in the scripture. He was never made a saint because some people doubted his orthodoxy and because, despite his sophisticated understanding of scripture, he is alleged to have taken some parts of it (including the passages that we’ve just heard in the gospel) a little too literally, and he had himself castrated. The image that Jesus uses here, of removing that which causes you to sin, is deliberately extreme to emphasise that causing those who are not one of us to stumble is antithetical to the kingdom of God – so antithetical that you risk finding yourself in Gehenna (the Greek does not say hell, it says Gehenna, and Gehenna was the rubbish heap outside Jerusalem).

The last three sentences of the passage are notoriously difficult to interpret. ‘Everybody will be salted with fire.’ That sounds rather threatening, but less so if you consider that first of all, salt was widely used as a fertiliser in the ancient world, and secondly, that fire was, of course, associated with the divine spirit. Perhaps the word to emphasise here is everybody – everyone, whether they are one of us or not, will be nourished and enlivened by the divine spirit, and we must be so careful not to lose our connection to that divine fire.

Everyone, whether they are one of us or not, will be nourished and enlivened by the divine spirit, and we must be so careful not to lose our connection to that divine fire.

How do we do that? By living peacefully with one another. That’s not to say that beliefs are not important. It’s not to say that ethics and morals are not important – they are. And it’s not to say that there’s no place for dispute or disagreement in the Church; the Church has always been disputatious from the word go. But it is to say that we must approach these things from a position of mutual inclusion, not exclusion.

The people who are really good at this are mystics. (This morning actually, I read a definition of mysticism: mysticism is the experience of a reality over which you have no control. I think it was Matthew Fox who said that.) Because if you have a sense of the largeness and the depth of the divine, you realise that no human being, not you, not me, nobody can ever adequately get anywhere close to grasping God. When you realise that, a profound sense of humility enables you to make room for other views and to consider the possibility that you might be wrong or might have something to learn from someone else. The reading we’ve heard from St James presents a picture of a community founded upon such a generous and humble spirit. ‘Confess your sins to one another.’

Edwin Markham’s poem ‘Outwitted’ summarises from the perspective of those badged as ‘not one of us’ what our gospel today teaches us about those who are similar but different to us:

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

I would like to suggest that this parish is all about drawing ourselves wider and wider and wider. How do we draw ourselves wider to include people who often find themselves excluded? That’s what the talk by Rachel Noel on Tuesday night is all about with regard to neurodiversity. How do we remain conscious of our reactions to those who are similar but different to us? These are things we have to explore together. It’s hard work, but it’s the work of the gospel.