With me or against me?
A Reflection for Thursday of the Third Week of Lent
Find today’s readings here.
Whoever is not with me is against me. (Lk 11:23)
In a joint session of Congress nine days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, President George W. Bush quoted a version of this line from Jesus in Luke’s Gospel today. President Bush was speaking to the world at large, particularly addressing those countries that “provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.” His call was stirring and clear cut. It was the kind of rhetoric that, after those horrible days, made people’s hearts race with pride. It rang with a sort of Kennedy-esque flair: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
He went on to explain that the “war on terror” would at times have victories that were “secret in success.” He thanked Americans in advance for their cooperation with the F.B.I. who were investigating terrorism. He asked Americans for their patience “in what will be a long struggle.” He indicated that law enforcement would be given “the additional tools it needs” to investigate and root out terrorism in the United States.
In other words, his rhetoric of “you are either with us or against us” created the philosophical scaffolding for American policies like the deep surveillance of its citizens; for the extraordinary rendition and torture of suspected terrorists; for a cultural fervor which would, two years later, deem those who oppose the Iraq War as unpatriotic.
“Whoever is not with us is against us” is a potent tool for the amping up of ideological sides. It creates a zero-sum game and whips us into a frenzy to be “on the correct, more righteous” political side. It has been used by everyone, from Lenin to Mussolini, to lash their followers more closely onto their causes. It is a dangerous and manipulative way of looking at an often deeply complicated world of conflict and division between (and within) political states. It can blithely allow us to bypass reason, humanity, nuance and discernment. It can lead to the kind of violence, destruction, and nameless horrors that the 20th century alone has been witness to—let alone the first 24 years of this century.
When Jesus uses the phrase “whoever is not with me is against me” in today’s Gospel, he is not talking about geopolitics. He is not inciting people to his side in a war. He is not marshaling forces for the building up of a totalitarian political regime. He is pointing instead to those who follow Satan and those who follow Christ. His words tell us that, ultimately, there is one choice. Either you give your life to Christ or you don’t. Either we trust him and let him guide our lives, or we do not. It is either “God’s will be done”…or “my will” be done. And which shall it be?
We are not called to follow Christ perfectly, but we are called to follow him and to keep going back to him when we falter. He is the way, the truth and the life. There is no other way to the Father except through the Son. He is the depth of all humanity, the “answer to all prayers.” There has never been anyone like him on earth, nor will there ever be until he comes again. In this sense, being “black and white” about following Christ is at least worth considering. Which side are we on?