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Bring down walls 

Join us in working to dismantle the 'us' vs. 'them' mentality

Leave it to The Simpsons to name a key social problem. I remember an episode where the date for the end of the world is announced. In response, the different religious groups of Springfield hit the streets shouting and waving posters holding competing slogans: “Jesus is the Way,” “Allah is God,” and “Jews are the Chosen People.” Even when faced with ultimate destruction, religion divides neighbor from neighbor.

Of course, religion isn’t the only way we form groups. We check boxes that put us in very narrow categories for gender, sexuality, socio-economic class, and race/ethnicity. Something about humans loves to define people by putting them into groups.

After all the data is crunched, we are each left with two sets: us and them. “We” are people who exemplify all that our group values: intelligence, compassion, inclusivity, and all other good things. “They,” on the other hand, are everything we are not: misguided, myopic, uncaring, and exclusive. In this whole wide world there are only two types of people: us and them. Lines are drawn. Distance is maintained. Walls are built to protect “us” from “them.” The rich build walls around their homes. In Belfast, a wall keeps the Catholics and the Protestants a safe distance from each other. The wall in Israel keeps the Muslim and Christian Palestinians away from the Jewish Israelis.

Some walls are not physical, but rhetorical. The Fundamentalist element within each group often forms a loud subset. They yell “believe this, or you are not us, you are them.” Sometimes they will go so far as to kill those within their own group who dare to counter them. They use the attention they receive for their horrible acts to write the narrative the rest of the world will hear, saying: We define _____ (fill in with “Christianity” or “Islam” or ??). They silence the rest of their community through fear, but they do not speak for the majority in any of the groups they claim to represent. Remember, it was a fellow Hindu who killed Gandhi, an act that horrified the vast majority of Hindus.

But this is how the world works. When any wall is breached, when lines are crossed: arguments erupt and wars are fought.

And mystery is missed.

Albert Einstein famously said, “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”

Harvard Professor Harvey Cox adds that we experience mystery in three ways: when reflecting on the universe, when in conversation with the other, and when we delve into the self. It is beyond the scope of this commentary to talk about the mysteries of the universe, or those of the self. But given all the walls we build, we are in danger of losing the mystery offered by the other.

We know from our personal relationships the beauty of discovering the “other.” We never fully understand another person; mystery surrounds their essence. But through friendship, respect, and even love, we share life together.

What if we could take this beyond the personal? What if we could break down walls and discover the mystery of other groups of people?

We can, and we need to do so—perhaps most especially the “others” in different religious groups. Faith may not be the only reason we build walls, but it is a fundamental motivation. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in her book The Mighty and the Almighty, said that she began her career thinking, “Why can’t people just put religious differences off to the side so we can focus on working together?” She soon came to realize that we can’t really work together to address the world’s problems unless we understand the religious values of the other. Of course there are groups of people for whom religion is not meaningful, and they must also be part of the conversation. All walls must come down so that we may stand in rapt awe of each other.

We are in luck. The questions of this generation, globally and locally, are bringing down walls everywhere. We can now step over the ruins of our own walls and see into the remnants of the barriers of other groups. We are all leaving our barricades and meeting in our streets and coffee shops. There is hope for the healing of the world in these new times. But it is a risky era. New walls can go up at any time. The key to keeping the walls down is learning to recognize and respect the mystery in the other. The time for yelling is over; it is time to stand in awe.

San Luis Obispo is home to a great variety of faith expressions. We have a great opportunity to learn from each other as we share life in this community. Many of the religious leaders of our county are involved with the San Luis Obispo Ministerial Association (SLOMA). The primary mission of this group is to build bridges of understanding between people of different faiths. You are invited to a series of presentations each featuring a member of SLOMA from a different faith tradition. Come and learn from the mystery of the other.


Marj Funk-Pihl is pastor of Mt. Carmel Lutheran Church and vice president of the San Luis Obispo Ministerial Association. Send comments to the executive editor at [email protected].

Get a fresh perspective

Faith does not protect believers. Bad things happen to all of us, regardless of religion. Yet our faith traditions help us through these trying times. Six speakers are set to offer wisdom and practical exercises, each from a different faith perspective: 

  • • Jan. 12: Nancy Ballinger, pastor, AWAKENING Spirituality Center, Morro Bay
  • • Jan. 19: Tony Criscuolo, yogi/Vedic (Hindu) traditions
  • • Jan. 26: Deborah Wihelm, lay celebrant, Roman Catholic
  • • Feb. 2: Josh Thompson, pastor, SLO Seventh Day Adventist Church
  • • Feb. 9: David Dod, former missionary in Mexico and Central America and Episcopal priest
  • • Feb. 16: Rod Richards, pastor, SLO Unitarian Universalist Church
  • • Feb. 23: round table discussion

Discussions are scheduled at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. each Sunday at 1701 Fredericks St. on the corner of Grand and Fredericks in San Luis Obispo. For more information, visit

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