And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
Lately there has been a great deal of us and them rhetoric. You hear it in the arguments over what restroom transgendered people should use; you also hear it in discussions about illegal immigrants, and sometimes even when we discuss immigrants in general. Us and them distinctions show up when we talk about terrorists, even though the United States has suffered more from domestic terrorism than we have from foreign terrorism. Us and them are distinctions that allow us to separate our friends from our enemies, our familiars from the strangers, and our own people from the outsiders.
Maybe I should refine that statement I just made. Us and them are distinctions that allow us to separate our supposed friends from our supposed enemies, our assumed familiars from the supposed strangers, and the people we are told are our people from the people we are told are outsiders.
Let me give you an example.
I am a trauma therapist, and many of my clients are women who have been sexually abused by men. Most of them were abused as children, and all of them were abused by family members. I know that some people are abused by people outside their family and even by strangers, but I have been practicing since 2005 and I have yet to work with a client whose abuser was not a family member. For many of these women, talking about the abuse is an act of betrayal against their family. After all, they have spent years keeping silent to protect the public image of their family; others have spent years keeping silent because revealing the abuse to another family member led to repercussions and punishment instead of assistance and rescue from their abuser. While I do all that I can to help my clients recover from their abuse so that they can live full, joyous lives, many of them find that they continue to have a deep distrust of men, whether those men are family members or not. These are women whose male relatives—the men in their lives who were supposed to be their protectors while they were children—violated one of our society’s biggest taboos. Their deep distrust of men can make it difficult for my straight clients to find life partners because they are not willing to expose themselves to the risk of dating. Many have difficulty identifying men who are ‘safe’—men who will never commit acts of physical or sexual violence against a woman because it is not in their nature. Some of my clients have trouble believing that there is any such thing as a ‘safe’ man, as if ‘safe’ men were something like unicorns, existing only in stories but not in real life.
Then I tell them about the unicorn that I met several years ago.
My unicorn shared with me about what it means to be a member of the ‘tribe’—the tribe of people who have been sexually abused as children. The tribe has certain ways of being, certain scars that are dead giveaways to the pain and loss they have suffered. Whenever this unicorn recognizes other members of the tribe it reveals itself and speaks the magic words: “I understand. I was sexually abused for years.”
Turns out that unicorns are for real.
You see, men get sexually abused as well, and those men…well…they understand what it is to be afraid. They understand what it is to not be believed when you try to tell the horrible truth. And they understand what it is to doubt that it is possible to be safe. They understand that an entire gender can come to feel unsafe and remain that way no matter how much therapy you get. And men who have been sexually abused know that the fear that the tribe has of their perpetrators is not unreasonable and not unrealistic because they know what it is like to be made into a victim. They know what it is to fear half the world’s population, and what it is like to be unable to trust men. Sadly, unicorns know all too well what it is like to be constantly afraid, and some of them fear…
For years the politics of sexual assault has told us that men are the perpetrators and women are the victims, and statistics will tell you that this is true most of the time. But ‘most of the time’ is not the same as ‘all of the time’ and nothing is quite that cut and dried or that black and white. In the end, it is not so easy to separate the world into us and them, to create two groups where one is good and the other bad and then create a worldview that supports that understanding of humanity.
I remember my own moment of us and them, when I found myself baffled because a woman was tried and convicted for her participation in the atrocities against prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison. I did not want to comprehend that a woman would agree to sexually humiliate male prisoners, that she would agree to abuse them and violate them physically and sexually. How could she possibly agree to such violence knowing the damage it has done to her sisters in the human race? How could she participate in something so degrading when things like that happen to women all over the world every day? Most of all, how could she possibly consent to becoming one of THEM??! I struggled to accept Lyndie Englund’s choices because I could not conceive of the reality that women can be abusers and men can be the victim. I believed in the us and them dichotomy that makes it so easy to vilify the other side, to hate them with impunity and ease, and to treat them as less than human.
I’m so glad that something challenged and made me abandon my us and them thinking before I met a real, living unicorn because if I hadn’t I might not have believed him when he told me his story. I might not have been able to help him overcome his trauma so that he could live a sober, productive, joyous life…at least the best life that he can have in the face of all the abuse that he lived through. Most of all, I would never have had the opportunity to let my other clients know that the world is not so neatly divided into us and them, women and men, victims and abusers. In the end, the lines are far more blurred and our chances to redeem the entire situation far greater than we realize because unicorns are real and that means that some of them are our our team…and we aren’t alone in this struggle after all.
God never intended for the world to be separated into us and them. God’s will has always been for unity and healing no matter what side a certain person fell on, and this is evident over and over in the Bible:
Joseph, who saved the Egyptians from famine
Elisha, who healed Naaman the Syrian
Jonah, who saved the people of Ninevah (Assyrians) from destruction
Jesus, who healed the son of a Roman centurion
Jesus, who healed the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman
Jesus, who healed a Samaritan leper
Peter, who preached to many Gentiles
Paul, who preached to many Gentiles
And then there is always Jesus, who died for the sins of an entire world.
There is no us and them. There is only God’s children and God wants us all to come home, no matter who we are or where we are from or what group we claim allegiance to.
“On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelations 22:2b
The leaves of the tree are not for the healing of God’s chosen people, or the healing of the faithful, but for the healing of the nations.
That’s all of us.