An awful lot depends on who Us is at the time. Because — though great moral thinkers of all time have challenged us on this repeatedly — most of us still believe that we only have to be decent to the Right Kind of People. Sure, we know what decency is and we believe in it and practise it, but… some people are more real than others, and decency only applies to real people. Whatever we think they are. This attitude we share with most of our tribal pre-industrial elders; if you weren’t of their tribe, their decency and mutual altruism usually didn’t apply to you. We have a hard time getting over that limitation.
Thus a white settler in C19 Australia might genuinely care for and aid a neighbour in physical or financial distress, and yet go out and hunt down Aboriginal people for bounty. Genuinely hospitable, honourable, and kindly people around the world can turn into monsters of cruelty and brutality when their tribal or religious passions are aroused against a hated Other. Men often practise a code of honour and respect between themselves that they don’t bother applying to women. Many a decent and upright fellow — who gave generously to charity and never cheated on a business deal , and was kind to his family — nevertheless owned slaves or exploited immigrant labour. And so on.
The great challenge posed by the Gospel among other texts, is to regard all persons as Us, to create a world where there is no Them, where decency is owed to every single person around us with no exceptions. It’s a huge challenge. It asks a lot of us. It’s also the only way forward to any kind of peace and justice in this sad world.
In the US today, that imperative to expand our sense of Us-ness is increasingly under attack. A constant barrage of propaganda sells us ever more Thems to hate. Some of us are now kept busy hating a whole list of Thems: gay people, feminists, Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, scientists, furriners, poor people, you name it. Some folks have swallowed the Ayn Rand pill — their Us is now so small it’s become a mere Me, and Them is everyone else in the whole wide wonderful world: me against my brother. That way madness lies: a grim Hobbesian vision of all against all and devil take the hindmost. The definition, in fact, of a failed state.
The challenge of our time is not so much to recover the sense of decency, because almost all of us (modulo a few stone sociopaths) do have it; it’s to recover a broadness of vision, an openness of heart, that extends that decency to a wide and embracing Us, not a narrow and exclusive Us. If we try very, very hard we might even extend that decency to All of Us. What a concept, eh?