My previous post explored the challenges of the Tower of Babel. Drawing upon the work of Brent Strawn, who argued that the motivation for the tower-builders was a combination of pride and fear, I suggested that contemporary issues within evangelicalism represent walled enclaves created for the same two reasons.
I had hoped to get this post up earlier, but was held up by two factors. First, I wanted to finish Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ, so that I could apply her lessons about overcoming social psychological barriers to intergroup interactions. Second, MY BOOK CAME OUT. So I was a little distracted.
In this post, I want to take my argument from the last one a little farther. I ended that piece echoing Reagan’s call to “tear down those walls”. Now I want to explore how we might do that.
Christena’s book, while speaking to issues of multi-cultural worship, looks much more deeply at issues of divisions across groups. These may be racial or ethnic groups. They may be separations between evangelicals or mainliners. They may be divisions between one group of evangelicals and another group of evangelicals (the central theme of my twitter feed lately). They may be separations among groups of high school kids (all the other divisions may simply be grown-up high school antics!).
It is not simply a critique of the “homogeneous church principle”, although that is there. It’s really an examination of why that principle works so well. The truth is that it depends entirely upon what we social psychologists consider to be errors in classification. These errors encourage us to overvalue those like us and undervalue those who are different.
After introducing the problems created by division, Christena works her way through dozens of social psychological studies. While these don’t deal directly with contemporary religious groups (that research needs to be done!), they are informative just the same. She shows how groups misjudge those outside the group by assuming that “they’re all alike” (while recognizing individuality within our groups). She writes of the tendency for groups to exaggerate their own abilities or orthodoxy (the Gold Standard effect). She shows how group interactions impact our sense of identity, introducing great concepts of BIRG (Basking In Reflected Glory) and CORF (Cutting Off Reflected Failure). There is a chapter on cultural conflict, which suggests that competition over cultural dynamics results in fear and ambiguity (always a problem in social psychology).
In a myriad of ways, social psychological processes solidify the very walls that I wrote about in the previous post. And it is easy to see both pride and fear present throughout her argument.
She closes the book with solid recommendations on how to begin the hard work of bridging the barriers we create. First, she suggests that cross-cultural contact is essential. Individuals from different groups that can connect around common interests can find more similarity that they might expect. Second, leaders are critical in providing an understanding of why we need to bridge our separations. Key to this process is giving a biblical and theological foundation that shifts our focus to common identity issues. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is an excellent guide for where we find identity. Third, a commitment to justice for all parties is essential and will require privileged groups to go the second mile (that’s part of the definition of privilege). Finally, Christians need to embrace the interdependence Paul describes in his body imagery in Romans and Corinthians. We simply cannot operate without each other.
I also deal with issues of community in my book, though mine is not as research grounded as Christena’s. I argue that we must see our differences as the issues that provide strength. But drawing heavily on Scott Peck, I acknowledge that confronting those differences is painful and stress producing. It gets worse before it gets better, sometimes lots worse. But the other side of what he calls Chaos is Emptiness. In Parker Palmer’s words, we quit trying to fix each other. We don’t brush our differences aside but we make them the raw material for new discovery. We are not alone in this process: the Holy Spirit is working in our midst to allow us to see from another’s perspective. Only when we stop the fighting do we discover what commonality and community mean.
Bonhoeffer says that we cannot MAKE community happen. It is a gift from God. While he was talking about living in the monastery with Christian brothers, the general point still holds. We can find ways of living with difference that don’t require the construction and maintenance of walls.
What does this look like in real life? How do we avoid being driven by pride and fear? What can we do so that every issue isn’t a test between my group (upon which my identity rests) and your group (which is threatening that identity)? How can I focus on our commonalities rather than our differences?
For most of the past two weeks, my social media streams have been dominated by laws proposed in Kansas and Arizona regarding businesses and service to same-sex couples. If I reflect on the various stories (many of which were very well done), they still fell victim to the kinds of issues Christena discusses. One side sees a threat to religious freedom. Another group sees bigotry and bias. Other groups call out hypocrisy in selective enforcement.
But none of these dealt with the full range of the issues. First, it’s interesting that in both states the legislation did not become law. Maybe it would be best for us not to fight about the prospects of something happening until it was actually happening. Second, it’s important to acknowledge that civilly recognized same-sex marriages are uncomfortable for some people as they work through their own thought processes. Third, recent data shows that knowing same-sex couples significantly changes viewpoints toward marriage equality. So there is something about seeing the other as a real person instead of a stereotype that changes things. Fourth, it is important that we listen to the Holy Spirit to recognize the Image of God in the other; whether than other is the bakery owner or the couple buying the wedding cake.
At the end of the day, bridging walls comes because our trust in Almighty God is greater than our trust in our own Brickmasons.