Friday, September 9, 2016

Moving Beyond Tribalism, Jesus Style

Missionary celebrating Mass in a rural barn.
Glenmary archives.

Jesus seemed to treat everyone who crossed his path with the same respect and dignity. I find this to be one of the most amazing things about his earthly ministry.

It didn't matter if someone were rich or poor. Jesus seemed equally willing to be scandalized by hanging out both with "sinners" and tax collectors (I put "sinners" in quotes because maybe the Bible was recording the public chatter, and "sinners" was really another word for "outcasts"). Jesus developed quite a reputation for himself for doing this.

Jesus could still be tough on people. He could still get angry. But he never seemed to lose sight of that basic, God-given dignity of every person. 

This is enormously difficult for most of us. When we encounter anyone, we often do it through layers of social strata. We are quick to find out which groups they belong to. Which race?  Which political party? Which religious denomination? Which social class? What profession?

It's like we need to know these things before knowing how to interact with someone. We may take their opinions more or less seriously based on which groups they belong to.

Jesus seemed to completely ignore all of the above and simply interacted directly with the person.

Imitating Jesus in this--I believe--is one of the strongest aspects of Christian discipleship. And the most challenging.

Free Christian Clip Art, ©2008 GospelGifs

We don't handle cognitive dissonance very well.

We develop allegiance to certain groups or causes--our family, our denomination, our race, our country. We have plenty of reasons to sing the praises of our group and plenty of reason to deride the aspects of others. A lot of that may very well be based on fact--or at least, a highly-selective representation of the facts.

But what happens when a piece of information come along that doesn't fit into the narrative mold that we have fashioned? What if something comes along that challenges the way we have put it all together in our mind?

Studies have shown that our tendency is to simply throw away the new information outright. Or we rationalize or find other ways to minimize it. We say things like: "Oh, that's not a big deal." "That was just an off day." "This person is not as bad as that other person."

You can see this play out in American politics. People will support a candidate even though that person may be complicit in doing the very same things that we claimed were the reasons for not supporting another candidate from another party.

Many people today support Donald Trump who were the very same people who couldn't tolerate Bill Clinton's sexual antics. Clinton was so bad, they argued, that they had Clinton impeached. There was no shortage of sermons and soliloquies deriding and denouncing Bill Clinton for this. In their equation, Clinton's sexual exploits made him unfit for the Office of President. Period. There was no room for ambiguity. No if's, and's or but's. He was a terrible role model, they argued, and any other positive achievements he may have made were tainted by these sexual exploits.

Trump has arguably a far more scandalous history of sexual exploits. He has shown no remorse or evidence that he wants to change any of that. Yet, he is accepted by the same people who found Bill Clinton unacceptable.

I hear very few cries from the "moral majority" about this. I hear more talk about the "lesser of evils" and "trying to look at the whole package" and other rationalizations. Perhaps the crusade against Clinton wasn't really about his sexual exploits in the first place--maybe that was just a cover for other motives.

Or maybe this is an example of a poor way of dealing with cognitive dissonance.  It goes something like this:  If he's in your political party, you shrug off his negative side. If he's not in your group, you hold his feet to the fire and hate him for most everything he does. You give the benefit of the doubt to those in your group and you have little tolerance for those outside your group.

[And yes, I am quite aware that these same kinds of arguments could and should be made about candidates on the "other side."]

That's exactly the opposite of what Jesus was modeling for us.

Jim Wallis is right in saying that racism is American's "original sin." Perhaps it's the original sin of the entire human race. Jesus tried to pull us out of this tribalism--where we have unquestioned brand loyalty to "our group" and suspicion, derision and outright hatred for those in other groups.

It's a good exercise to listen to what someone says without first knowing anything about their background. I have done this in online chat rooms. I have read brilliant commentary from people who later turned out to be extremely young, and have also read moronic commentary from people who I later discovered to be doctors, lawyers and heads of industry--the so-called high status professions. I might have listened to all of them differently if I had known ahead of time their age or position. 

In a likewise manner, it's good to take passages from famous speeches and ask people their opinion. Later, tell them who said it.

Authentic, Jesus-style dialogue calls us to leave tribalism behind and enter this space of Mystery.  We call this liminal space--it exists between categories and preconceived notions. It's just listening to what is truly being said and interacting with the truth of the person in front of you without first labeling based on which groups a person is associated with. It's the space where we can hear God so well, because we have suspended our own assumptions and conclusions and can truly listen.

It takes a lot of work to evaluate everyone and everything on their own merits and not rush to conclusions based on which group they belong to.

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