United Methodists

Narcissism of minor differences in 1 John

Freud said in his essay Civilization and Its Discontents that every time two families become connected by a marriage, each of them thinks itself superior to the other. He called this sort of thinking "Narcissism of minor differences" and it is part of the human condition. We all want to be unique and in our efforts to be unique place a value on minor differences over the major and more fundamental similarities. We also are prone to become militant about these minor differences because our very identity is wrapped up in these minor differences. 

Here is a short video from Portlandia that speaks to the narcissism of minor differences:

In the church that John is writing to in the letter known as 1 John is a church where the narcissism of minor differences has run amok. There is a group of people we now call Gnostics Christians and they have separated from the church John is writing to. Additionally, John is quick to point out that these Gnostic Christians were not really followers any way but in fact they are antichrists. (When you read it in 1 John 2, it sounds something of a jilted lover.) 

https://tcagley.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/narcissism-of-small-differences-listener-comments/

https://tcagley.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/narcissism-of-small-differences-listener-comments/

The point being, there were some in the community who struggled with things like the doctrine of the incarnation and they came to a different conclusion than other members of the church did. For this, and perhaps many other irreconcilable differences, they left. When they left, they were called antichrist. 

I know that now we can look back and believe that if one group saw the incarnation one way and others saw it another, we would say this is a minor difference. It was not to them. It was a major difference. So much so that people left the church and were branded as never really being with us anyway. 

Contrary to the common story, there has never been ONE way that Christianity has ever been practiced. There was never a time when the Church thought, believed or practiced alike. John's church had people who thought Jesus was crucified on the cross and others in the church thought Jesus' crucifiction was an illusion. As a result of these minor differences, the church split. While some see this as Biblical precedent to split, I see it as a cautionary tale of how not to live as the Church. 

When we have church leaders calling others antichrist and that they were never a part of us to begin with, then we really are reflecting rather than reforming the culture. 1 John has a lot of love language and some of the most eloquent prose/poetry in the New Testament to be sure. However, John is not perfect and perhaps falls prey to the narcissism of minor differences. 

Will we? 

Disgust, Anger and Clothed In Pseudo-Righteousness

Recently, Abilene Christian University's Dr. Richard Beck spoke at the church where I serve as co-senior pastor and he said something about disgust and anger that is relevant to the current situation within the UMC.

First, when we experience disgust our reaction is to pull away. We see this in our daily lives to be sure, but we also see this in the stories of Jesus. When there was a person considered disgusting, such as a leaper or a bleeding woman, the crowd stepped or pushed away the one thought of as disgusting. This is natural and helpful as disgust is a safeguard toward contracting sickness. We tend to stay away from sick people and even disgusting places (hospitals, garbage, sewers, etc.)

Second, when we experience anger our reaction is to move toward. When we are angered by someone driving on the road we will often drive quickly pass them or even tailgate them. Angry people are more likely to strike another person or at least yell at them so that our voice even moves toward the other person. Anger drives us to protest and act in ways that can be healthy, such as the theological notion of righteous anger.

Within the UMC there are two different postures toward the issues of LGBTQ inclusion and I propose if it is helpful to think not in terms of conservative/liberal but the animating emotions of disgust/anger.

Photo by  Andre Hunter  on  Unsplash

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

There is a direct and an indirect expression of disgust happening in the UMC. The direct expression are those who personally want to pull away or leave the denomination. This position cannot abide in a denomination that they are disgusted by. The indirect expression of disgust is when we make a way for others to leave. We are not the ones who are leaving, but when we make a direct way for people to leave then we still have our disgust action met – there is a separation.

The other animating action is that of anger. These are the ones who are fighting and protesting for their position. These individuals are on the left and right but the action is the same – to drive toward the other in an attempt to subdue, convince, and/or conquer the other. There is also a direct and indirect form of the anger expression. Those who are directly protesting and those who are using the rules of the system to ensure their position is safeguarded and even bolstered. Either way, there is a direct and active engagement with the Church that is driven by anger.

The reality is those experiencing disgust or anger within the UMC have much to teach us and still much to learn.

Disgust teaches us that boundaries are important and that violations of those boundaries for many people trigger disgust. This means that when boundaries are violated or moved then there are many who have a core reaction similar to drinking their own spit. While the spit is in their mouths it is easy to swallow, however when asked to spit into a cup then drink it, disgust sets in. The boundary of where spit resides was moved and thus becomes disgusting – even if the spit is only seconds out of the mouth. Boundaries help keep people safe and disgust alerts us to a boundary violation and asks us to pay attention to this violation, because it may be harmful.

Anger teaches us that it is important to engage with rather than back down from those injustices in the world. And like disgust, anger is triggered when there is a violation. Anger alerts us to these violations and asks us to pay attention to the violation because there may be harm happening.

For as much as those disgusted or angry have to teach us, they also have much to learn. Specifically the limits of disgust and anger. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus shows us where those limits are and also shows us that if disgust and anger move us beyond these limits then we need to abandon disgust and anger all together.

When Jesus is confronted with people considered disgusting of his time, Jesus understands. Perhaps Jesus even experienced a bit of disgust when he encountered a woman whom he would not move toward, but in fact insinuated she was a dog. When the woman responded that even dogs eat from the scraps of the master’s table, Jesus realized that his disgust too him too far – he called a woman a dog! At that point he abandoned his sense of disgust and boundary keeping and healed the woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21-28).

When Jesus experiences anger he is quick to realize the damage anger can cause. For instance, as soon as Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” the very next line reads, “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:22-24). Notice the twist here, Jesus does not banish Peter but invites him to get behind, one might say follow, him. In this moment of anger, even Jesus invited the Satan to follow him. Meaning that even when angry, Jesus invites the one he is angry with to stay in the relationship. If you are choosing to remain in relationship with someone then anger has to give way to love.

The United Methodist Church has a conversation on her hands about how to include ministry with LGBTQ persons. Some are disgusted and others are angry at this discussion. Both disgust and anger are helpful – until they are not. We have reached a point where disgust and anger are no longer helpful.

Any plan that is brought forth that does not hold us together in unified relationship reflects not the unity of the body of Christ but the emotional needs to resolve our own disgust and/or anger.

As Jesus said, you will be known by your love for one another. Or perhaps when Paul said that we are one in the Body of Christ. Or perhaps Revelation’s image of the peaceable kingdom where the lion and lamb are together. The Biblical witness is continually calling humanity to set anger and disgust aside for the sake of being in loving relationship. May my beloved UMC confront the disgust and anger in our lives, repent of the temptation of the pseudo-righteousness on full display that is only there to mask addiction we have to disgust and anger. Come Lord Jesus!

Choosing Conflict Over War

War is often thought of as the ultimate conflict. Of course there is great loss of life and civilization in any war, there is great devastation and destruction in war. As it has been said, war is hell.

However, according to Peter Rolins, war is not the ultimate conflict but the absence of conflict. Meaning that we would rather see the eradication and elimination of the other person(s) than be in conflict with them. As such, war is what happens when groups/people refuse to have conflict and wish the destruction of the other.

Photo by  Jordy Meow  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jordy Meow on Unsplash

The United Methodist Church has been in conflict for a long time. For some it is exhausting and no longer worth the fight. Some believe that we have irreconcilable differences. Some feel that we cannot be united as long as the Book of Discipline is not changed or if it is not being followed. Some believe that we are better off apart than together. 

Put another way, there are many who would rather not have see or interact or be in conflict with others in the denomination. There are some who choose war because it gives a false comfort. We believe that no conflict means comfort. No conflict means war. Even the building of peace has conflict. The difference in peace and war is that peace puts conflict in its proper place and war banishes conflict all together. 

I choose conflict over war. 

I choose to be in conflict with those I disagree with. Those who I feel are being total jerks and those who think that I am a jerk. I choose to be in conflict with those who break the Book of Discipline and those who desire it to remain unchanged. I choose to be in conflict with those who think I am a heretic and those who think I am saint. I choose to be in conflict because I choose relationships (even conflictual ones) over war.

The Uniting Methodists are people who understand that conflict is nothing to fear. In fact, conflict means we all are alive! If there is no conflict then the "others" have been eradicated. If there is no conflict then there is only war. I pray the UMC will come to see that the long conflicts of our denomination are signs of health and engagement. Let us not fall victim to the false comfort that comes from the sirens calling us to war. 

Truth as Unity

Recently Rev. Tom Lambrecht wrote a wonderful article laying out as he sees the larger conversation in the UMC and LGBTQ inclusion. His thesis is that one side places Unity over Truth (the progressive position) while the other side places Truth over Unity (the conservative position). This is a wonderful article because it highlights the very false choice that is often presented to our denomination. While he is writing from a conservative side, the same false choice is presented from the progressive side. It looks different but it sounds the same - we either have Unity or Truth (in the progressive position Truth permits full LGBTQ inclusion). 

I submit this is a false choice. The reality is in the story of Jesus: it is not Unity or Truth, but Truth as Unity. Just as the Truth of Jesus is both human and divine or just as the Good News is both for Jew and Gentile - Truth is whole and unified. It endures. Unity has always been at the very foundation of Truth and to split it is to follow the adulterous woman (Proverbs 7) rather than woman wisdom (Proverbs 8).

Truth has a way of incorporating seemingly paradoxical positions all the time. Look to the natural sciences, a tree can be dying and putting on new life at the same time or that a platypus is a mammal but lays eggs. Consider the mystifying paradoxes in physics. Look to the teachings of Jesus (first will be last, last will be first; loose your life to gain it; etc.) And who can overlook the fact that human beings are walking talking paradoxes (Christianity says humans are both sinner and saint to speak of the paradox of human beings). 

The more we put out the false ideas that the denomination upholds either Unity or Truth the more we entrench ourselves in our own egos and messiah complexes. The more we think that our side has Truth or values it more than the other side the farther away we push the very Truth we claim to have command of.

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Behind all the rhetoric of our denominational leaders and thinkers about the nature of our situation is a genuine lack of love. That is it. We just do not love one another. Since we do not love one another we do not trust one another. Since we do not trust one another we impose our own sense of justice to a situation that barely (at best) connects to us. We just cannot stand the idea that there is someone who bears the same name I bear (United Methodist) and is doing something that I cannot abide with. So even if we are miles away from the matter and it has nothing to do with us at all, we impose our opinion. We use all sorts of justifications to merit our opinion, but the reality is it is all a mask. We use our language to mask the fact that we have frail egos and we cannot imagine being associated with "those people". (See liberals who oppose Trump or conservatives who oppose Obama at every mention of their name as an example of two groups of people who cannot stand being associated with one who bears the same name: American.)

I am embarrassed by many in my own denomination. I am embarrassed in my own actions. But just as I cannot split myself from myself, so too the Truth cannot be split into neat little categories. Truth as Unity is the way Truth has always been. But, hey if we want to divide up Truth so we can each feel better about our own little kingdoms, egos and pride then we will never make a single Disciple of Jesus Christ - only disciples of our own selves.