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.)

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!

Simple Insight from Economics Dramatically Changes the Church

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Noble Prize in Economics. He is the credited as one of the grandfather of the field known as Behavioral Economics. As I understand it, standard economics assumes that people act as rational beings. That is to say that if given the proper information, people will choose to act in their best interests. It assumes that if a person does not act rationally, then that person is either ignorant, inept or a jerk. Behavioral economics argues that human beings are not rational beings, because all humans often act irrationally. For instance:

  • We do not save enough money for the future
  • We will watch the whole movie even if after 15 minutes we know we will not enjoy the movie
  • We chose more often when there are fewer options than if there are more options
  • We don't go to a doctor because we don't want to know what is wrong

According to standard economics these are irrational actions.

Kahneman shared that there are two forces that drive human behavior: driving forces and restraining forces. This is rather intuitive, we do things because of our driving forces but we understand that there are sometimes restraining forces that keep us from taking action. For instance, we know we should work out more often (the driving force is that it is good for our health). However, for many the strong restraining force of children waking up at 5am demanding attention keeps many from working out. We know it is important to save money for the future, but we also have bills today to pay.

The Church, like standard economics, pay a lot of attention to the driving forces in our lives. For much of the Church the underlying question is, “How can we get people to do (insert action here)?” The Church uses tools such as preaching, teaching, begging, inspiring, as well as fear, guilt and social norms to drive people to action.

Additionally, the Church, like standard economics, has been less attentive to the restraining forces in our world.

The great irony is that the Church is in a good position to address the restraining forces because the Church has an entire language dedicated to these forces. The restraining force of sin is a powerful force that restrains us from acting from the better angels of our nature. While the Church needs to take seriously the question of driving forces, the Church also needs to take just as seriously the question. Rather than focusing on how can we get people to act, we ought to consider “why are people not already doing the desired action?”

If the Church focuses only the driving forces in our lives, then the Church will miss the mark on helping Christ in the world. The Church needs to address the restraining forces in the world and in the lives of people.

We need to address the reality that many people want to come to church, but are just too busy and tired. Many people love Jesus and want to follow him, but find biblical literalism laughable. Many people desire to have a place to belong but are turned off by checking their mind at the door. Many people want to attend a collective gathering where they are moved by music and the transcendent but cannot get on board with the concert of worship leaders.

Working with the driving forces is rational and easy, but humans are often irrational and difficult.

Difficult and irrational is the wheelhouse of the Kingdom of God

Dysfluency: A case for making the Bible difficult to understand

There is a lot of work these days to try to make things easier to understand. Preachers are not immune to this trend. Pastors are encouraged to make the Bible easy for people to understand. Making the Gospel message more accessible to more people is a worthy effort. However, I wonder if in our efforts to make things easy to understand could unintentionally make them easy to forget? 

When I was in college, my university gave laptops to all incoming students. In part this effort was to make note-taking easier. Years later, studies have shown that taking notes by hand rather than typing them is better if you want to retain the information. Likewise, using slightly difficult to read fonts promote better recall. Sometimes when things are easier to do, they are easier to forget. 

There is a push in some areas of the world to promote something called Dysfluency. This is the process of making something slightly difficult in order to promote greater recall, retention and integration. (Clarification: dysfluency is not the same as disfluency).

I wonder what it would look like for us preachers to embrace dysfluency when it comes to preaching and teaching the scriptures.