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? 

No, Jesus Does Not Pay Our Debt

The story is preached from the street corner to pulpits around the world: Humans are sinners all sin demands repayment (justice), but the "good news" is Jesus paid the debt. It is a fine story. But it is not Gospel. 

Photo by  Ruth Enyedi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ruth Enyedi on Unsplash

When framed this way, Christ does not forgive the debt of sin but only pays it off. Meaning that God is still a God who demands a tit-for-tat. Every sin requires a payment. Every debt is due. At the end of time, all accounts will balance. This sense of balance is often described as justice, which makes us feel good, but it is not Gospel. 

Rather than paying the debt, Jesus forgives the debt. To forgive a debt means that the debt that was owed is erased. To pay the debt means the debt is still there but now it is balanced. God who demands the debt to be paid is not the God of the radical grace and love that Jesus points us to. This pay-the-debt god is a false idol that we place our trust in because it "makes sense" that every debt is to be paid. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is one that does not "make sense" in so many ways. The Gospel is one that proclaims that there is no debt to pay off. It is, and you are, forgiven. If you have to have a ledger page to show it, the debt line has been erased - as though it was never owed to begin with. 

It is a nice story, Jesus pays our debt, but this story maintains a social order built upon score keeping, grudge holding, and gracelessness. It is not Good News. 

Shifting the Marginalized

Recently I was in a conversation with a church member who shared their concern about shifting who we marginalize. This member said that they have been marginalized in their life and it was a terrible place to be. This member said that they have a concern that the conversations in the UMC around LGBTQI+ inclusion has been dominated by voices that are willing to shift who we marginalize rather than attempting to eradicate the very idea of having marginalized groups! 

Photo by  Ryan Searle  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ryan Searle on Unsplash

I heard this member express concerns that it will be the traditionalists who will be marginalized in the conversation. This was unsettling to this member even as they disagree with the traditionalist position. They could not imagine being a part of a church that would be willing to shift who we marginalize.

It is conversations like this that I have time and time again with members of the local church I am a part of that I offer as evidence to why I support the efforts of the Uniting Methodists. 

If we believe that the faithful way to eradicate angry racism toward people of color is to fight with angry racism toward whites then we truly are lost. Replacing one evil/Sin with the very same evil/Sin with different pronouns then the cycle of violence and scapegoating is alive and well. It is this cycle that Rene Girard identifies at Satan.

Satan, like Christ, is a title not a proper name. While Christ means "Anointed", Satan mean "Accuser." The more we accuse, blame, marginalize and scapegoat others the tighter grip the Satan has on us all. And so you may begin to see that to use tactics that divide people is the very first step to acting as the Satan (Accuser). 

If it is true that you just cannot abide with a community that you believe is doing things that are outside the Grace of God, then perhaps the most faithful response is to move closer to them rather than divide. For division is the second act of the Satan. The final act of the Satan is to move toward eradication of another. And when the other is eradicated, guess what, the Satan will desire another victim. 

Shifting who we marginalize is not the work of the Anointed. It is the work of the Satan. May we not shift the marginalized but rather remove the act of marginalizing. 

Uniting Methodist Conference - Not Letting Ourselves off the Hook


Among the many wonderful experiences at the Uniting Methodist Conference held in Atlanta, Georgia (November 13-14, 2017), I submit this post to share a few highlights. 

First, it has become a lazy argument that Unity and institutional survivability are interchangeable. Put another way, it is argued that if you desire for Unity then you really are driven by your fear of loosing pension, health care and salary. This misrepresents the Uniting Methodists in the same way it is said that the traditionalists hate LGBTQI+ community and that the progressives believe traditionalists are racist and homophobic. All of these lazy arguments are caricatures that do not represent reality. To continue to speak to one another as caricatures is not only un-Christ like but it is mean.

Rather, the Uniting Methodist feel God is calling the Church to uphold Jesus' great prayer in John 17:

"‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."

Jesus is not praying for an institution or a pension. He is upholding and elevating the value of unity in the face of pressure to easily dismiss and divide. Yes, centrists understand that those on the left see inclusion as a justice issue. Yes, centrists also understand that those on the right see the lack of following the Discipline as a justice issue. Yes, centrists also know that the both sides do not view these two justice issues as morally equivalent. Both sides view their justice issue as higher and thus morally more important. 

Just as the right and left each have a rooting in the Biblical text, so to do centrists. Everyone places a premium on the authority of scripture. To say your side values scripture more than the other side(s) is the church version of the kid saying his dad is stronger than your dad. Can we all grow up? The Uniting Methodists movement is standing up to stop dealing in absolutes

This leads me to say that one of the most heart stopping speeches that I heard at the Uniting Conference came from Rev. Vance Ross. Rev. Ross rose and stated that as an African American, he has witnessed years of systemic racism in the UMC. He cited two specific examples of how the structure of the UMC had been set up and continues to disenfranchise people of color.  Rev. Ross was quick to point out that he is not trying to equate the African American experience with the LGBTQI+ experience only to point out that he has seen how the Church has worked (intentionally and otherwise) to keep people of color in the margins of the Church. He then said that the people of color have chosen to remain in the broken Church in order to bear witness to Love.

I interpreted his comments in a few ways. First to leave the church is a position of privilege. If you can leave because you have another place to go, then you are privileged. People of color cannot even go to the store without being met with suspicion, and so their local church is a safe haven (even in a systemically racist church). Second, if people of color left then it lets us anglos off the hook to face our failures. If we don't see people of color then we can ignore them even more than we do now. To stay and bear witness to Love is to be a presence even if the system says you are unwanted. Bearing this loving witness is a position of strength that just knocked me to the floor.

Rev. Ross' comments not only deeply resonated with me but convicted me. It resonated in that his witness of Love speaks to the Jesus I know who continued to be in relationship with the ones who doubt, dismiss and abandon him. He bore witness to love in the face of accusations from those who could kill him by standing silent before them. Rev. Ross and people of color are not Jesus. However, Rev. Ross' comment hit a bass note of God in me. To break apart from others I disagree with mean that I will always be blind to large portions of my sin. And, if I separate from those I feel are doing wrong then I will not have opportunities to practice forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Rev. Ross reminded me once again of all that I need to learn and better understand in my own self. In order to become more like Christ, then I need to be in communion and relationship with those who expose in my the very things that I cannot see. Therefore, unity for the sake of unity is a shame, unity for the sake of Christ is the Church. But maybe I am remembering the song differently: 

I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!

The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.

We're many kinds of people,
with many kinds of faces,
all colours and all ages, too
from all times and places.

Sometimes the church is marching;
sometimes it's bravely burning,
sometimes it's riding, sometimes hiding;
always it's learning.

And when the people gather,
there's singing and there's praying;
there's laughing and there's crying sometimes,
all of it saying:

At Pentecost some people
received the Holy Spirit
and told the Good News through the world
to all who would hear it.