I was recently listening to an interesting podcast called Invisibilia And they talked about a study that was done a couple years ago which looked at how people assigned value to identity groups. As in, their race, religion, nationality, political group, and so on
Slide Half of the people in the study just jumped into a questionnaire that was supposed to assess what people thought about various identity groups,
However, for the second half of people in the study, before they gave them the questionnaire they first asked the question. What do think will happen to you when you die? And the results were super interesting Those that started the study thinking about death - They liked their own primary identity group way more and other identity groups less just by getting people to think about death they experienced an increase sense of tribalism. Me good, them bad And the conclusion the researchers drew from this was: That those who think about death were more concerned with feeling important, worthwhile, valuable, In thinking about death they wanted to feel like they themselves mattered And this desire to feel valuable lead them towards wanting to elevate whatever group they are a part of That in some way they could feel more secure in their personal value by elevating the value of those like me and in turn thinking less of those not like me.
And this makes me think of something I learned from a theologian - Miraslov Volf,
Volf wrote a book titled Exclusion and Embrace. A theological exploration of identity, otherness, and reconciliation
Volf’s argument is that - The most basic sin of humanity is the creation of the “other” and the act of exclusion.
We all inherently long to be valued
However, by nature of being human we feel insecure about our value
And in trying to assuage this insecurity we look to validate ourselves in contrast to others
We create an in-group that we give value to - and then rather than having to wrestle with the insecurity on an individual level - we just have to feel secure in our status as a member of our in group. His case is that it is the default and broken human condition to pursue this in group identity through a devaluing of outgroups or the other
Volf argues that this is the story of history.
Miraslov Volf himself, who grew up in Croatia talks about witnessing the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s,
a series of civil wars that were marked with ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and torture.
And the other countless like atrocities throughout history, like the holocaust, or the slave trade. He talked of these as the most high stakes and heartbreaking examples of this broken human condition showing its face How do whole nations, or religious groups end up supporting something like ethnic cleansing? Well, when we rely on our membership of an in-group for reassurance of our value our view of reality can begin to be warped It’s not that these people started off thinking violence against an entire people group was no big deal. NO, it’s just that the higher and higher the stakes get, the more their support of the ingroup feels more important than things that we otherwise would see objectively as evil If harming others comes up against loyalty to my group, most humans - particularly if the stakes feel high enough, will choose loyalty to group. And moreover we will actually then see that act of violence as the higher good in service to our group
That’s the worst extreme this can get to.
Volf also argues that Exclusion and Embrace is core to the story of the Bible.
That in the Bible’s opening narratives -- the stories of adam and eve, and cain and abel, and noah, and the tower of babel -- they all reveal the core of human brokenness: being quick to sacrifice the “other” for the sake of one’s own place in this world.
And, as the Old Testament unfolds, this is the story of Ancient Israel -- falling again and again into that worst human instinct to exclude
But then, according to Volf, in Jesus we see the antidote to exclusion: embrace - That he, through a path of self sacrifice and embrace of the other, - invites us to find the love, acceptance, belonging we’re all longing for, but NOT in a way that harms others… in a way that actually works.
As Paul said in his letter to the Church in Ephesus - specifically addressing the most pressing in group and out group dynamic of his time - that of Jews and Gentiles. From Ephesians 2 SLIDE 14 For he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility... His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. in Jesus we are embraced by God, and shown how to embrace each other. Volf commands to us that the central truth that we discover in Jesus can be summarized in Paul’s injunction to the Romans in Romans 15:7 SLIDE “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you”
I will say, In the end, I feel pretty convinced at this point of my life that this is true. That the worst part of us, certainly me, finds life in exclusion.
That when I think of all the things I have done that I feel the most regret of, or when I think of all the things that I have seen done in the world that feel the most evil. They almost all find their life in an attempt to elevate oneself at the sacrifice of others. I have at times thought about this like the little devil SLIDE that sits on my shoulder, that whispers in my ear - enfalming the worst parts of me. Encouraging me towards self promotion - others sacrifice - easing my concerns about excluding others. I think about something I have been unpacking more and more about myself over the years. SLIDE I tend to be super judgmental about where people live. Namely, if they don’t live in diverse urban environments. You see I grew up in Evanston, and a strange core part of the Evanston identity is that although we are a suburb, but we are not really a suburb. Evanston is a diverse and cultured place, a place where we try to understand and benefit from diversity. At least that is the narrative that Evanstonians tell themselves And I just remember looking down on all of the other northern suburbs of chicago as these rich yuppy, sheltered, uncultured places. Places where white people live because they can’t handle diversity.
There is just so much wrong in all I just said, not to mention how condescending and self righteous that mindset is, but none-the-less. I firmly had that mindset. And I really still struggle with it in a lot of ways. When I travel - particularly when I go through small towns - I frequently say things like - I just can’t imagine living here. With a entirely dismissive and condescending tone. And I have throughout my life just felt like I was frankly a better person for living a urban setting.
I am more cultured, I just get it more. Now, I do think exposure to culture and diversity is good. That all people would benefit from being around people different than themselves, but I don’t think any of us here are actually more valuable as humans because we live in Chicago. There is a important distinction between valuing what urban settings offer and encourage, and valuing people more just because they live in a city - or I should say valuing people less because they don’t live in the city. You see, left unchecked, the little devil on my shoulder tells me that I should feel more valuable because I live in a city, and that it is ok for me to look down on those who don’t. I don’t have to think about my value as a person because I can just feel more self-important by being a part of my Urban dwelling in group.
Or I think about where this probably most visibly played out in my life, and that was the role of my identity, my ingroup as a Christian growing up As I just mentioned, Evanston is a pretty diverse place, But the particular Christian in-group I grew up in didn’t always interpret that diversity, at least I should say didn’t interpret religious diversity as a good thing I was encouraged to bank a ton of my personal value on my membership to my Christian ingroup, especially by drawing stark contrasts between my group and my peers at school, And I can think of some pretty regrettable ways that played out You know another thing Volf talks about Is how the church has frequently been involved in oppression and exclusion throughout history. That too often loyalty to whatever cultural position that Christianity has tied itself to at that time made it so that they don’t see the evil of slavery, the crusades, fascism, and I can go on.
That rather than Christianity being about receiving value directly from God, it becomes about receiving our value from being a part of the Christian ingroup. And thus Christians can become more concerned with maintaining their culture, than serving as peacemakers I can remember so many little ways that this was reinforced in my thinking - Like i remember thinking that only Christians can be truly happy. That people who weren’t Christians were just faking it or hiding if they seemed happy, they don’t have Jesus so they can’t be happy? Think about how warped that was, not only is my ingroup better off, because we have more happiness, but those not in my group can’t even experience happiness. Or I think about one pretty hilarious way this played out for me.
I remember arguing with a science teacher that men had one less rib than women, because God had taken a rib from Adam to create Eve.
And I refused to look at any of the evidence my science teacher presented me to dispute that. You see, In a lot of ways, having the right opinions and beliefs were what bought my membership into the Christian ingroup. So, if a belief was challenged, even by fact, I would ignore reality. Loyalty to my group mattered more. Or perhaps my most painful memory of this is when I was about 16 years old and a friend of mine from school came and sat next to me at lunch. It’s so funny how vividly we can remember some of our more painful memories, but I can remember it was the south wing cafeteria and there was a courtyard we were looking out onto. He knew that I was a Christian and I knew that he was openly Gay. And so he sat next to me and asked, super sincerely, Do you believe that God thinks it is wrong to be gay? Now, just to say, particularly back in the early 2000’s I knew immediately what the Christian answer was. In fact, I had heard my youth pastor talk several times on the subject and I even felt like some of those talks were to prepare me for just a situation like this.
And I remember feeling the anxiety rise up inside of me. As I was about to answer, but honestly it wasn’t really the anxiety of how is my friend going to receive this, it was the anxiety of whether I would fall short in giving my answer adequately or definitely enough. And so, without much affact or care in my voice, I said,” Yes, absolutely I think God thinks it’s wrong.” And then I quoted the couple Bible verses that my youth pastor had prepared me with. And he just shook his head and walked away. There are very few conversations I regret as much as I regret that one. I think the part that I feel the saddest about, was that I didn’t see my friend as a person coming to me and asking that question, Or even wonder or ask why he was asking the question. In that moment, I only saw it as a test of loyalty to my Christian in group. What was most important was that I gave the answer my in group had prepared me with. Because my good standing in my in group mattered more to me than my friend, mattered more to me than the implications of the issue.
In that moment, I happily excluded my friend, I happily sacrificed him to feel at peace about my membership in my Christian in group The truth is that my personal conviction on whether I thought it was wrong, was quite different from what I said, but, loyalty just felt more important than conviction at that time in my life.
So, yes, I feel fully compelled by Volfs argument, that the worst parts of who we are as humans will find life in exclusion, and that the damage of exclusion is not just the injury to those who we exclude, although that injury is large and demands recognition.
But even more than that, I think our own souls are damaged in the process. Each time we sacrifice the other for the sake of ourselves, I believe that we take a step away from living out the eternal acceptance and belonging that God offers and wants us to experience personally and we take a step towards towards the broken and counterfeit substitute that is relying on our ingroup membership. So, I firmly believe the stakes to be high when it comes to exclusion and I think we all to often underestimate just how high those stakes are
Recently I have talked a lot about uncertainty, That we often understand far less than we would like to admit, and very rarely do we see the full pictures of our lives or of the world So, with that being true, how do we navigate life, when inevitably we’re just all going to make errors in judgment sometimes? For me, understanding this piece of our human condition - our proclivity towards exclusion Has changed my decision making process quite a bit It comes down to this: if something is not clear to me, if I might be at risk of erroring, I want to error on the side of self sacrifice and embrace The consequences of exclusion are just so much higher… the damage and hurt I can cause to others , it’s the worst part of humanity, of me, of any of us, Whereas the consequences of embrace -- potentially losing status with my in-group -- well wasn’t that the way of Jesus?
So, I want to encourage us in two ways - First pay attention to anything that might be triggering your loyalty to your in groups Pay attention if you feel your loyalty to the ingroup of where you came from is being triggered Or if you loyalty to your faith background is triggered- Because it is in these situations that we are most prone to error in other-sacrifice and exclusion.
Secondly, I encourage you to error on the side of self-sacrifice and embrace. The next time time you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know what to do, or you feel your loyalty being tested. Error on the side of self-sacrifice and embrace So, the next time you notice that you are thinking lesser of people who didn’t grow up where you grew up, or live where you live, or believe what you believe. I encourage you to error on the side of self-sacrifice and embrace. To assume that you have things to learn, to look to learn what you can from the one who grew up differently than you. To check yourself and makes sure you are not assigning any less value to them Or maybe this plays out on a smaller level at work where the ingroup is just you or your coworkers against your boss, or you and other on level against your subordinates or against another group of coworkers I can’t tell you how many times when I worked in a office setting, something went wrong and it wasn’t immediately clear whose fault it was And my ingroup response to blame the other, to sacrifice the other to keep my position. I would encourage you to instead lean into self-sacrifice and embrace. Yes, there is real risk in that, but I have found that it can actually affect workplace culture by owning fault of whatever part I have played, and I have found that it is much better for my soul to do this than to be constantly protecting myself and promoting myself at the cost of others.
Or maybe you come across someone that you don’t quite understand, like me when I was a 16 year old in a church youth group in 2001 and I really just didn’t know what to think of the LGBTQ community.
Maybe it is that or something else, but whatever it is, the next time you come across someone that challenges what you have come to understand as normal, or someone that is just different than the majority of people that live in whatever ingroups you are a part of. I would encourage you to do the opposite of what I did at 16. I encourage you towards self-sacrifice and embrace.
That your uncertainty would not lead you towards our human default of loyalty to our ingroup Rather we would learn to embrace, that through the humility of self-sacrifice we would look to learn and understand. To, again in the words of Paul, Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you
If you would stand with me I would love to pray.