Two recent conversations have been troubling me lately, and I finally figured out why. A colleague called me recently to complain about something I wrote. He said, “You know, we didn’t appreciate your criticism.” “What criticism?” I asked. “You wrote in your blog that we weren’t critical thinkers, that we were unreflective.” I tried to remember what specifically I said, and I responded, “Wait a minute. I didn’t name anyone. I can’t help it if you saw yourself in what I wrote.” His retort, “Oh, it was obvious you meant us!” “Well, no, I didn’t mean you specifically, but what did you think of what I actually wrote? Don’t you feel we should be doing more?” I asked.
The issue in question was that I observed that we could and should be doing more to address and eradicate racism and that we often take very simplistic approaches to extremely complex and sensitive issues. I further observed that addressing important and complex issues demands that we align all our our resources to producing the outcome we desire. We cannot afford to pay lip service to efforts aimed at confronting racism, classism, sexism, and the many other destructive -isms facing our church, society, and world at the moment.
The second conversation had to do with something I said about cross-cultural appointments in the church. Having worked closely with immigrant pastors for the past dozen years or so, my feeling is that we (collectively in The United Methodist Church) actually harm some incredibly gifted racial/ethnic minority pastors by doing a poor job preparing both them and the congregations they will serve for inter-cultural ministry. Again, a colleague took this as a personal insult. Again, I asked them, setting aside their personal reaction, didn’t they agree with the observation? In both cases, the person I was speaking with admitted, yes the observations were accurate, but that this didn’t really matter. What was important was that I offended them!
I too easily fall into exactly the same behavior – someone will say something broad and general and I will find a creative way to take it personally. Generally I do this from a guilty conscience; it couldn’t bother me unless I saw it being true of me directly. And when I am a member of a group that fails to perform well, I take criticism of the whole group as a personal insult. This is human, but it is also a big problem in today’s world. When ego (and individual rights and entitlements) become the highest value, it damages the common good and drains energy and effort away from truly important concerns.
We are living in a hyper-prickly cultural environment. It seems that people are constantly on the prowl, looking for things to get upset about, irritated by, offended by, and incensed about. Anger, resentment, insult, injury, and indignation drive many of our thoughts and responses. We have become an offensively defensive culture. Instead of being able to examine and explore major challenges and opportunities together – with honest and incisive critique and analysis – we draw lines, choose sides, and find ways to make everything all about us. The framing of “us/them” opens us to all kinds of erroneous reasoning and response. We immediately ascribe malicious or harmful intent. We see opponents not as worthy adversaries but as enemies. We become tribal in the worst sense of the word. “We” cease to be.
Once again, I see a great opportunity for God’s people on earth. Through our baptism, through our confessions and creeds, through our communion, and through God’s grace, we are made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” (UM Service of Word and Table). The Christ who tears down all the dividing walls and ends the hostilities among us calls us to destroy “us/them” thinking so that the Holy Spirit might join “all of us together” as the body of Christ. When we displace self and ego with Christ at the center of our being, we no longer feel threatened, insulted, or injured and we see that perceived attacks are nothing more than low self-esteem. People tend to respond very differently when they live from the foundational confidence that authentic faith provides.
“All of us together” reframes reality – people cease to be the problem and we can focus on the systems and structures that people have created that do harm and perpetuate evil. Yes, humans are greedy and selfish; yes we hurt others and sometimes do great violence and harm; yes, we fail to live up to our desired values and behaviors – this is why we need a Savior, and this is why we say “yes” to Christ. But God gave us more than just Jesus to help us become the people we need to be – God gives us each other. When we jump to take offense and make our own feelings and needs the most important thing we deny any possibility of becoming true beloved community. Without evaluation, critique, and analysis, we cannot improve; but until we can set self and ego aside we will continue to only focus on the negative and never address the truly important issues of our world.