A Table Changes Everything

They were ordinary tables. Rectangles. Formica tops. Metal legs.

They could seat two Americans comfortably. It was around these tables that lives were fashioned. Relationships were molded. Opposing views were heard. Debates unfolded. Compassion was offered. Listening was honed.

The formation of this group was unlikely as the members were from heterogenous backgrounds. Two had gone to Princeton. One had attended a Lutheran University. The other was a Fuller grad. The group consisted of three males and one female. A Presbyterian. An ELCA Lutheran. A Missouri Synod Lutheran. And one Pentecostal.

Yet, they were a group . . . a cohort in a doctoral program at a Lutheran seminary.

It goes without saying that the members were diverse politically and theologically; thus, whether held consciously or subconsciously, each had preconceptions about the other’s tradition. But around these tables the members heard the voice of the other, forcing them to wrestle with assumptions. Around these tables, the other developed a face, a brother or a sister in Jesus Christ.

In such a group . . . I was the female. The pentecostal.

This was not the first time I was part of an interdenominational cohort, and I cherish those days due to the fact that my faith was enriched through encountering difference. As I reflect back on both cohorts, I recognize how disparate such groups are within our current American culture’s mentality of Us vs. Them.

Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt assert in their culturally relevant book, The Coddling of the American Mind that the current Us vs. Them mentality in America is in part due to our tribalistic nature. They cite the research of neuroscientist David Eagleman and others to support their claim. Eagleman conducted MRIs of people’s brains while they were observing other individuals being touched on the hand by either a needle or a Q-tip. If the hand being touched was stamped with the name of the observer’s own religion and was pricked by a needle, there was a “larger spike of activity than when the hand was labeled with a different religion.” Such brain activity continued when groups were randomly created just moments prior to an observer receiving an MRI. The authors write, “[If] the hand being pricked was labeled as belonging to the same arbitrary group as the participant, even though the group hadn’t even existed just moments earlier, the participant’s brain still showed a larger spike.” Lukianoff and Haidt summarize, “We just don’t feel as much empathy for those we see as ‘other.’”[1] In essence, humans are wired to identify with a group, which may lead to our tribalistic tendencies generating the development of an Us vs. Them mentality.

Us vs. Them.

It embraces dichotomous thinking as in good/bad; victim/perpetrator; enemy/friend; right/left. The Us vs. Them mentality holds that our group is morally right, and it is being threatened by any group who does not agree with us. We are not safe, as Haidt and Lukianoff comment.

Such a mentality fails to acknowledge what Cynthia Crysdale asserts: we are both victims and perpetrators in that victims often become perpetrators in order to resolve their own pain, which gives birth to more victims.[2] For instance, a group of Liberals may bash the Conservatives for not being more tolerant while the Conservatives attack the Liberals for not allowing their voice to be heard. In the process, both groups are, ironically, committing the very “sin” for which they condemn the other. Such is the case of Us vs. Them. As Lukianoff and Haidt write, we bond with a group based on a common enemy and defend our group’s “moral matrix,” but all the while we fail to think for ourselves and regard the common humanity of both groups.[3]

Has such a mentality infiltrated the American church?

Let us consider the following:

  • Has the American church become more about earthly kingdoms and nationalism than God’s kingdom and servanthood?
  • Do church groups perceive themselves as victims, not perpetrators?
  • Does one’s church community regard the world in mutually exclusive categories? Republican vs. Democrat? Liberal vs. Conservative? Us vs. Them?
  • Is our rhetoric being driven by fear of the other, a fear that is concealed by anger?

If the answer is “yes,” it may explain why some church leaders instruct adherents to vote a particular way, leaving little room for variance within the group. This causes me to wonder if such instruction sends a signal of unwelcomeness to those who hold a contrary political perspective within their community’s walls.

But I believe it does not have to be this way as there is a table around which Christ-followers are invited to sit, the Lord’s Table. Around this table we are called to have a careful regard for the body—the members of Christ’s body (1 Cor 11:29). It is around the Lord’s Table we are called to be united. There are no Democrats nor Republicans at the Lord’s Table. Only human beings. As Jesus Christ embraced common humanity internally in his person, the Communion Table is where we reflect his image by seeing the other’s common humanity. It is in the being of Jesus Christ that God is in relationship with a people at enmity with God. Since Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human (hypostatic union), it is in the internal being of Jesus Christ that Jesus rejects the divine/mortal dichotomy and reconciles the two. In Jesus’s person, the tribalistic nature, the Us vs. Them mentality, is absent. When Jesus invites us to his table, there is no male nor female; no Jew nor Greek; no Liberal nor Conservative (Pam’s paraphrase). All that remains is our common humanity. When we strive to identify with the other’s common humanity, we are participating in Christ’s ministry to humanity in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

As the Apostle Paul writes to the fractured church in Corinth, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor 1:13). The obvious answer is “no.”

Lord, I confess that at times I have failed to see the other’s common humanity. I have been critical of those who hold different views. May you forgive me and help me to see others as you see them.

 

[1] Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2018),  Kindle Edition, 58.

[2] Cynthia Crysdale, Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today (New York: Continuum), 23-24. A case in point is those who are sexually abused as children often become sexual abusers as adults.

[3] Haidt and Lukianoff, 50, 60.

A special thanks to pixabay.com for the image.

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