It is much easier to criticize than to praise, or to tear down than to build up. An unkind word seems to come more naturally than a kind one sometimes. And we are quick to point out what is going wrong and then leave it to others to figure out how to make it right. Within the human race there seems to be a pandemic of non-constructive criticism and the internet, especially Twitter and Facebook, seems to only make it easier to say harsh words or behave badly and quickly amass a small army of haters behind those cruel comments. When youth do this, we call it bullying, but it’s bullying even if it is adult on adult crime as well. It would be easy to blame the tool, the internet or more specifically, social media, but instead, I think our culture may be more to blame than anything.
The United States celebrates and embraces individuality. Sometimes, the American dream has extended slightly beyond the individual to the family – if one betters their own life, he/she can better the life of their immediate family, but our culture, as whole (ironic that I am saying that ‘together’ we are individualistic), is one of individualism. Our justice system holds the individual responsible for his/her actions. We do not like to be categorized; we like to stand out on our own. Even in the most recent decades, individuality has expressed itself in new ways – through even more unique baby names and spellings, less focus on family names (women keeping their own last names), and social media presence and platform at early ages.
I do not think there is anything wrong with embracing the unique singular person God has created you/me to be, but I think most can see how a culture focused on individuality/personhood rather than community can easily become self-focused, egocentric, and even self-obsessed. We have transitioned to reading the word ‘you’ in English, which can mean you collectively (all y’all in the south) or you singularly, to default to the singular. Personal opinion is king/queen and electric language often overshadows truth if we are not careful to evaluate.
And so, it is extremely rare AND I think it takes a selfless, graceful, Christ-like attitude to set aside our own opinions and dive into those of the ‘other.’ And I’m not talking about moving just one step to the right or to the left of your own opinion, race, or neighborhood; I’m talking about really stepping outside of it and with an authentic interest and/or curiosity. Some of us would say we are there; we read opinions or consider the positions of the ‘other,’ but if we’re really honest, we read or listen to those opinions only to respond more self-righteously about our own views or position. We pretend to care, but we’re really only formulating our own response. We inform ourselves to elevate our own position and to claim empathy or educate ourselves just enough to appear worldly, all the while, building the walls of our self and our own views higher and thicker around us.
BUT, there is hope. A few weeks ago, a group at my church came together to select a spiritual book to study together this year. To my surprise, one of our more conservative (spiritually) members sat at the table with two ‘crazy-liberal’ (my own label there) books in front of her. And when explaining why she read them and wanted our group to possibly read them (she had previously read them herself), she had this to say (some paraphrase here),
“I wouldn’t label myself theologically liberal at all, but this is where a lot of the church is right now. Some things I agreed with, and others I did not, but I want to understand.”
“I want to understand.” Isn’t that why we all like Jesus even if we hate the word Christian? Jesus had this beautiful quality of wanting to understand the misunderstood. To be loved, to feel loved, is to be understood. And,
“to love another person is to look into the face of God,” (Victor Hugo).
I am a twin and I feel most loved when my identical twin sister and I are together. We don’t have to say anything, we don’t have to do anything, but I feel loved because I know she gets me in the deepest, most innate way.
I’m not going to begin to say I understand the race crisis we have entered into in our country, but I do know this: We will never be each other, but we can want to understand. And what greater love is there than trying to understand someone else? Because when we forget ourselves in order to get to know others, we take the walls down and start to build bridges. We admit that we don’t know everything, but that we’re willing to listen and learn. We stop judging and start being together. We become a community rather than individuals fighting for space. We become ‘us’ and forget about ‘me.’
The Bible frequently addresses the collective people of God, and less frequently, the individual of God. But, not surprising in a country of ‘me,’ Christians in the United States have elevated a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But, the community of God, the people of God, is so intrinsic to faith in Jesus Christ that it dominates theology – so much so that Stanley Grenz wrote his theological doctrine on Theology for the Community of God. In this book, Grenz approaches theology from a communal perspective, discovering for the people of God rather than the self in God. When we ask where we are going, where God is taking us, it is difficult to leave people behind.
I recently reached out to a pastor friend of similar age who is also part of the PCUSA denomination. He’s been a great listener, friend, and safe space to share frustrations, but someone who always insists on pushing me past frustration to hope, which I love. Interestingly enough, we are theologically incongruent, but that doesn’t seem to get in the way of our ability to appreciate one another and serve God together. Anyway, I was (hate this word, but probably fits the situation) venting to him about some conflict in the regional church and expressing how I was having the hardest time understanding why it was happening and where it was coming from. He looked at me and said,
“Julie, you’re a bridge-builder, not a wall-builder, so you’re never going to get that.”
Coming from my friend, that was a huge compliment, because everything about him offers safety and security to be who you are even if you are unlike him. Sometimes we are naturally bridge builders, and other days it might feel like fighting against our self. But, I think all of us, on our best days, we’re bridge builders, but it takes getting out of our own way first. We just need to be a little more sacrificial and a little more divinely and community minded so we can have some more of those best days and start changing our I, me, first culture.