I hear a lot of people talking lately about how they are no longer proud to be Christian. They point to the vocal conservative churches and leaders who support Trump, condemn and exclude LGBTQ people, oppress female bodies and sexuality, exhibit breathtaking racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, and ecocide… and they struggle to call themselves “Christian” anymore, in light of these shameful behaviors by modern American “Christianity.”
I completely understand. The most visible examples of self-identified Christian organizations and leaders in the US today make me cringe— or pale in horror. How could any ethically responsible moderate or progressive Christian want to be associated with such bigotry, violence, and dysfunction?
This cringing horror—this is not new for me. My entire life as a Christian living in the (relatively) secular, progressive northeast has involved frequent damage control. When I worked with young people, I had a tough job to undo and heal their damaging, toxic “Christian” ideas: No, you are not going to hell if you have sex before marriage. No, you are not an abomination. No, you are not inherently inferior because you are female. Yikes!
Adults, too: No, the divine is not a monster who killed your wife with cancer. No, your child did not die because you did not pray hard enough. No, your depression is not a symptom of your failure to have enough faith.
And of course, scandals have rocked churches since churches first formed. Clergy abuse. Indulgences. Telling women to shut up and let men oppress them (1 Timothy). Giving the best seats to rich people and telling poor people to go sit on the floor. (I guess James 2:3 had his hands full). Pretty disgusting, those Christians… who would possibly feel proud to be associated with that crap?
There’s this thing in social psychology called “Social Identity Theory,” developed by Henri Tajfel. The gist is: we all want to feel good about ourselves, so we try really hard believe our identity groups are superior to other identity groups. We want to feel proud of our “ingroups” – racial/ethnic, religious, national, language, regional, even sports teams, music, hobbies, and our sex. Unfortunately, we tend to exaggerate differences between our ingroups and our outgroups (“those people”), and we try to ignore or minimize differences within our ingroups. We stereotype. We show positive bias toward people from our ingroups, and negative prejudice against people from our outgroups.
We also make excuses for people from our ingroups, when they do awful things. When an ingroup member hurts people, we minimize the damage done, justify it, or blame the victims. We must defend these awful ingroup leaders, or else our own self-esteem suffers, and we feel badly about ourselves by association.
The more a person gets her/his sense of self-worth from ingroup belonging, the more s/he will defend bad behavior by other ingroup members.
Of course, it’s always easiest to fall into this trap when one’s ingroups are privileged or dominant.
Here’s how it plays out:
—If I get a lot of my self-worth from being American, then I will justify the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the economic exploitation of poorer countries
—If I get a lot of my self-worth from being white, then I will deny that racism is a problem, justify police violence, and blame black victims of police violence— “AllLives Matter”
—If I get a lot of my self-worth from being male, then I will react defensively to #metoo, and I respond, “What about the men?” or “Not all men!”, consider feminists “man-haters,” and dismiss the overwhelming patterns of male violence.
Sometimes, even for the most well meaning people, who try really hard to avoid stereotypes, and combat prejudices… we can still fall into this trap of ingroup-based self-worth. Then, when members of our ingroups do awful things, in our shame, we try to dissociate from those groups.:
—If Trump gets elected, move to Canada.
—Unfriend that racist person instead of trying to change h/er views.
—Males who condemn toxic masculinity may try to reject masculine gender norms, or even maleness itself, and self-identify as not really male (even though they do not identify as transgender).
It would be so easy, wouldn’t it, if we could find the perfect ingroup? If we could find the perfect community, clan, religion, nation, ethnicity, etc… we could feel awesome self-worth, bask in how great we are because we are on the Right Team! Rest, relax, not have to worry about taking responsibility for the horrible crap done by “our people,” just sail along on a happy breeze of smug superiority.
Except, it doesn’t exist. There is not, and there has never been, a perfect human community. Humans are fallible, messy, flawed, imperfect creatures. Our communities are destined to make mistakes. That’s all the Bible is: a record of human communities trying desperately hard to figure out what matters most, how to have healthy community, and failing. And getting it right, and really, horribly wrong, learning from those mistakes, and trying again. That’s all we are doing now, every community on Earth: trying, failing, and trying again. Every religious community, atheist community, yoga club, environmental group, charity, political organization, and justice team.
There has never been reason to be “proud to be Christian.”
Christianity, like every major religion and secular ideology, has always consisted of humans with great ideas, terrible ideas, beautiful intentions, horrible intentions, wise insights, and horrendous mistakes. If a person gets h/er self-worth from being on the right team, s/he is doomed to failure. Whatever your religion or secular philosophy, don’t let it be a source of pride. Let it be a source of guidance, strength, comfort, community, and hope. Let it be a vehicle for advocacy, ethical outreach, making the world a better place. Let it be a place to make mistakes, to fail, and to find the courage to keep trying. You are worthy of love and respect, just as you are. You don’t need to point to your groups. You deserve love, healing, and wholeness. You can be a vessel of love, healing, and wholeness for others, wherever and whoever and whatever you are. You are enough. You are enough.
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. Previously a fellow at the Institute of Culture, Religion, and World Affairs and at the Earhart Foundation, Grenfell-Muir has conducted field research in situations of ongoing conflict in Syria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. Her dissertation explores the methodology, constraints, and effectiveness of clergy peacebuilders in Northern Ireland. She has been an invited speaker in community settings and at MIT, Boston University, Tufts, and Boston College on topics of gender violence, economic injustice, and religious or ethnic conflicts and has also moderated panels on genetic engineering, cloning, and other bioethics issues. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.