Ingroups, Outgroups, And Where We See Ourselves.

I’ve been thinking lately about that whole #notallChristians stuff that we so often see Christians use as a response to discussions about other Christians behaving badly. They do it because they see “bad Christians” as existing outside their own group of Christians–so far outside the group that they shouldn’t even be seen as Christians at all. (And oh do they get grumpy when the rest of us refuse to play along with that charade, and insist on seeing even “bad Christians” as real Christians.) It can get a little dizzying to keep up with what Christians mean by much of anything, especially because of how they talk about who’s in the group and who’s out of it.

Words mean exactly what he means them to mean, and nothing more nor less. (Javier Candeira, CC-SA.)

Everything started when our dear and lovely Beth posted a response to a recent post:

Ehh…I feel like I should be defensive here, except your points are too well taken. There’s good Christians and downright awful Christians, and it makes more sense to me to put it that way rather than hand-wave the bad ones away with “They’re not True Christians.” It’s time that more Christians owned up to this.

It actually annoys me when other Christians immediately respond with BUT #NOTALLCHRISTIANS whenever something like this happens.

And then Chuck Johnson came in with something equally well-said:

The “good Christian – bad Christian” categories are not too useful to analyze what’s going on here. The “Progressive Christian – Fundamentalist Christian” categories are much more useful. Moral perceptions from thousands of years ago largely inform the Fundamentalists’ views. Modern ideas inform the moral views of progressive Christians. These modern ideas are a better kind of morality.

I had this big long response written and then realized I really wanted to expand on those thoughts in a blog post (didn’t mean to shortchange you there, Chuck, just I saw something there I wanted to develop a lot further). Then we came up on the last post about Sam Eaton’s long list of suggestions for his religion’s leaders and a lot of things solidified in my mind about the ingroups in Christianity.

Dumbing of Age as Social Commentary.

If you’ve read the brilliantly insightful post on Slate Star Codex, “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup,” then you already have a good idea of how people can go wrong with assumptions about just who their ingroups and outgroups are–and about how different they really are from their most-hated outgroup.

In the beginning of the post, Scott Alexander quotes a scene from an old novel about a priest who refuses to forgive a criminal when all the townsfolk want to do so–and then later, when the townsfolk discover that the criminal’s transgressions are much worse than they’d imagined and want to withdraw their forgiveness, he lectures them for “forgiving” someone whose sins didn’t impact them or hurt them personally, and whose sins that weren’t really that bad (comparatively speaking). What they offered that criminal wasn’t really them going much out of their way; they thought of themselves as sooo much better than the priest, but in reality this ersatz forgiveness had cost them nothing at all.

That post reminds me of that strip from Dumbing of Age that Lambchop shared last time. And for much the same reason, in the strip the Christian Joyce tries to do the exact same thing as those townsfolk did in the novel. Ultimately, Billie’s forgiveness of Ruth doesn’t obligate anybody else to forgive her. In a way, though, Joyce is just trying to invoke the ingroup protections over the newly-exposed couple. She does it in a really misguided way, but her heart’s in the right place. And as the strip reveals at the end, by giving the group something to unanimously come together on and focus on (which is what that collective “GRROOAAANNN” was!), Joyce took the focus off of Ruth and Billie for just a minute and gave everyone something else to disapprove of. Ruth and Billie may well be in a considerably-better space in the floor’s residents’ hearts because of Joyce. But they didn’t reject her for trying to Jesus-juke the situation. She’s part of their ingroup.

One of the reasons I really like the character of Joyce in that strip is that you can really see her move along that process of realizing that her old ingroup wasn’t that great, and that she’s been slowly moving toward a new ingroup without even realizing it. If you’d asked her what her ingroup was at the beginning of the strip, she’d have undoubtedly said it’d be Christians like herself–inerrant/literal church-loving Bible-believing fundagelicals of the sort that Sam Eaton (the author of the suggestions we talked about last time) would have found unobjectionable. But in college, she learns that her group has lied repeatedly about the groups it considers enemies–their outgroups, so to speak, like gay people, atheists, feminists, even people who like silly cartoons. She makes friends with a number of people in those enemy outgroups. She even develops a serious crush on one of them.

When Joyce tries to share her discoveries with her ingroup (which she does at various times), she discovers what many of us have: that they aren’t interested in hearing it because that information conflicts with their own self-image. And, too, Joyce notices that the only other person in her dorm who believes roughly the same things she does, Mary, is a hateful, hypocritical, dishonest, bigoted asshat who is universally despised by the rest of her dorm-mates. When Mary gets hit and thrown to the floor by another dorm-mate, they do nothing to help her; they only glare at her from their doorways as she gathers herself up and limps to her own room. She is not part of the floor’s ingroup, and she seems dismayed to learn it.

As of the webcomic’s most recent strips, Joyce’s faith itself still seems strong, but she’s clearly begun identifying as part of a whole other ingroup than she did at the strip’s beginning. Her allegiances have completely changed. I’m not sure she’s fully aware of that shift, however.

I strongly suspect that like Joyce, most people aren’t totally aware of which ingroups they’re part of, much less why they really dislike their outgroups. And I think sometimes we think we’re part of one ingroup, but we’re actually part of another entirely.

That’s the situation that we find Sam Eaton in, and it’s likely the same situation that a lot of young Christians find themselves in.

Yes, He’s So In Danger of Excommunication.

In the beginning of his post, Sam Eaton clearly states the risks he’s supposedly taking by moving out of lockstep. “At the risk of being excommunicated,” he’s making like Martin Luther and nailing “[his] own 12 theses to the wooden door of the American, Millennial-less Church.” Oooh. So brave. Much bold.

But he’s not actually taking that big a risk. Criticizing Christianity is a popular past-time for youngish Christians. It’s not hard to find hipster Christian blogs that do exactly the same thing. As long as the Christian in question doesn’t get too popular, like Rachel Held Evans did, there’s no reason for the leaders of the religion to take note–much less action. Indeed, his very first point is equally clearly stated (in bold, no less): “Nobody cares what we think.”

So which is it? Are his tribe’s leaders going to freak out and rake him over the coals, or are they going to largely ignore him? Does he think he’s going to shame those leaders into paying attention to what he thinks are the problems and solutions facing Christianity? Because better and more coherent speakers than him have tried and failed completely to gain any traction at all.

Comparing himself to Martin Luther is especially bold considering his actual suggestions; most are unworkable or not actually that revolutionary. Some are out-and-out foolish (like his naive suggestion about eliminating church budgets; I don’t like churches, and even I recognize that the alternative is getting hung up in endless meetings to justify every single expense).

Nobody’s going to excommunicate him for this nonsensical post of his, and he’s no Martin Luther on the cusp of kick-starting some brand-new, invigorated church movement led by bold young Millennials (like himself). His post will go on the heap with all the other posts just like it, is all, and it will largely be totally ignored by the church leaders he wants to convince. He’s not speaking their language and he’s suggesting courses of action that will have a deep impact on their bottom line of power and influence.

In short, the leaders he’s trying to reach are not his ingroup. They not only have no reason at all to listen to him, they have every reason to rebuff his ideas. He might think on one level that they’re his ingroup, which is why he feels brave enough to make these suggestions. But even he knows deep down that they’re not, which is why he’s positioning himself as Martin Luther and them as the entrenched Catholic Church.

Slipping In and Out of Ingroups.

That’s why he does this curious equivocation throughout his writing. Lambchop noticed it first, I think–and once one knows what one is looking for, one can see it happening all through the post. In short, sometimes when he uses “we” and “our” he’s talking about Christians generally, including his generation and his churches’ leaders, and at other times when he uses it he’s only referring to Christians who are about his own age and who believe the same stuff he does.

In that first point, when he talks about nobody caring what “we” think, he means that his church leaders couldn’t give a wet fart what Millennials think. He continues through to the second point, saying that “we’re sick of hearing about values and mission statements.” (His solution to the endless issuing of myriad mission statements, by the way, is the rather surreal suggestion that “the entire American Church came together in our commonalities and [use] the same, concise mission statement.” Yes. They’ll get right on that.) He shifts seamlessly into using “we” to refer there to “one body of Christ, serving one God.” Now he’s not talking about just his age group of fundagelicals; he’s talking about Christians generally.

But then by point 3 he’s talking about how sad he is about “how radically self-centered and utterly American our institution has become.” Now “our” refers to all Christians, not just Millennials, but in point 4 he shifts meanings again to use “we” to refer to younger Christians.  And he does this shifting all the way to the end, when he informs his church leaders, “You’re complacent, irrelevant and approaching extinction. A smattering of mostly older people, doing mostly the same things they’ve always done, isn’t going to turn the tide.” Suddenly the church body is told “you aren’t reaching millennials.” (Emphases in these two quotes are mine. Also, he capitalizes the word “Millennial” erratically; if you see any grammatical errors in the quotes I’ve offered, it’s almost certainly in the original post.)

In this manner, the writer moves back and forth between considering “we/our” to mean all Christians or just a few Christians, and he expects his audience to just know what he means whenever he uses the word. To outsiders, especially those able to think critically, this kind of shifting is frustrating in the extreme. Who does he mean at any given time when he uses the word “we” or “you” or “they”? Well, that depends entirely on context, really. He decidedly doesn’t think of himself as the sort of Christian who would ignore Millennials or disregard the importance of charity work.

This shifting may be happening because Mr. Eaton’s preaching to the choir and doesn’t want to look like he is. FaithIt, the site that published this post in the first place, is aimed at younger fundagelical Christians. Chances are mainline Christians wouldn’t have the patience for its Buzzfeed brand of breathless chirpiness (they don’t live in quite the same insular bubble as their more extreme brethren), and the site’s definitely pitching articles aimed at younger Christians. (Their marriage-related posts are quite the infuriating read, written as they are from the point of view that fundagelical relationship rules are totally workable.)

Preaching to the Choir in the Digital Age.

It’s very unlikely that Christian leaders like Russell Moore or Thom Rainer are going to read his post and say “OMG you guys! We should totes dissolve all our church budgets and form new committees for charity work and OMG guess what we’ll put Millennials in charge of them! Craft beers for everyone!” Seasoned leaders know better than to think it’s practical or advisable to put those ideas into action, and they’re definitely not going to be interested in paring away their own power to hand it over to the young people they distrust so much.

Sam Eaton isn’t boldly nailing theses to a church door. To shamelessly borrow some imagery here, he’s posting his ideas in the cellar of some faraway place in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.”

For this supposed audacity, he will be worse than excommunicated.

He’ll be ignored–at least by the powerful folks in his religion.

On the plus side, his ingroup of young Christians like himself will very likely sympathize with him. They may actually congregate around him. They may decide to leave their established churches to form groups similar to the ones he describes. His post did go viral, after all, so obviously quite a few people saw it. In the three months since it did, I haven’t seen any large-scale changes happening, but I wouldn’t deny that he definitely struck a chord with a certain segment of Christianity.

And that’s who he’s really talking to. Those are the people who’ll be reading that post and forwarding it around social media, and those are the people who’d consider his ideas workable and inspired. They’re his tribe. His real ingroup. He might want to see himself as part of the vast body of the Church Universal and Triumphant, but the reality is that he (like most young Christians–even fundagelical ones) has more in common with the readership of Roll to Disbelieve than he does with the bigwigs of his own religion.

And sure, if that new movement happens, its adherents will find out along the way exactly why their religion’s doctrines and ideas translate into exactly the same shortcomings that they now decry, and how difficult it is to avoid those shortcomings given the doctrines they feel they must follow.

A Game of Drones.

Sam Eaton is going to learn sooner or later the rules of the game that his elders have been playing in such deadly earnest for so long. At that point he’ll either need to fall into line to play the game to win, or he’ll be crushed and discarded by those who better understand what’s going on. A less-toxic group might not work exactly like that, but he’s demanded significant changes of the adherents and leaders of one of the most vicious, control-hungry, and dominance-driven groups in the entire civilized world.

As Cersei Lannister could have told him, there’s no middle ground when it comes to the quest for rulership of a group like that. Those who think of themselves as part of the ingroup can discover very quickly how far outside the group they really are, once they become enough of an irritation to the powerful people who actually run things. In that light, being ignored would be far preferable to actually getting their attention.

I’ll close with another community member’s entreaty:

God, I WAS this guy for so long…… “Christianity is a shitshow, no doubt, but GUYS JESUS IS SO GREAT! If we just…..”

Hopefully he, too will eventually do the math on why churches are, at best, unhelpful to their communities and to “hurting people” and at worst a collosal source of nothing but trouble.

If you’re reading this…. it’s ok. Really. Do that math.

And to the Sam Eatons of the world, I say as well: it’s okay. Really. Do that math.

Come to the dark side. We have kittens.
Come to the dark side. We have kittens. (SOMEONE HAZ A FIERCE.)
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