The danger of ‘radically different’

So let’s talk about this idea that Christians should be “radically different.” It’s a compelling, inspiring idea, and one that we can find lots of support for throughout the Bible.

We Christians are told to be a “peculiar people,” a beloved community marked by the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus warned of the “broad path” that “leads to destruction,” challenging his followers, instead, to stick to a narrow way of salvation. That’s in the Sermon on the Mount — a collection of teaching that would clearly mark those who followed it as “radically different” from the world around them.

But at the same time, Jesus frequently warns his followers not to think of themselves as radically different from anyone else. In many of the stories told by Jesus or about Jesus, he highlights the “others” as examples of model behavior. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan. We’re not supposed to be “radically different” from that guy. Or think of the bewildered “sheep” in Matthew 25 who, unlike the “goats” in that parable, don’t seem to have any idea who this Jesus person is.

So this idea of radical difference can be a good thing when it’s a difference based on the most excellent thing — “by this shall all people know that you are my disciples, that you have love.” But it can also be a very dangerous idea that leads to something unloving — something that, because it is unloving, becomes corrosive and soul-killing.

Here, again, I think of the Anti-Kitten-Burning League.

These folks, it must be said, are right and correct in their fervent opposition to the burning of kittens. But the problem is that they don’t only want to be right — they want to be different. And being “radically different” is so important to them, so important to their sense of identity and how they imagine themselves to be, that they’re unable to see that their indignation over kitten-burning is shared nearly universally. Because they need to believe that indignation makes them different, they begin to suspect or to imagine or to accuse many or most of their neighbors of not sharing their appropriate disapproval of kitten-burning.

And thus they wind up far less focused on opposing cruelty to sweet little kittens than they are focused on condemning all their neighbors for some imaginary endorsement of kitten-burning. They wind up bearing false witness against their neighbors and condemning those neighbors on the basis of that same false witness.

In short, the need to imagine themselves as “radically different” makes them unloving.

It’s not just kitten-burning, of course. You can see this same dynamic at work whenever any example of shocking cruelty or viciousness makes the news — whether it’s animal cruelty, or senseless vandalism, or a terrorist attack targeting innocent civilians. There will be an initial healthy, heartening rush to condemnation — a mass denunciation of an act that needs and deserves to be denounced. But very quickly something else creeps in. This condemnation shifts focus to include not just the evil act and the perpetrators of it, but also to condemn some vast, amorphous multitude of imagined others who are presumed to approve of whatever just happened.

Read the comments on any article reporting on such horrors and you’ll find a weirdly contentious unanimity. Everyone is upset. Everyone is appalled. But everyone also seems strangely convinced that their being upset and appalled sets them apart — and that these imagined others who are not upset and appalled also need to be admonished and corrected and punished. Everyone is in agreement, but at the same time they’re all looking to pick a fight with one another. The comments quickly go from everyone saying “That’s wrong!” to everyone saying “I can’t believe that anyone would say that’s not wrong!” Even though literally no one is saying that. The condemnation shifts focus away from the actual evil of whoever it was who burned the kitten to the imagined evil of those awful, but non-existent, people defending that act.

Unanimity and agreement, it turns out, are intolerable. They threaten our idea of ourselves as radically different — as special. Evidence of a shared goodness is threatening because if others are also good, then it’s harder to think of ourselves as better than them.

Jonah

Jonah was sure he was radically different from those Ninevites. (Wikimedia image by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA.)

The need or desire to be better than — to be “radically different” — changes how we receive and respond to evidence of others’ goodness, or even just their basic decency.*

Instead of celebrating the goodness of others’ goodness, we come to see it as disappointing. We come to resent it.

This tempts us not just to look for the worst in others, but to hope for it — to want to see them and the world entire as being bad and getting worse. The mildest, nicest consequence of this hope is often something like Alasdair McIntyre’s “Benedict option.” Wouldn’t that be cool, if everything all around us fell apart into nihilism and chaos and we were forced, like medieval monks, to form outposts of basic decency as the righteous remnant in a new Dark Age? Who then could fail to see and to appreciate that we would stand out as radically different? (That fantasy informed much of the 1990s evangelical obsession with “postmodernism” as an all-purpose bogeyman.)

In a sense, then, the need to perceive ourselves as radically different really does distinguish us from most others around us. They want to see the world getting better, and to contribute to that progress, reform and improvement. But we wind up wanting to see the world get worse — to see all attempts at progress, reform and improvement fail or backfire. That is a radical difference, but it’s not a good one.

And this process doesn’t stop there. It can’t be satisfied with hoping for or anticipating this slippery decline into evil and chaos. It wants and needs to see this already happening — even if that means imagining or fabricating evidence to show that.

It’s that desire and that willingness to pretend to see the evil desired that explains the vastly different reactions we saw — and continue to see — to the edited videos last year purporting to show evidence of a “black market in baby parts.” The videos turned out to provide evidence of no such thing, but the facts and evidence had little to do with how people responded to the whole business, which was simply the Anti-Kitten-Burning League writ large. Those who chose — and continue to choose — to pretend the videos were meaningful were those who wanted their claims to be true. They wanted this to be a world in which there exists some kind of lucrative black market in baby parts. The idea of that was thrilling to them.

Even more thrilling, and more important, was their desire and need to imagine that they live in a world in which millions of their otherwise apparently decent neighbors were perfectly pleased with the existence of this trafficking in baby parts. Like the Anti-Kitten-Burning League, they resented — and thus rejected — the idea that everyone agreed with the proposition that burning kittens and/or trafficking in baby parts was appalling. Such unanimity wouldn’t allow them to be special — to be different — and so they needed to believe in imaginary monsters and, even more than that, they needed to believe that millions of their neighbors approved of imaginary monsters.

The videos themselves were a very specific form of bearing false witness against very specific neighbors. But the enthusiastic, gleeful embrace of that false testimony — even now, more than a year after their allegations have been debunked and disproved to the satisfaction of anyone who cares about the truth of the matter — is an amplified form of bearing false witness against millions of neighbors indiscriminately. Those neighbors are denied any claim to basic decency, because pretending that they are incapable of such basic decency allows us to see ourselves as radically different from — and better than — them.

This whole dynamic — the corrosive effects of needing to think of ourselves as better than others — is also a major theme and motif in Jesus’ teachings. Think of the Prodigal Son’s resentful older brother, or the workers in the vineyard, or any of the many other parables in which Jesus reworks the themes of Jonah. You want to think you’re better than the Samaritans and the Ninevites and the lepers and unclean women? “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

“Different” or “better than” doesn’t have to lead us down this corrosive path. With grace, we can strive to be better than we were before, and to become better than we are now. And if we do that — focusing on ourselves rather than seeking out or imagining others to compare down to — we might just end up approaching the kind of “radical difference” that would be attractive rather than repulsive.

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* Any mention of basic decency as something shared and widespread tends to raise the hackles of the many Calvinists who’ve never actually read Calvin. These folks imagine that the Calvinist/Augustinian idea of “total depravity” requires them to believe in something more like utter depravity — as though the majority of the unredeemed were psychopathic sadists who would have no qualms about cruelly torturing adorable little kittens.

So, again, let’s note that this isn’t what Calvin or Augustine believed. The idea of “total depravity” really means something more like pervasive depravity — the belief that no part or aspect of our humanity is untouched by the corruption of sin. The idea is that the cancer is everywhere, not that we are nothing but cancer.

The other mistake that these post-Calvin Calvinists make with their garbled doctrine of utter depravity comes from their exclusively individual understanding of sin, which prevents them from acknowledging the way sin is embedded in structures, cultures, and institutions, pervasively corrupting all of our available options.

 

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