Guilt by Association

From Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs:

“Corporate religion gets all tied up with totems and symbols and arguments about who’s right and wrong, instead of holding the tension of life and death — and paying the price within ourselves for that reconciliation.

“Every major religion has done the same. The preoccupation with religion as an ideology leads to over-identification with the group, its languages and symbols. Group loyalty becomes the test rather than loyalty to God or truth. Many of the hate letters I get indulge in guilt by association. ‘You quoted Marianne Williamson; therefore you are really a Course in Miracles person and you are not a Christian.’ It works the other way too: ‘You quoted the pope, so you must be okay.’ It is easier to belong to a group than to belong to God.

“But the great tradition that is embodied, for example, in Thomas Aquinas, doesn’t ask where it came from, but rather, if it is true. Aquinas said, ‘If it is true, it is of the Holy Spirit.’ The only question is veracity, not origin. Many people condemn the Enneagram because they say it is from the Sufis (which it isn’t). But that’s not an intelligent or faith-filled criticism anyway. Group-think is a substitute for God-think. We believe that God is found only by our group. We then claim that identification with our group as the only way to serve God.”

I notice myself slipping into this mindset from time to time, and I see and hear it around me, in my church and in other churches, in politics, in casual conversation, in civic discourse, in Op-Ed pieces. The overt focus is not always religion and it’s not always about God, but the underlying idea is the same: our group, our way of experiencing the world, our way of expressing things, our preferred set of prejudices is right, and therefore groups that agree with us are right; and groups that don’t agree with us are wrong, no matter what they say. We tend to make massive and unquestioned assumptions about people and groups as if they were monoliths, either all right or all wrong, instead of remembering that we are all paradoxical, all admixtures of contradictory motivations, experiences, decisions, and beliefs.

You can check yourself on this by noticing how you react — how your body responds, what thoughts go through your mind, what you say, what associations you make, how you feel — when told that someone you don’t know is a staunch Republican, a progressive Democrat, a peace organizer, a member of the military, a hunter, a lawyer, a psychic, a smoker, a Wal-Mart shopper, a health food store shopper, an environmentalist, a vegetarian, an atheist, a pastor or priest, an anarchist, an intellectual, an ex-con, a Zionist, a mother of ten, a reality TV show devotee, a feminist, a defense contractor, a patriot, an A.C.L.U. supporter, a fundamentalist, a neo-con, a member of the religious right, a blue-collar worker, a good Christian … Find the label that gives you the strongest reaction and ask yourself: Am I likely to discount, dismiss, or disbelieve whatever this person or group does or says? Can I listen to what this person says with an open heart and mind?

If I have what Buddhists call beginner’s mind, and what the Bible talks about as clear eye and a pure heart, then wariness, skepticism, and opposition may not be my first (or 100th) response to anyone or any group. Instead, I may listen for the truth in their words and actions. How long can I hold the tension of life and death, be in the place where I can hear truth fresh, before my discomfort sends me to the false refuge of the “right” group? If I see myself as an environmentalist and yet hear truth in something an oil company does or says, how long can I withstand to be derided by other environmentalists, to be misunderstood and made false assumptions about, to be painted with the same brush as the oil company? How long until I rush in to defend myself and my rightness? And, perhaps more to the point, how long can I withstand the inner tension that comes with this openness to truth, wherever it is found?

ADDENDUM: Just saw this James Thurber quote that seems related:

I loathe the expression ‘What makes him tick.‘ It is the American mind, looking for simple and singular solution, that uses the foolish expression. A person not only ticks, he also chimes and strikes the hour, falls and breaks and has to be put together again, and sometimes stops like an electric clock in a thunderstorm.”


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