It was a comment in a book that I was reading that suggested that the enjoyment of community sometimes has a shadow side. It was pointed out that some of the most intense community relationships are experienced by people who have deliberately cut themselves off from others. Tribal membership, racial identity and membership of a social class all flourish when the members have successfully identified the boundaries of their own group. In summary, much community life depends on having established a clear us-them distinction.
I began to reflect on this observation and saw how much this principle operates right across society. The gang member obtains his or her status from not being part of the other gang. Children in school try to be members of the ‘in-crowd’ as a means of obtaining status and acceptance. They also do not want to be despised as a ‘loser’. In this scenario, we see clearly the way that one person’s acceptance probably depends on someone else becoming a community reject. Even in church we find these dynamics at work. Clear distinctions with the world outside are tacitly encouraged. When it comes to the congregational level, some ministers put a lot of energy into telling the congregation how much better their church is than the one down the road. The creation of boundaries which exclude, among others, homosexuals, liberals and supporters of Obamacare, helps to keep the church group feeling smug, superior and safe.
This observation that much community life is tacitly supported by the erection of boundaries against the ‘other’ is a frightening one. And yet that is precisely what seems to be going on in the culture wars being fought in the States and to some extent in the UK. When a church becomes obsessed by the people that are considered enemies of the faith, like the Anglican attitude to the gay community in some parts of the world, there is something quite sinister and unhealthy going on. From a psychological perspective, the need to exclude and draw strict boundaries is indicative of a profound insecurity. Even when we are identified among those in the ‘correct’ position and feel in consequence a sense of strength and solidarity, this position does little to draw us to the way of Christ. His compassion was for all and we would expect to find him, not in fortress church, but among the despised and rejected outside. The problem is that so many groups receive much of their energy and affirmation precisely from this dynamic of excluding others. Christian community in other words is sometimes sustained by something thoroughly negative and un-Christ-like.
Moving from the way that communities exclude others to the lives of individuals, we can see how similar dynamics work in personal relationships. A tendency to bully whether on the part of a church minister or a works boss will normally be accounted for because they seek to compensate for some inadequacy within their lives. Bullying another gives the illusion of power and this feeling temporarily takes away any sense of weakness, insignificance or failure. When we look back at the bullies we have known, we will inevitably find some sadness or unhappiness in their lives. This does not of course immediately help the one who is being bullied. Nevertheless, I find that a clear view of what is going on helps one to endure the pain. In most cases a bullying situation is time limited. There normally comes a moment when it is possible simply to walk away from the bully and their attempts to sort out their own personal inadequacies in their attempts to obtain power over you.
In writing this reflection I am inviting the reader to consider the communities of which they are part. Do we ever become part of a community dynamic which depends in part on drawing strong distinctions with those who are not members or part of the group? How far do we collude with other people who subtly enhance their status by making sure that everyone knows their position? I am in fact suggesting that all of us become far more sensitive to the dynamics of the groups and relationships around us so that we can challenge situations of exclusion, injustice or bullying. We live in a society which has arguably become less tolerant of bullies; the more we can be clear-eyed about what is involved in this kind of individual as well as corporate power abuse, the better we can see the situation and perhaps put a stop to it. It is of course more difficult to stand outside the setting when it is us who experience the bullying. But the overall struggle against this sort of behaviour would be more successful if we were all prepared to stick up for other people and groups who are suffering this treatment. I would like to think that in our present society the accusation of bullying is becoming a fairly powerful deterrent. Few people like to hear this accusation so for us to name it when it happens is an important weapon in the struggle against the strong mistreating the weak.
The abuse of power has always been the main topic of this blog, especially in the way that this dynamic appears in churches. The main challenge of this present blog is for us to examine our experience of fellowship in church. Is it ever rooted in an exclusive dynamic which seeks to keep other people outside? Does our belonging depend on our collusion in excluding? This is one of the conclusions I come to about Peniel church. That congregation, it seems, maintained its cohesion by allowing its minister, Michael Reid, to demonise the world beyond the church. The state schools in the area were a special target of his bile by being described as belonging to Satan. By creating numerous boundaries with the world beyond his church, Reid was able to enhance his own authority and power. How far this was a conscious ploy, I am unclear. The dynamic of a world seen to be the playground of Satanic forces and spiritual conflict creates its own crazy rhetoric. But clearly the effect and the damage to the individuals caught up in this paranoid universe of exclusion was enormous. All churches need to examine their rhetoric and the way that the world outside is portrayed. They have a responsibility to resist the kind of grotesque binary simplifications that are now being peddled in Trump’s America. Whatever values we experience within our church communities, they can never depend on a demonisation of what is outside the church walls. That is the beginning of bullying and abuse.