Scrolling through my social media feed this tragic, though all too familiar, day with its news of mass slaughter and terrorism by a white supremacist in New Zealand, I came across this thought-provoking post:
And it spurred me on to reflect on the seeds of our violence and even this notion of this label of “Christian” itself, and where healing comes from.
To be clear, this post is not a criticism of this above statement, but an attempt to grapple with some of the underlying issues at work that lead to division and violence.
And it has something to do with unconscious identities, labels, and ultimately, fear.
For example, what does this label “Christian” referred to in the post? What is that mental category? What should it be, if anything?
Are we one body?
Even within Christianity there is a strong sense of us and them, of division. Of conservative and progressive, of white churches and black churches, the hip and the square, the woke and the racist.
So many of us still define ourselves by the mental categories and superficial labels with our particular egocentric projects and agendas associated with them.
And we consolidate our sense of righteousness and moral superiority by defining ourselves over against some other group out of which we construct an ego threat.
“Those horribly misguided unrealistic bleeding hearts who want to disregard scripture and make drugs legal, and turn our kids gay and incentivize freeloading and turn us into socialists with no moral backbone.”
“Those backwards uneducated literalist whack jobs with their ethnocentric patriarchy, hypocrisy and will to power, ignorant of historical and systemic injustice against women and minorities who tolerate any degradation of others, however horrible, so long as they stay on top.”
Both of these are caricatures and abstractions; the bullet point category of “the other” we build up in our heads and don’t refer to a real person at all. A person with their own story, their fear, and their pain.
So we stay entrenched in that us vs. them thinking. And this is within Christianity itself. It’s even easier to vilify someone who looks, acts, and sounds differently, to scapegoat the other.
But even these ideological fault lines are still at the surface level, near the earth’s crust so to speak.
Deeper down the division is really along the lines of our different ego centers, our different sources of pain, the fear the results from that pain, and the strategies we develop to ward off that pain and assuage that fear.
This even underlies our the colonizing history and the current ideologies touched on in the post above.
Some of us have pain at a particular stage of development leading to deep-seated fear and insecurity surrounding a sense of safety and security. We fixate on symbols and projects in the world around us that make us feel more secure. And we bond together in community to remake the world in such a way that our egocentric needs will be met: “Build that wall” means “help me feel more secure and take away this feeling that the world is unsafe.” Those with this ego center will be prone to that kind of manipulation because this is where their fear is. And we become blind to vice and corruption as long as our egocentric projects are being advanced.
To exacerbate the perceived threat, we need a scapegoat so we play up the vices of the other: “they’re not sending us their best…”
Or we fear the instability to our egoic and social structures if women become too empowered: “lock her up!”
If I have a high need for stability and security, that will manifest in my entire ideology surrounding ethnic, national, sexual, and gender norms. It will be easy to demonize any threat to this sense of security, and even any sense of ambiguity about right and wrong. Any blurring of moral boundaries is itself an inherent threat to someone with this ego center.
The underlying problem is the pain and unconscious fear, and not dealing with the pain in healthy ways.
This is the fear that leads to extremism. If you mix in our world of skewed, self-selected narrative when these fears are reinforced on a never-ending loop creating tunnel vision, a violent temperament, maybe some mental illness, then add some weapons, the result is the murder or 49 innocent people for the crime of being the demonized other.
And let’s not pretend progressives are not subject to a different kind of fundamentalism and extremism. The ego center is different, usually the desire for affection and esteem. In that state the pain we feel has a different source, and our unconscious fears and motivations take on a different inflection. These become our projects, and we fashion community around these projects. We too can become tolerant of vice and destructive habits and excuse behavior as long as we feel our egocentric projects are being advanced. We, too, have our demonized other whose fear and pain we don’t acknowledge. Cue the meme: “Please tell me again how hard it is being a straight, white, Christian male?”
We forget the universality of the human condition and that suffering touches all of us. We forget that power and privilege, however real and destructive, are rarely consciously held, and regardless of how much we get, we always want more. Not only that, but there’s always some perceived threat, some obstacle to our unconscious ego project and we still perceive ourselves under siege from all manner of powerful forces, usually giving it some abstract, impersonal label: “the gay agenda,” “the liberal agenda.”
I overheard the following comment at a Christian gathering last year from a white man: “The white Christian male is under attack like never before.”
And months earlier from another white man: “You’re now considered evil for being a Bible-believing Christian. If you truly believe in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior and the authority of Scripture, you must be an Islamaphobe and a homophobe.”
We also forget the way in which the ego works. It constructs its identity based on fear. It seems all of us find a way to construct a narrative in which we’re part of an oppressed minority, whether that matches the reality around us or not.
In fact it seems those excluded from power tend to have a leg up in understanding this process of transformation. If anything, those of us with access, privilege, and power need their guidance in growing into spiritual maturity.
Most of us suffer these processes unconsciously and stay stuck in a dualistic us vs. them mentality.
One aspect of Christ’s teaching was to point out our unconsciousness and to invite us to be aware of the indwelling spirit, the divine image we carry, just as everyone else does. He asked us to disidentify with our habitual, superficial ego identities.
Sometimes I think the early church’s use of the term “the way” is much more appropriate than this label of “Christians,” which was applied from those outside the community. The disciples and their followers were committed to a way of transformation that became a consolidated identity, that then ascended to the centers of power after Constantine and this subversive message of dying to self and radical love became ripe for manipulation, power, and security – another tool for the ego.
We can condemn white supremacy, we can call out racism, expose sexism. But if we don’t do the work of addressing and acknowledging each other’s stories, each other’s fear, each other’s pain, we will continue to dehumanize each other, each of us finding a group identity allowing us to feel morally superior and to exact punishment.
Somewhere along the path there has got to be a radical shift from asking “who is a threat to my sense of identity?” to “what does love require now?”
One problem is we don’t have the language, framework, and understanding inside most institutional churches to undergo this kind of transformation.
As the late great Fr. Thomas Keating put it: “The heart of the Christian [discipline] is the struggle with our unconscious motivations. If we do not recognize and confront the hidden influences of the emotional programs for happiness, the false self will adjust to any new situation in a short time and nothing is really changed. If we enter the service of the Church, the symbols of security, success, and power in the new milieu will become the new objects of our desire.”
Our ego projects are the starting point. The labels we apply to ourselves are far less important than our willingness to be exposed, for these unconscious processes that lead to violence to be dismantled. No war on terror will take away our unconsciously held terror.
Without this downward path we will continue to create the conditions in which such horrible massacres occur. They start in the mental labels and categories we unconsciously hold, and the ego takes them and turns them toxic.
We’ve got to develop a language and a framework for this internal path of descent and relinquishment to have a chance at genuine transformation, first on the individual level, and then as a collective. It is we who must die first to this illusory self, then only can we live.
Then is wholeness. Then is shalom.
And, as we are continuously and tragically reminded, not before.
Richard Rohr on Letting Go of the False Self
Thomas Keating’s Invitation To Love
Marc Thomas Shaw’s Dante’s Road: The Journey Home For The Modern Soul