How to Annihilate Your Out-Group (The Way Jesus Did)

Cycle of Violence

Photo Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt (Creative Commons)

Last month, an Arab cab driver invited me to annihilate him.

Three million Chicagoans were scurrying around us under a dim-cloudy afternoon sky. I had just walked out of a conference for Christian artists, and I had White Anglo-Saxon Protestant written all over me. He was dressed in Muslim attire.

He looked into the rearview mirror and into my eyes. His invitation was a question. He asked me, “What do you believe?”

Perhaps I imagined the anger and fear intermingled in his eyes. But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t imagining the subtext: “What is your in-group? What kind of out-group am I to you? What kind of violence would you do to my people?”

GHOSTS AND VIOLENCE AND THE OUTGROUP

We do a tremendous amount of violence to others. But before we ever aggress against another, we always do violence to ourselves first—the violence of conditionality.

We are born into a world absolutely screaming with shame. The message of conditionality blares from a thousand megaphones:

You will be good enough…if.

You will be sufficient…when.

You will be lovable…maybe.

And we can’t hide from it and we can’t drown it out and the conditionality works its way into our hearts. We walk around with these ghosts of shame whispering their conditions into our souls. And we find ourselves helpless to quiet the whisper.

Until we discover the out-group.

Social psychologists define the out-group as a group of people excluded from or not belonging to the group with which we identify. We discover we can define who is with us and who is against us. And we realize we can compete with those we are against. And we realize that if we can win the competition—if we can reduce the other and define them out of worthiness—we can silence the ghosts inside.

For a time.

But then the ghosts come back even louder, clanking their chains of self-doubt and self-loathing, and we fall back on what worked before: competition and violence. And it escalates.

A SURPLUS OF OUT-GROUPS                 

No wonder the world is saturated with in-groups and out-groups.

By elementary school, we are absolutely swimming in them: boys versus girls, athletes versus nerds, affluent kids versus poor kids. Sometimes, a single child is turned into a one-kid-out-group and everyone gangs up on him and one soul is destroyed while everyone else quiets their shame. For a while.

By high school, the groups have official names—popular, jock, band-nerd, burn-out—and the competition can become lethal. Literally. People in out-groups are destroyed with words and fists and, eventually, by their own pain.

But all that nonsense ends at high school graduation, right? Wrong. In adulthood, out-groups multiply like Gremlins in water. Bears versus Packers. My honor roll kid versus your regular ole kid. Good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods. Republican and Democrat. Native and immigrant. Gay and straight. Believer and atheist.

My town has 75 churches. Seventy-five separate religious in-groups and out-groups. In one relatively tiny suburb.

Where does all this end? Inevitably, it ends with one final in-group.

Me.

Me versus everybody else. You see, I think most of us live out our lives as members of an incredibly small in-group. The membership number often tops out at one. The entrance requirement is a conditional love and the facilities are quiet and lonely and riddled with competition and resentment.

A TAXICAB CONFESSION

He looked into my eyes and asked me, “What do you believe?”

I knew the script I was supposed to read—my chance to say the name of Jesus and lay it down like a dividing line, defining my group versus his. The name Jesus has been used violently—a name co-opted by shame-filled people seeking to quiet the ghosts once and for all—and he was baiting me into another round of verbal violence with his group of people. And, frankly, I’m so tired of division and violence—I had no interest in reading the script.

So, instead of saying the name Jesus, I said what I thought the Man-with-the-name might have said a couple of millennia ago. I said, “I believe I should be able to talk to you, no matter what else I believe. I believe we have more in common than we have in conflict. I believe we probably share many of the same fears and doubts and insecurities.” And I asked him, “Do you want to talk?”

A suspicious look stole across his eyes, and he asked, “What do you want to know?”

“Do you have kids?”

His eyes shimmered, and he grunted a confirmation. He dropped his eyes to the road, but after a moment they were back in the rearview.

And then he unraveled.

He told me he had three kids. He told me he was scared. He told me he felt the burden of guiding the next generation in an age of cartoon violence and pornographic advertising and financial uncertainty. He wondered if he was up to the task. He wondered if he would be able to look in the mirror years down the road and say to himself, “Job well done.”

As it turns out, the cab driver’s question was an invitation to annihilate the out-group, but not with violence. It was an invitation to annihilate it with joining. By joining him in the biggest in-group of all.

Humanity.

MEMBERSHIP HAS ITS PRIVILEGES 

I have good news. Great news.

Humanity is the last in-group you will ever need to join.

And the membership application is simple. Because you already belong. All you have to do is embrace it. Decide you are going to end your attempts to fix your shame with competition and victory and dominance. Realize it doesn’t work. Decide you will silence the ghosts in another way.

Decide you will heal your shame by receiving the grace that is offered to you. Open yourself up to the kind of self-acceptance and loving embrace that changes everything. And I promise you, when you have done so, you will be absolutely bursting at the seams to give that grace to others. You will make your healing complete through a courageous vulnerability and a radical embrace of the other. Regardless of group, affiliation, or history.

And I have even better news. Once you’ve joined this massive in-group we call humanity, the membership benefits will begin flowing.

Loneliness will begin to fade into an overwhelming sense of belonging. The stranger will cease to be competition and will be an opportunity for connection. Feelings of affection and affiliation will rise up at the sight of the angry motorist and the putrid beggar and the sketchy street-walker. Anger and violence will give way to compassion. And as your shame evaporates—as you embrace your worthiness—your love will be like a hot sun, evaporating the shame of others.

When everyone belongs and our embrace is big enough for all of our human brothers and sisters, membership has its privileges, indeed.

Want to join? When you’re ready, the doors are always open.

Comments: Wishy-washy pluralism? Ignorant humanism? Or a way out of our shame and cycle of violence? Let me know in the comments section.

DEAR READER, Tuesday’s Tip will focus on overcoming one large hurdle to this kind of transformation. It will be challenging, but I hope you’ll try. The world needs people trading in “I” for “we.” Also, to e-mail subscribers, you will notice in the next couple of weeks that your two weekly posts will begin arriving around 6am CST on Tuesday and Friday. This is part of a transition to a new e-mail delivery system that will also allow me to deliver my new eBook directly to your inbox if you’re interested. As always, thank you for reading. It’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Deb

    I’m glad there is a book coming; I’m sure it will be as astute as your blog. But I have to say that this blog and the promised land blog have me feeling a little bit like the “out-group”. I have so enjoyed your perspective on the human condition, the psychological nuances through which we all navigate. But as you identify YOUR in-group, I feel uncomfortably . . . out.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I understand, Deb. I know I run this risk whenever I share more about my own identity. I really appreciate your vulnerability in sharing this. But I want you to know that, oftentimes, I feel pretty “out” in my OWN in-group! And I hope you can trust your experience so far here at UnTangled that this really is a space where we can all encounter our common humanity and have some reprieve from all the other identities that divide and separate people. That can be a hard thing to trust, I know, but hang in there, and I know your comfort will grow.

  • Chris

    I love this post, I love Deb’s comment, and I love your reply. This is a difficult challenge but you have identified it and pinned it up on your blog for all to see. You have made me think more clearly about what I already know to be true. Thank you 🙂

    Maybe I’ll just share one little story. During a long and rambling and poisonous conversation on Google+ between Muslims and Christians, one Muslim lady mentioned in passing that she had not been well recently. I simply said that I was sad to hear this, but that I would pray for her. The response was immediate, she wrote back, ‘Shukran, kind brother’ – Shukran means ‘thanks’.

    If we truly want to be part of humanity we need only act simply out of a place of caring. It’s not difficult to do, it costs nothing, and the dividends may be very great. But we don’t do it for the dividends, we do it because Papa first loved us and enabled us to love one another.

    When we say ‘one another’ who do we include? Is it ‘our church’ or ‘our friends’, ‘our group’?

    We are called to ‘love one another as I have loved you’. Did the Son love only the Father and the Spirit? No! He loved everyone. He said, ‘Love the Father, love one another, love your neighbour, love your enemy’.

    Who did HE leave out? We are to follow him.

  • Dixie

    I simply love this blog!! This is so like Jesus would have handled the questions. You hooked him with your first response. Why do we feel we have to blurt out His name to humanity, rather than live in such a way as He did to draw humanity in and at best cause them to ask us for the reason of our peace in the midst of a very fearful generation? I am all for getting out of the box of religion and out there living as He lived in this world. He now lives through us. This is why my new upcoming book is called, Climbing Out of the Box, My journey out of sexual and spiritual abuse into freedom and healing….My blog shares about my precarious journey of navigating this life outside the box. Thanks Kelly for sharing your gift with us!!!

  • Jennifer Newell

    Many years ago in a bible study at church our pastor said something that has stayed with me. As a christian out in the world, you will be someone’s bible. Others will watch you and see how you act and how you treat others. Because they know you are a christian they will assume all christians are like you. I found this to be humbling and more important a reminder that walking the walk is more important than talking the talk. Thanks for the post as always thought provoking.

  • Glory

    Thanks for your words they helped clarify the path I have been on. Attempting to be real and bless those I come into contact with in each moment. Children respond to this so positively–it’s a blessing to see them bloom in response to being greeted or noticed or thanked or smiled at.
    Glory

  • drkellyflanagan

    I really appreciate this discussion. I hope others will feel comfortable adding their perspective of any kind! I’ve had some feedback that there have been problems leaving a comment today. If you are having trouble, you can try reloading the page. If you continue to have trouble, come on over to the Facebook page and let me know!

    • Carrie

      When I click on the “comments section” it reloads the same page. When I go to the top of the page and click on “9 comments”, it gets
      me here.

      • drkellyflanagan

        Carrie, thank you; I understand the problem now! In my emails I’m providing a “comments section” link back to the homepage (which doesn’t have a comments section). From now on, I will be sure to link directly to the page for the post, which is where you found the comments section. Thanks for the feedback and helping me make sense of it!

  • Michelle Gorley

    I have noticed recently that small children seem to make people remember their membership in humanity. My kids are too young to have felt the shame you mention, and they are open and free with their love and smiles and waves. And I love to watch the faces of those around us relax and join in humanity for a moment. People driving past us as we’re out walking, walking past in the grocery store, and numerous other places forget that we are strangers and smile and wave back. I never realized how hard faces are normally until I gained the privilege through my children to watch those faces soften.

    • drkellyflanagan

      What a beautiful observation, Michelle. The innocence of a child’s inclusiveness is truly a blessing!

    • kris

      Isn’t it such a joy when you see your children bring people together!? A few years ago I was visiting my family in NY and my brother and I took our kids to the local children’s museum. Of course, being in NY it seemed that we encountered the entire spectrum of humans in this one museum. I kept a close eye on my son but otherwise let him run free and explore. I turned for the proverbial “split second” and my son was out of sight. I distinctly remember one family — a large family of adults with maybe only one or two children. They were dressed like they were from India (maybe?) and they didn’t speak english. One of them noticed my distress and pointed to where my son was playing with another member of their family. Actually, this stranger was so attentive that my heart didn’t even have time to skip a beat. I smiled and put my hand over my heart in thanks. For a little while longer this family played with my son, picked him up, hugged him and even had me take a picture of thier entire family — including my son. It’s been about three years and I’m still trying to put into words the beauty in that scene and the feelings of being in connection with other humans like that. Culture, faith, language — none of it matters when you’re part of the humanity in-group.

      • drkellyflanagan

        Yes, Kris! I love this.

  • Carrie

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am in the process of learning how to connect with others instead of trying so hard to be good and “right”. What a blessing it is not be to critical and judging, but instead to be a blessing to those I meet! I have spent a few years in therapy, being heard. Now I am able to hear others. I am learning to listen: listen to the music as I play the piano, listen to our Lord as I quiet myself in his presence, and listen to others who are really not so very different from me. My 18 year old daughter brings friends from different walks of life into our home. We sit around the dinner table together and watch as these young adults eat up the attention of a friend’s parents and enjoy sharing a meal as family. They add to the richness of our lives.

    • drkellyflanagan

      And thank you for sharing this. Listen is truly a gift we give to people, isn’t it? And so important to have been listened to first and then be able to pass it on. Blessings to you as you continue to bless others in this way!

  • Brittany Morrill

    Hi, Kelly! I love your blog and tell everyone I know about it. Just wanted to share this link with you, the Dalai Lama wrote about a very similar idea.

    http://www.dalailama.com/messages/world-peace/a-human-approach-to-peace

    I’ve even just recently started a photo project based off of the idea of being connected to the human family. Your words were much appreciated and I may refer to them for my artist statement. Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for this link, Brittany. And please feel free to come back here and share a link of your own when your project is ready for us to see!

  • Catharine Phillips

    I*ve been thinking about your (my) in-group of one. My husband and I talked this morning about the different faith traditions adding and subtracting different important things from and to one another. We actually began when my husband was trying to get a bug off the windshield at a stoplight. If we don*t get it off, he said, it will die when we accelerate. I told him he should be a Buddhist. There are some things about Buddhism I like, he said. But not all. We ended up in a wonderful conversation about our personal in-group of one, and decided everyone does this. And… he saved the bug.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Catharine, I think this should be a post of its own, entitled, “And…he saved the bug.” Thank you. 🙂

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