A woman I know says that she married her husband before she saw what he was like during football season. His interest in the prospects for his team turned out to be what seemed to her an obsession that crowded out lesser concerns, making her wonder where the man she thought she knew had gone. He spent hours studying the news about his team and regarded missing one of their games as unthinkable. When the team did well, he was thrilled; when they did badly, he suffered. Not everyone is fanatical about a sports team, but all of us know what it means to get vicarious satisfaction from identifying with particular groups. Some group memberships are central to our identity. Chances are that if you start talking about who you are, you will fairly quickly be talking about categories of people you identify with. Being a college-educated person or a musician or a hunter may be central components of the story of who you are.
Identifying with particular groups is not in itself a bad thing. But we are often unaware of how our group affiliations shape the way we view things. When I lived in the Deep South, I noticed that white people often referred to black people using terms such as “they” or “them.” Sometimes the characterizations were stereotypical, but even when they were not, the implicit message was that people in the other group are different from the people I identify with. You don’t have to assume that those you think of as different are inferior, but it is often a short step from classifying some group as outside your circle to assuming your superiority. And highlighting how others are different typically means limiting your empathy for them.
One of the central reasons that Jesus was criticized by the religious elite of his day was his willingness to welcome people who fell outside their circle of respectability. Jesus associated with the common people who didn’t have the time or resources to devote themselves to studying and observing scriptural prescriptions of proper behavior. It was obvious to these religious leaders that such people weren’t pleasing God. But instead of judging these people, Jesus invited them to have table fellowship. In fact, Jesus seemed to give special priority to paying attention to those on the margins of proper society: the poor, the disabled, even the tax collectors who had betrayed their fellow Israelites. Jesus even made a despised Samaritan the hero of one of his parables. And the villain in another famous parable was the elder brother whose attitude toward those who didn’t measure up paralleled attitudes of the Pharisees.
When Paul later reflected on the Christian message, he found a central feature of it to be erasing the divisions between people based on racial heritage or social class or gender (Galatians 3:28). For members of the Christian community there was no longer a basis for looking down on people from groups other than their own. The community Jesus inaugurated is to be one in which what divides us becomes unimportant compared to what we have in common. To say that many Christian communities have not taken this ideal to heart would be an understatement. The divisions of class or race or gender are often all too apparent within and between churches. But the ideal of transcending group attitudes that make others seem less worthy is clearly central to New Testament teaching.
That teaching is not only about attitudes toward fellow Christians. The example of Jesus strongly conveys a sense that those outside our community of faith should be treated as bearers of the divine image. Jesus extends the imperative of compassionate treatment beyond the boundaries of close relationship to the stranger. His parable of the Good Samaritan suggests that neighbor responsibilities extend to anyone who needs your help. Christian communities have followed his teaching when they have come to the aid of people outside their own group who were victims of oppressive forces of many types. In the best cases they have learned to view those in need as fellow humans, not just as outsiders.
Being a Christian is an odd kind of group membership. First, it is a group where you can’t expect to advance to the top of the status ladder. Toward people within your community, you are to lay down the power and privileges that society has given you and recognize those who are below you in social status as equals. More than that, you are to be especially attentive to those whom society has left vulnerable. Those you are tempted to think of as not one of your kind are to be regarded as people God greatly values.
The other way that being a Christian is an odd type of group membership is that it prescribes a way of thinking about and treating outsiders that doesn’t fit with the tribal ways of thinking we are used to. Instead of adopting hostile or condescending attitudes toward outsiders, Christian thinking calls us to drop our sense of superiority and extend the category of neighbor to include those who may seem very different. We easily lapse into thinking about others in relation to people who are like us. But Chrsitian identity means increasingly dismantling any sharp distinction between us and them.
For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 14 (God’s New Order: Welcome News for the Excluded) in Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith.