By Eddie Pipkin
I’ve noticed this thing lately. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pop culture reference, a personal lifestyle option, or a theological difference, it’s not enough for some people to state a preference; they feel a strong desire to express outright disdain for any choice that is different from their own. Let’s say you’re talking about the exciting basketball game you just watched; it’s not enough for them to note they missed it; they feel compelled to dramatically declare, “I hate basketball. Soooooo boring. What a stupid waste of time.” Such impassioned reactions even make their way into ministry settings, and in ministry settings they can unfortunately do real damage. We should be careful about going hardcore on our expressions of distaste.
This issue comes up as a course of natural conversation, but it can also come up in a couple of other nefarious ways, which are the ones we’ll explore first.
- We can exhibit demonstrative disdain in what appears to be an “official” capacity whenever we are introducing people to our church, program, or ministry, and as part of that introduction, actively disparage another church, program, or ministry. Or even a single individual or an entire community. We should not be disparaging anybody. We should definitely not be disparaging any individuals, groups, or communities as a means of making ourselves sound superior. That’s basic Bible.
- We can exhibit demonstrative disdain as a strategy of demonstrating power and who’s in the “in club” and who’s in the “out club.” This is human nature, but it’s not biblical nature. Our clubs should be expansive, inclusive, and welcoming (and that means Yankess fans and Red Sox fans, if you get my drift).
In either of the examples given above – and plenty more you might think of – one does not have to express one’s disdain overtly; there are plenty of subtle ways to show it: eye rolling, sarcasm, making people the butt of one’s jokes, etc. Even if we give tacit acknowledgement to a different approach to doing something, like, for instance, saying “that’s how they do it, and that’s their choice,” we can still be very clear in communicating that our way of doing things is the superior or correct way. Such messages are powerful. They simultaneously communicate the news that anyone who differs with your preferences is going to be looked down upon and taken less seriously and that anyone who wants to be favored by you had better know all your preferences and adopt them.
This is not a good strategy for relationship building, and it’s not a good strategy for building diverse communities. Here are some examples I’ve heard over the years:
- “Well, those people are the early service folks with their choir and traditional music [wink wink], so you don’t have to pay them too much mind.”
- “That’s just the youth group.”
- “You know how those musicians are.”
- “What do you expect of anybody who only gives $20 a month?”
- “Of course, she didn’t go to a ‘real’ seminary.”
- “You know he grew up in one of those Southern Baptist churches.”
- “Oh, we’re just trying to keep things classy. You know we don’t want to end up like Church X.”
- “We have to fix this. We don’t want turn into Community or Neighborhood X.”
It goes on and on. You can build your own list from your own personal experiences.
This is bad strategy from several perspectives:
- It’s prideful and judgmental, pride being not just a biblically well-annotated spiritual failing (coming before a fall and all that) but one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
- Basing our criteria for success on criticizing others is a path to negativity.
- What happens when the people to whom we are expressing these criticisms turn out to be associated with the places and programs we are criticizing? We have damaged the relationship, endangered trust, and established ourselves as opinionated martinets, sometimes before the relationship has even had a chance to get started.
Conversationally, the opportunities to express our preferences while panning someone else’s are endless:
- “That is the dumbest show ever. I can’t believe you waste time on that.’
- “Are you really reading that book? That author is a terrible writer.”
- “I would never let my kids go see that movie.”
- “How can you possibly listen to that music? That would drive me insane.”
- “I can’t believe anyone in their right mind would ever vote for that candidate.”
- “How could anyone ever get a tattoo? I don’t understand it.”
This last critique, which I have heard on many occasions spoken to someone who had one or more tattoos, is the demonstrative disdain that got me personally reevaluating my own approach. I was for many decades firmly in the category of people who have no desire to ever get a tattoo. Over time, however, my attitude changed – I still don’t have a tattoo myself (yet), but I have developed a deeper appreciation for those to whom they are a significant means of personal expression.
This transition happened in two ways: first, the local church where I served had a tradition of hosting a highly-successful “biker Sunday” outreach, moving me into an orbit of people for whom tattoos are more often a traditional form of expression; secondly, with an even greater impact, a member of our youth group who had a couple of faith-oriented tattoos called me out on my demonstrative disdain. In those days, I would have been likely to poke fun at someone’s new tatt (as in “Don’t you worry about what that’s going to look like when you are 60 and that thing is all saggy and faded?”). One afternoon he challenged me on that judgmental attitude: “Look,” he said, “This may not be something you would choose for yourself, but you need to understand that it’s a big deal to someone who makes the choice to express themselves in this way. It’s disrespectful to criticize their choice.” (Here’s a lovely mediation further exploring this specific topic from Russell Moore, titled “The Church Needs More Tattoos.”)
Those were wise words from my skin-art-loving young friend. They can be applied to many kinds of choices that differ from my own personal likes and dislikes. (I’m not a fan of flip-flops, mainstream country music, Catcher in the Rye, reality TV shows, Starbucks, social media, or warm milky rice for breakfast, but there are people I love dearly who are!) The point is to get beyond our own comfortable preferences and try to understand more about why other people feel passionately about the things they choose to like and love.
In the local church setting, this has been a big underlying theme in the exodus of young people from our faith communities. They don’t love it when they show up and feel judged. Faith communities should be a place where an authentic welcome means not only that we say we value everyone and their unique contexts and perspectives, but that we work to avoid expressing opinions, whether overtly or subtly, that communicate judgmental attitudes. Even if we disagree with someone on matters cultural, stylistic, political, or theological, there is no biblical mandate to be publicly performative in expressing our disdain.
Proverbs 21:23 (NLT) expresses this thought succinctly and with clarity:
“Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble.”
There will be times when a difference is so acute or the issue so profound that we are forced to express our convictions forcefully (as many of you reading this hail from a United Methodist background, you’re very familiar with how such moments in history can play out), but those times are few and far between. It is far more common that we express ourselves with vigor when expressing ourselves in an adversarial fashion is not necessary and can, in fact, be a huge turn-off to others.
Instead, if someone is making choices with which we are uncomfortable, puzzled, or offended by, we could choose these strategies instead:
- Listen: Ask people questions to invite their story of why they are making the choice they are making – why it matters to them.
- Research: Do some independent reading that explores the reason that people who make a choice which would not be your choice are doing what they are doing. Try harder to understand their desires and motivations, and by doing so you can learn more about what matters to them.
- Experiment: Expose yourself to environments and opportunities that are different from you typical cocoon of choices, You might not be converted, but you may develop a deeper appreciation (empathy) for other people’s preferences. (For instance, I love to ask people what they are reading and listening to, and then I read and listen to their suggestions just to get a deeper appreciation of who they are.)
By doing these things, we create an environment where people feel genuinely accepted and free to be the people they feel God has made them to be. We all can learn more about one another, we all can explore new worlds together, and we honor and empower the diverse perspectives that are the hallmark of Creation.
Do you struggle with demonstrative disdain? Do people know when you disagree with their personal preferences, either because you roll your eyes or dramatically blurt out your opinion? Can you think of times when you held a strong opinion, but you learned to modify it based on someone else’s story that they shared with you? How about the organizations you serve? Do they feature a culture of demonstrative disdain, with everyone advocating their own ‘best’ preferences, or do they foster cultures of curiosity?