When Consumerism Meets the Totalitarian Culture War
Does your brand of phone or clothing or hotel express whether you are part of the blue tribe or red tribe?
Why would Air BNB spend probably 5 million dollars on their superbowl ad which, unless you know their logo, mentioned not their name? Why would they then promise to give 4 million dollars to a refugee cause? Why not simply give 9 million dollars to the cause?
Who was it that said
Matthew 6:1–4 (NIV)
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Air BNB knows exactly what they are doing. Nordstroms knows what they are doing. Expect other corporations to act in a similar way. Uber backed down from their pro-Trump posture because it threatened their bottom line.
The subtle irony beneath the Air BNB add is that “we accept” can also mean “we accept Visa and MasterCard” because you won’t be accepted by Air BnB if you don’t have the money to pay.
Natural Born Tribalists
Psychologists will tell you that your brain is set up to be naturally tribal. Before you have a moment to think your brain has already told you whether or not you like a person or a brand or a situation based on your conditioning. The baby in the womb is already conditioned to respond positively to her mother and father’s voice. If the mother has a favorite song that she sings the baby will also connect that song with safety, security and well-being.
The opposite is true of course. If someone hurts you as a child your brain is programmed to respond, often in unhelpful ways to things associated with that trauma and your unhelpful responses to that trauma will probably follow you all the days of your life and have the potential of shipwrecking your ability to form healthy, stable and productive relationships. Therapists know this of course and seek to cure it but no one knows better than they do of the vast gulf between seeing this in someone and helping them overcome it.
Many of us know this intellectually but when it comes down to the decisions that we feel are most right in our gut we imagine that we are the exception to this dynamic. Scott Alexander, an atheist, secular Jewish psychologist who would never vote for Trump and lives in a blue-tribe university town blogged about the relationship between the outgroup in our new tribal society.
Most of us conditioned by the blue tribe immediately jump to racism as an expression of our natural tribalism. We imagine that being a part of the blue tribe, acknowledging how deeply ingrained racism is somehow adequately equips us to not fall prey to its habits.
Again, on the surface this seems reasonable but again I ask you to consult a therapist and ask them that even if their patient comes to the point of admitting that they are a victim of childhood trauma does that admission alone resolve the learned responses that are devastating their current relationships? They would be better to take a AA first step approach and admit they are powerless over their reactions and seek a higher power to save them from their own personal brand of relational suicide.
Alexander analyzes the situation.
One of the best-known examples of racism is the “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” scenario where parents are scandalized about their child marrying someone of a different race. Pew has done some good work on this and found that only 23% of conservatives and 1% (!) of liberals admit they would be upset in this situation. But Pew also asked how parents would feel about their child marrying someone of a different political party. Now 30% of conservatives and 23% of liberals would get upset. Average them out, and you go from 12% upsetness rate for race to 27% upsetness rate for party – more than double. Yeah, people do lie to pollsters, but a picture is starting to come together here.
Since people will delight in misinterpreting me here, let me overemphasize what I am not saying. I’m not saying people of either party have it “worse” than black people, or that partyism is more of a problem than racism, or any of a number of stupid things along those lines which I am sure I will nevertheless be accused of believing. Racism is worse than partyism because the two parties are at least kind of balanced in numbers and in resources, whereas the brunt of an entire country’s racism falls on a few underprivileged people. I am saying that the underlying attitudes that produce partyism are stronger than the underlying attitudes that produce racism, with no necessary implications on their social effects.
But if we want to look at people’s psychology and motivations, partyism and the particular variant of tribalism that it represents are going to be fertile ground.
Now this makes sense when you begin to understand how tribalism is related to the always precarious grasp we have on anxiety, safety and how we imagine our future well-being is secured. Team Trump sees outsiders and border crashers as the great threat to the homeland. The cry goes up “American First”! We are facing an existential threat to our future well-being that can best be addressed by a strong military, better trade deals and a wall along our southern border. This is how we secure our future.
The blue-tribers react in horror against this. Free trade, open borders, acceptance of all and reduction of green house gasses is the formula for making it successfully into the future. Trump has it all wrong and he must be stopped.
Alexander, and remember he has a PhD in psychology, lives and works in a university town and would rather be caught dead than voting for Trump notes this (written in 2014 before Trump began running for Prez)
The outgroup of the Red Tribe is occasionally blacks and gays and Muslims, more often the Blue Tribe.
The Blue Tribe has performed some kind of very impressive act of alchemy, and transmuted all of its outgroup hatred to the Red Tribe.
This is not surprising. Ethnic differences have proven quite tractable in the face of shared strategic aims. Even the Nazis, not known for their ethnic tolerance, were able to get all buddy-buddy with the Japanese when they had a common cause.
Research suggests Blue Tribe / Red Tribe prejudice to be much stronger than better-known types of prejudice like racism. Once the Blue Tribe was able to enlist the blacks and gays and Muslims in their ranks, they became allies of convenience who deserve to be rehabilitated with mildly condescending paeans to their virtue. “There never was a coward where the shamrock grows.”
Spending your entire life insulting the other tribe and talking about how terrible they are makes you look, well, tribalistic. It is definitely not high class. So when members of the Blue Tribe decide to dedicate their entire life to yelling about how terrible the Red Tribe is, they make sure that instead of saying “the Red Tribe”, they say “America”, or “white people”, or “straight white men”. That way it’s humble self-criticism. They are so interested in justice that they are willing to critique their own beloved side, much as it pains them to do so. We know they are not exaggerating, because one might exaggerate the flaws of an enemy, but that anyone would exaggerate their own flaws fails the criterion of embarrassment.
In other words the great alchemy the Blue tribe has managed to pull off is exactly express by the Air BnB commercial.
The Location of the Real Dramas
Now all of this political chatter maybe annoying, scary or entertaining but in my experience it is only part of the picture. Your enemies are those that threaten your world, your welfare and your life. Political enemies are real but personal enemies are close. What we can say about Jesus’ commands in the Sermon on the Mount are akin to what CS Lewis noted about forgiveness. We think forgiveness is a great thing until we have something to forgive. We think loving enemies is a wonderfully beautiful concept until we actually have an enemy before us who is destroying our world before our very eyes and we are unable to stop her. THEN we grab onto the justification that forgiving enemies is for other times and places but in this instance we need anger, hatred, contempt and violence to address the threat, make the world safe again, and then we can wave the flag of enemy forgiveness once all our enemies have been put down.
What Jesus Said
Matthew 5:38–48 (NIV)
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Now right away we might object to this for a few reasons.
- It is impractical
- We have Jesus saying and doing some things that seem to contradict it
- It gives license to evil
We should avoid exegetical amnesia by not turning these into new performance qualifications for righteousness. If you recall from the previous two weeks Jesus is describing the invasion of the kingdom of heaven. It was signified by the miracles. He declared that the lowest misfits are not immune to its power or its ability to save.
You might recall as we talked about last week that Plato in his Republic tried to figure out what righteousness is. He gave the standard answer “to be true to your friends and to hate your enemies”. This is known by all and practiced by many. Jesus says that it is insufficient. He suggests that the righteousness that is invading the world and invading our hearts is the righteousness of God against which nothing can stand and Jesus declares that this is what it looks like.
Jesus’ illustration here of the kingdom of the heavens is actually quite literal if you know the perspective of his hearers.
The skies declare the generosity of God as the sun and the rain, two things we are completely dependent upon for life fall upon the fields of the righteous and the unrighteous.
The whole drama about morality/identity/tribal consumerism is about stopping “the rain” to fall on the likes of Ivanka’s brand or Air BnB. God doesn’t play this game.
The ancient world simply assumed that God DID play this game. When fortune fell on someone God or the gods approved. When calamity befell someone God or the gods were revealing their displeasure. Even though the book of Job is precisely targeted at this assumption it persists, persists at least until the cross of Jesus.
While Jesus would speak out against most of the factions in the first century culture war the most dramatic episode in his enemy loving life was of course the cross. When we say to Jesus “you can’t be serious about this noble sounding but outrageously unreasonable love of enemies” he goes and allows himself to be crucified under the mocking Roman sign “king of the Jews”. Those who believed in him of course understood all too well what this meant. Their envisioned restoration of Israel (see Acts 1:6) would not come. The Romans would stay in charge with all of their world destroying corruption and God’s people would remain in exile. They could of course not imagine the spread of the gospel, the evangelization of the Gentiles, the future actions of Gentile Christians dying themselves for their crucified and risen master. It was all beyond the imagination of Jesus’ loyal Jewish fans hiding in fear while their master died abandoned.
Jesus puts us in a terrible spot. What we try to do often is embrace the sentiment formally but deny it in our lives. It is more important to look righteous than to be righteous. Consumer branding knows this full well.
If we love our enemies they may kill us and as we imagine all that is good in the world. If we don’t love our enemies we are at odds with the invasion of God’s righteousness from heaven. We usually take our chances with resisting God’s righteous invasion.
Jesus will not, cannot deny the invasion. This is why the Christian church has used the symbol of the cross as its own because the death of Jesus exemplifies the righteousness of God invading our lives and hearts. He would love his enemies enough to die for them, and to not stop them, in their case the Romans, from continuing with their program of world domination and promoting their way of life.
What the disciples could not see, either during the crucifixion or after the resurrection when they asked Jesus “now will you restore the kingdom to Israel” was a long chain of events started by Jesus that would undermine Rome and her way of life.
For the next couple hundred years Christianity would remain a tiny portion of the population of the Roman empire suffering from sporadic and mostly local bouts of persecution. What would ravage the empire in the second and third centuries, however, would be plague. Plague would kill a quarter to a third of the population of various parts of the empire. Romans, acting upon the common “righteousness” of pragmatism abandoned their ill families to save themselves. Even Galen, the great physician of the period fled his city when the plague struck.
Stark notes how Christians, not fearing death but practicing the righteousness of Jesus stayed not only to care for their own but to care for those who were abandoned by their own families. Even though the Romans had no understanding of what was causing plague the simply, common sense caring for the sick or giving them food and water naturally improved survival rates. Christians survived the plagues at better rates than their counterparts and the majority pagan populations who survived by being nursed back to health by Christians, often at the expense of their own lives, found themselves attracted to this new righteousness. Stark asserts that this, along with other ways that Christians were self-sacrificially invested in the welfare of their pagan neighbors and cities were an integral part of the Christianization of the empire.
This seems a circuitous route for the saving of the world as compared to some grand miracle of Jesus calling down angels upon the legions of Rome as his disciples undoubtedly wished to see but you can see how it in fact is vastly more powerful. It is easy to kindle fear and hatred in the heart of a person, but love, love for enemies is something that truly stops us and makes us ponder.
Again I want to emphasize that Jesus is not offering us here some manipulative command by which we get what we want. Most of the time if you love your enemy your enemy just gets what they want, often at your expense. Neither am I offering some literalistic command by which the words of Jesus can be used by people to manipulate you. “Didn’t Jesus say to give to all how ask? Hand it over!”
Jesus regularly did not give to people what they asked of him. He did so because he know that doing so would actually work against the love and the righteousness he had. This command does not make us a slave to the wicked but rather it makes us free from hating the wicked and free from the reactivity that fuels the escalation of wickedness. This is how Jesus actually bring freedom. To not hate your enemy is freedom because if you hate your enemy you are bound to the cycle of retribution. That cycle actually puts you in a co-dependent and dysfunctional cycle with your enemy trapping you both.
What Jesus offers here is true freedom. Freedom to lay down our lives for our friends and enemies leaving in God’s providential care the outcomes of this world, much like Jesus left the outcome of his sacrifice on the cross to the care of the Holy Spirit.
So what will you do? Will you stay in the public enemy escalation business that probably causes as much destruction to this world as you fear your enemy is about to cause? Will you stay in the cycle of of trauma that was laid down by evil done to you in your childhood? Or will you take a risk on the man who died for you while you were still his enemy and believe that the perfection of God as witnessed by the rain and the sunshine will finally bring his kingdom, invade with his righteousness, and bring about the world he has promised to give us?