by Jenell Paris Professor of Anthropology at Messiah College and Level Ground Theological Advisory Board member
“You need to value the value more than the value from before.” Elena wrote this sentence that is less than elegant in construction, but brilliant in wisdom. My class assignment required her to break a cultural norm and then reflect on why people conform to norms, and what it takes to change them. Students take food off strangers’ plates, breach personal space, walk the wrong way up stairs, and use umbrellas indoors, and then reflect on what it might take to shift entrenched social problems such as poverty, gun violence, and digital distraction.
Elena pointed out that change is often more complex than unilinear movement toward something good. Often, two or more treasured values are at stake, and in order to change, we must value the new value more than we value the value from before.
"Let’s break these norms, and see what happens."
Each semester, a student or two writes about Christian treatment of LGBTQ persons, and whether conservative or liberal in their theology, the recommendation is the same: treat others well, with respect, and love—the way we would want to be treated.
Easier said than done, in part because so many values are at play. I was at a gathering of diverse Christians, talking about conflicts over sexuality in the church. Things went predictably awry, with personal accusations, raised voices, and intentional misrepresentations of other points of view. The Bible! Moral absolutes! Truth! God’s standards! These things were all in jeopardy, it seemed. Lowering one’s voice, or listening for extended period of time, seemed like unaffordable luxuries: more important to judge quickly, decisively, and loudly.
"Elena pointed out that change is often more complex than unilinear movement toward something good."
New kinds of gatherings, and new groups of friends, are coalescing around a new purpose, to promote reconciliation, bridge-building, and listening across difference. The same concerns are at stake, but also some new ones: the value of listening to people’s stories, honoring irreducible differences (which does not require affirming them), and demonstrating compassion, mercy, and kindness. At one of these gatherings, a young woman said to me, “I’m just letting you know, I’m a little more conservative than most of the others. It’s how I read the Bible. It’s just where I’m coming from. But the more important thing is this work, bringing people together to reflect on faith and to live Christian unity in real friendship.”
Among competing values, this woman found a clear priority. She valued the value of reconciliation more than she valued the value from before.
"Lowering one’s voice, or listening for an extended period of time, seemed like unaffordable luxuries."
I’d like to assign the “Cultural Norms Project” to the church more broadly. The norm is to pick a position, defend it, and, as a show of the strength of one’s faith, block out fair and nuanced consideration of other views. The norm is to put ideas and theologies first, and people second. Let’s break these norms and see what happens. Then, let’s reflect on what it takes to bend this distorted arc toward reconciliation.