Comings and Goings is a blog written by Theology, Formation, and Evangelism Director Charles B. "Chip" Hardwick as he travels throughout the church. God is on the move out and about in the world, working to redeem all things in Jesus Christ. As we join this mission, by the power of the Spirit we see God on the move. This blog contains glimpses of how Chip finds this to be true in his comings and goings.
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As I mentioned in my last two posts, I had the opportunity last week to attend a short course at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University called “Leading a Vibrant Faith Community.” Twenty students from a variety of Christian and Jewish traditions came together to learn about topics typically discussed at business school, but not at seminary, learning from Kellogg’s world-class professors. The last two posts have discussed managing polarities (vis-à-vis the denomination’s marriage study) and the person of the leader (and the need to be someone worth following). In today’s post I want to think about intergroup attribution error, and its impact on the church as we become increasingly polarized.
Intergroup attribution error came up in a session on negotiation and conflict management led by professor Adam Waytz from the Organizational Behavior department. (OB is a mash-up of psychology, anthropology and sociology, applied to organizations). In short, the intergroup attribution bias means that people perceive their own group or side to be motivated by more positive emotions (love the most chief among them) than negative emotions (hatred the most chief among them). On the other hand, people perceive the other side or group to be motivated by more negatives than positives.
One experiment bringing this bias to life revolved around the aggressive actions by Israelis and Palestinians, and asked each group why the other group acted the way it did. For instance, Israelis were asked, “‘Why do you think many Israelis support bombing of Gaza during this conflict?’ (1) Is it because of their love of Israel? (2) Is it because they hate Palestinians?” Israelis answered (1) far more often. They were then asked, “‘Why do you think many Palestinians support firing rockets from Gaza into Israel during this conflict.’ (1) Is it because of their love of Palestine? (2) Is it because they hate Israelis?” This time around the Israelis answered (2) far more often.
The same questions were asked to Palestinians, who (with the same dynamic as experienced by the Israelis) attributed their own actions to their love of Palestine (and not their hatred of Israel), but the Israelis’ actions to their hatred of Palestine (and not their love of Israel). This dynamic has been repeated again and again in other social experiments. Since people regularly attribute positive reasons to their own group’s actions and negative reasons to other groups’ actions, misunderstandings regularly multiply and conflicts often escalate.
It did not take me long to think of the current divisions in the PC(USA), the primary symptom of which is the definition of sexual integrity. My sense is that the intergroup attribution bias is at least partly to blame for our divisions. So-called conservatives, who understand sexual relationships between couples of the same gender to be sinful, and so-called progressives, who understand these kind of relationships not to be sinful, attribute to each other negative traits while attributing to themselves more positive ones.
At the risk of painting with a very broad brush, my sense is that progressives often attribute to themselves a love of justice. Conservatives often attribute to themselves a love for holiness. These attributions in and of themselves do not seem dangerous. The danger comes in with the attributions each side sometimes make toward others Again, at the risk of stereotyping, progressives sometimes attribute to conservatives antipathy toward gays and lesbians, while conservatives sometimes attribute to liberals antipathy toward the scriptures.
When these attributions are reinforced by outliers within both wings of the church, and when these attributions are shared and discussed by others on each side of the issue, they feel more and more like fact, which escalates the conflict.
What would happen if we could understand what negative emotions are driving our own group’s behavior, and what positive motivations are driving the other groups’ actions? I suspect we might be able to take a step toward each other as we work through these conflicts.