Comedian Emo Phillips wrote a joke about our tendency as Christians to obsess over the differences between us while ignoring the many beliefs and practices that we have in common. Apparently, the joke is hilarious; GQ magazine named it the 44th funniest joke of all time in “The 75 Funniest Jokes of All Time” (June 1999). Here’s the joke:
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!”
He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me too! Protestant or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! What denomination?”
He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me too!”
“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” I said, “Die heretic!” And I pushed him over.
The joke reveals the absurdity of obsessing over relatively small differences between us and them while ignoring more important characteristics that we have in common. Indeed, Christians often erect divisions out of thin air by grouping people into smaller homogenous categories based on easily distinguishable characteristics. For example, we typically focus on less significant but easily distinguishable features like physical characteristics, language, and theology that indicate membership in specific homogenous groups rather than less obvious but more important features that indicate membership in a larger diverse group (e.g., the body of Christ). The mere process of erecting these divisions leads to prejudice and hostility toward different Christians.
Christians aren’t the only ones that run into this problem. Research on minimal groups – groups that are formed based on an inconsequential characteristic such as whether an individual underestimated or overestimated how many marbles were in a jar – suggests that simply putting people into groups (e.g., overestimators and underestimators) leads them automatically focus on the specific characteristic that divides them (e.g., estimation tendency) and disregard the more significant factors that unite them (e.g., being students at the same university).[i] (!!!!)
So what does this research mean for the Church? Well, for one, it’s somewhat comforting to know that Christians aren’t the only ones who dabble in the absurd. Two, it’s important for us to take note that if we’re not careful, we too will fall prey to this absurdity. Before we know it, our common identity as fellow Christians becomes irrelevant. Instead the ethnic, political and theological differences become our focus as we perceive each other and interact with each other. Further, these ethnic, cultural and theological distinctions may start out as mere descriptive labels (I.E., pro-life supporters vs. pro-choice supporters) but they often deteriorate into value labels (I.E., Right Christian vs. Wrong Christian) that afford one group (typically our group) higher status. The longer we believe that we are the superior Christian group, we have no problem saying, “Die heretic!” while pushing them off the bridge with our words and deeds.
We don’t have to do this though. We don’t have to obsess over the beliefs and practices that differentiate Christians while ignoring common membership in the body of Christ. We don’t have to belittle Christians who vote differently. We don’t have to be suspicious of Christians who worship differently.
Here are some solutions:
[i] Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1, 149 178.