Our Culture of Fear (of Different Cultures)

We’ve created a culture of fear of different cultures in the body of Christ. We’re afraid of them simply because they hold different views than us. We’re afraid that their difference will blur the cultural distinctions that we hold so dear.  Much like the participants in cultural threat studies who are frightened by a possible influx of immigrants, we are frightened that an influx of different cultural groups will change our beliefs, practices, customs and life as we know it. Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd writes, “What does truth have to fear? I sometimes wonder if the animosity some express toward [those who offer a different perspective] is motivated by the fear that the case [for the opposing perspective] might turn out to be more compelling than they can handle.”  We’re afraid that they might influence us. As a result, our cross-cultural interactions are not characterized by humility, openness, interdependence and hopeful invitation.  Rather, they are characterized by fear, retreat into cognitive closure and accusations. Our orientation and motivation is one of fear and retreat. Within our culture of fear, our words and behavior are motivated by a desire to avoid being like a certain group, rather than a desire to be like Jesus. E. Tory Higgins, a social psychologist who studies the self and motivation, makes a distinction between prevention and promotion orientation that can help to explain the culture of fear in the body of Christ.  Basically, Higgins believes that people are motivated to achieve a lofty ideal / advancement (promotion) or to avoid danger / negative consequences (prevention). For example, the promotion-oriented student is motivated to study for an exam in order to obtain a good grade. Her motivation to study is driven by positivity and hope for achievement. On the contrary, the prevention-oriented student is motivated to study for an exam in order to avoid getting a poor grade.  The motivation to study is driven by negativity and fear of failure.  Both promotion and prevention orientations are powerful motivation tools; they can both lead to high performance.  However, Higgins has found that promotion is related to eagerness: a sensitivity to and desire for positive outcomes.  Whereas prevention is related to vigilance: a sensitivity to and avoidance of negative outcomes.  In other words, promotion oriented people are sensitive to, looking for, and eager to find positive things so they can obtain them and prevention oriented people are sensitive to, looking for, eager to find negative things so they can avoid them.

The body of Christ seems to be plagued with a pervasive prevention orientation. We have a heightened sensitivity to what we perceive to be the negative happenings in the church and we are especially vigilant in tracking those happenings. It doesn’t take long for us to identify a negative happening and once we do, we use strong language to motivate people to avoid it.  This creates a culture of fear in which we’re constantly looking for (real or imagined) threats and then orienting our lives around avoiding them.

For example, we build sermons around this avoidance of threat. Pastors often construct theological arguments by talking about what another church group is doing/thinking and why we shouldn’t be like them.  The other day, I listened to a podcast of an internationally-known pastor - let’s call him Pastor Aaron.  Even though his sermon was on the holiness of God, he prefaced it by saying that during his commute to church that morning he had listened to a sermon of a nearby pastor – Pastor Brian.  Pastor Aaron didn’t say much about Pastor Brian’s sermon other than to point out that Pastor Brian failed to mention the name of Jesus during the 15 minute portion of the sermon that Pastor Aaron happened to hear during his commute. Based on this limited data, Pastor Aaron sarcastically concluded that even though Pastor Brian probably loves Jesus, he “hides it well.” The congregation laughed. Pastor Aaron went on to declare that at his church they know that Jesus reigns supreme – the implication being that Pastor Brian’s church is misguided and should be avoided. Rather than simply teaching his congregants about the holiness of God, Pastor Aaron used sarcasm to subtly but powerfully scare them into following him.  He might as well have added, “If you don’t stick with this church, you’ll end up like Pastor Brian, a barely-Christian person that we will mock.”

I think it is logical to conclude that Pastor Aaron was operating from a prevention orientation. He vigilantly tracked the negative event (Pastor Brian’s failure to mention the name of Jesus) and swiftly (perhaps too swiftly) concluded that people like Pastor Brian, as perpetrators of negative events, are to be avoided.  Then he perpetuated the culture of fear by passing this orientation on to his large body of listeners. Imagine how differently Pastor Aaron would have felt if he had approached Pastor Brian’s sermon with a promotion orientation. He probably would have been encouraged and challenged by Pastor Brian’s words.  He probably also would have cut Pastor Brian some slack for not mentioning Jesus’ name at fifteen-minute intervals.

Researchers have found evidence for a trait negativity bias; humans have a tendency to pay more attention to and place more value on negative information than positive information. For example, one bad trait can easily override numerous good traits and destroy a person’s reputation. (This is why negative political ads are so powerful.) In addition, Tiffany Ito and others (1998) have found that “negative information weighs more heavily on the brain” (p. 887). In their study, they attached electrodes to participant’s scalps and recorded participant’s brain activity why they viewed slides depicting positive (e.g., a red Ferrari, people enjoying a roller coaster ride), negative (a mutilated face, a handgun pointed at the camera) or neutral (a plate, a hair dryer) images. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that brain activity was more pronounced when participants were viewing negative images as opposed to positive or neutral images.

From a survival perspective, it is adaptive for people to stay alert to negative information; in order to stay safe, you need to be aware of the dangers. However, from a Kingdom perspective, it is adaptive for members of the body of Christ to stay alert to positive information about others. In order to stay unified, we need to override our natural tendency to focus on what we perceive to be negative information about other groups and instead stay alert to the positive information that they bring to the table of faith. If we’re going to be vigilant about anything, we should be vigilant about the positive things that God is doing through our fellow members. In other words, we need to be promotion-oriented. Our default orientation should be one of eagerness to see God working, eagerness to see God glorified in those around us, eagerness to live as the unified body of Christ. Pastor Rick Warren agrees, often saying, “It’s high time for churches to be known for what they stand for and not for what they stand against.”