Jesus’ words on in-group bias

  • Sumo

In-group and out-group are not part of my everyday conversation. Yet I keep seeing these terms. They were in my relaxing cycling reading. We can find scholarly papers on the topic. And it’s such a simple idea that, once implanted in the mind, it’s easy to think of examples all other the place.

Here’s a definition: in-group bias is the simple tendency to favour one’s own group.

Which group? Any group!

Some groups are arbitrary (I follow the Tigers while you follow the Panthers). Some are intrinsic (sex, skin colour, disability, etc). Some are fluid (at different times, an individual can participate in both sides of ‘pedestrian versus car driver’). The behaviour that accompanies in-group bias can be awful. A famous illustration is the movie Blue Eyed, in which groups are formed on the basis of eye colour. A simple idea – the subsequent behaviour is disturbing to all, participant and viewer.

And so to religion. Faith commitment is a prime candidate for in-group bias and all the ugliness that can follow. What about Northern Ireland? What about last week’s Muslim protests against an internet video? Is violence inevitable, or can we find a solution?

Love Your EnemyHere are three solutions frequently suggested. One religious and useless. One non-religious and handy. And a final religious but effective solution.

Solution: ‘there are no groups’
This religious solution honestly names the hatred that in-groups (‘us’) can generate against out-groups (‘them’). The solution is a form of ‘all religions are the same’. That is, we are all the same group – there is no out-group. A sweet idea, but foolish. It cannot be that God both exists and does not exist (theism versus atheism). It cannot be that Jesus both died for sin on the cross and did not die on the cross (Christianity versus Islam). It’s no solution to ignore reality, logic or history.

Solution: understanding
This psychology page not only discusses in-group bias, but also finishes with five ‘suggestions for tearing down some of those real and virtual fences’. They are all good mental and socials skills to practise: understand the other, put yourself in their shoes, be confident in yourself, etc. Useful stuff, but limited. The limit is that, while it admits difference, it has no power to break through the dangerous boundaries that form.

Solution: Jesus’ way
Jesus knew of the out-group. He called on his disciples to obsess on the out-group. By itself, that sounds dangerous. ‘Obsess on the outsider? OK, that way we can smash them!’ Not so for Jesus. He said:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Luke 6:27-29, 35-36

Look at all the bold outsider language Jesus uses. The reason for the obsession: to show love and bear a cost with no expectation of benefit. This is the way of God – ‘he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil’ – therefore this is the way of God’s children.

This is a stunning solution, for it is the solution God himself completed. God saves his enemies (Romans 5:10). God broke through real barriers to establish real relationship. To be committed to Jesus is to benefit from this love, and therefore to learn how to practise this love. Jesus’ way has honesty (there are groups) and power (God can unite those who hate each other).

For every disciple of Jesus: what a joy!, and what a challenge!