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Bunkers, Brene, Belonging

By September 14, 2017 3 Comments

by Kate Kooyman

“At the very same time we are sorting ourselves into ideological factions and bunkers — and the research shows this clearly… the way we live, worship, go to school — at the same time, we are becoming increasingly lonelier. You would think the factions would at least deliver on some good connections with like-minded people. But the truth is that we are bunkered-up, and lonely. Because the connection that happens between those bunkers is not authentic connection. It’s what I call ‘common enemy intimacy’. We just hate the same people.”Brene Brown, the 1A on NPR.

I’ve been thinking about this all week, after I caught this snippet of an interview while driving around in my mini van. It’s been bugging me.

On the one hand I feel convicted by it. It is solidly true for me. I have a lot of like-minded people around me. I have a yard sign that announces to all the neighbors which bunker I’m in on a list of social issues. The same sign is all over the neighborhood. My neighbors and I agree on our common enemy, and luckily the enemy lives in another part of town.

In this country, it used to be that a lawyer and a housekeeper would find themselves at the same check-out lane while buying groceries. We might grow up in school with a person of another faith. We might sit in the pew next to someone who voted for the other party at election time. But today, all those things are increasingly not true. More than ever before, in the places where we live, shop, eat, work, worship, there are a bunch of other people who are just like us — who make the same amount of money, and spend it similarly; who vote the way we do; who look and talk and act like we do. We surround ourselves, more and more, with ourselves.

This is harmful, and I think Brene Brown helps us see how. Our rage, our deep loneliness, our hopelessness about the future seem wrapped up in this factionalism, in this narcissism. We cannot heal, or learn, or even form a strong sense of self when we are so addicted to sizing each other up all the time. It is infinitely easier to hate a person who is held at arm’s length. When Brene Brown says that people who feel the highest levels of belonging have chosen to move in, because “people are hard to hate close up,” I think she’s saying something so true it’s Biblical. It’s incarnation.

But I also struggle with what I often hear spoken — I say it, too — as the antidote to the disunity of the church: personal relationships. We’ve got to resist the urge to break up family Thanksgiving dinner over politics, we say. We’ve got to put the unity of the church ahead of our opinions on social issues. We’ve got to get curious about a view that differs from our own. I say these things. I even think they’re true.

But. While I do think that we all need diverse friendships, I don’t think, for example, that having a black friend is the cure for racism. Racism’s power not primarily interpersonal; it is systemic. God’s call to the church is far more than just joining hands at 11am on Sunday morning. We are called to dismantle the structures that are making and keeping people oppressed. And sometimes I think that focusing on building personal bridges across personal difference has tricked us into thinking that these problems are primarily personal. Or that God is calling us to focus on relationships, which feel good, and not politics, which feel bad. 

Systems are made up of policies, which are in the hands of politicians, who are elected through partisanship, which puts us all in our silos. So this stuff is hard, and it feels bad. I had the strange experience of singing “How Great Thou Art” in a sanctuary the other day alongside a handful of politicians whose decisions I so deeply object to — because of my understanding of the gospel — that it took my breath away. I confess that I don’t know how it can be the same Jesus we worship. I didn’t feel inspired by our diversity; I felt offended by it. I don’t want to take them out for coffee. I want to take them out of office.

And truth be told, I don’t know if that’s faithfulness or sinfulness. I don’t know if it’s my calling or my narcissism. On the one hand, I deeply believe that God’s design is not sameness, but diversity. God shows up not in the face of the one we know best, but in the face of the stranger. It hurts, and I hate it, but I think it’s true: we need each other. And the fear and dread that Brene Brown says is stemming from my “crisis of belonging” — my addiction to “us and them” — is a part of my daily life now. I’m so afraid, so full of dread. If having coffee with someone from the Tea Party will get me closer to feeling safety… then the latte’s on me.

But how do we do this when the stakes are so high? When we are not talking in generalities, or in philosophies, but in actual real policies — and the policies deport people to countries riddled with violence, the policies discharge a firearm with impunity, the policies involve bombs 100-times the power of Hiroshima?

Are our bunkers killing us, or calling us? I struggle to know.

I also love Brene Brown. Maybe I’ll find the answers in her new book. You should listen to the interview.

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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