Dr. Seuss, Social Psychology and the Body of Christ

Summer Sermon Series

Mark 9:38-41, Galatians 3:25-28

I am indebted to Christena Cleveland’s work, particularly her book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (InterVarsity Press, 2013). 

Ah, the Sneetches.

This was one of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories. The snootiness of the Star-bellied Sneetches was so ridiculous. And the idea that there was a machine that could put a star on or take it off? The story, the rhymes, the drawings—all so fun.

But to be perfectly honest with you, I suspect the reason I liked this story so much was because I could feel so smug in comparison. I would never be like a Sneetch, thinking that I was better than someone else because of something so…so…superficial!

And then I learned a bit about social psychology.

It’s just like I told the kids—we boost our own self-esteems by putting others down. It doesn’t matter that for me, these “others” were fictional characters. Feeling smug and superior to the Sneetches improved my self-esteem.

And the ridiculousness of the Star-Bellied Superiority?

It’s really not so ridiculous. Or at least not so far-fetched.

For example, I grew up in Ames. Who was the enemy? The Hawkeyes, of course! Why? Because they weren’t Cyclones, they weren’t us. If you’d told my 4th grade self that one day I would graduate from the University of Iowa and LIKE it, I would have told you you were nuts.

When we step back, these divisions seem so silly, but they are sadly real. Consider these divisions that exist locally:

Lisbon vs. Mt. Vernon

Cornell College vs. the town

Roundabout vs. No Roundabout

Community Center vs. No Community Center

New Football field vs. the Bellamy Bowl

Athletics vs. Fine Arts

And this does not even touch on politics or religion. We know all about those.

We started talking last week about the ways that our wonderful, amazing brains not so wonderfully or helpfully categorize everyone and everything we experience. These cognitive processes are helpful in that they allow for the efficient use of our brain power. However, categorization goes too far.

As social psychologist Christena Cleveland wrote “…a natural by-product of categorizing is that we automatically create distinctions between the ingroup and the outgroup. In fact, we often distinguish ourselves from other groups even when there’s no reason to do so.” (Disunity in Christ, Ch 4 p 67)

Stars or no stars. One sports team over another sports team. Differing positions on issues that affect the communities we love. These small things are all our brains need to start creating boundaries.

In fact, maintaining boundaries for our categories becomes a priority for our brains, causing us to fixate on differences while ignoring the glaring, neon-sign things we have in common. If we aren’t mindful of how our thoughts work, our focus becomes distinguishing ourselves from other groups. (p. 68 and 69)

Have you ever found out a new piece of information about someone you don’t know very well, an unpleasant or disappointing something so that you lost interest in pursuing friendship with that person? It’s a very, very human thing to do.

Last fall I very publicly supported Washington Elementary’s guidance curriculum that talked about gender identity with all the kids, kindergarten on up. There are two women in town with whom we had been friendly when we occasionally met; they came out against that curriculum. Since then, neither of them will make eye contact with me, let alone talk to me. But I will admit—while I try to make eye contact, I haven’t attempted to start a conversation.

This tendency to divide is a part of our human condition. What do we do about it?

The good news is, being aware that we do it is a great place to start. Be mindful; be an observer of your thoughts and become aware of when you do this.

A second step is intentionally, consciously choosing to remember and highlight the things that all of us have in common.

The Sneetches are a great example of this. What finally helped them see beyond their tiny difference to the similarities they shared? It wasn’t something they did intentionally so much as it was something they had done unto them by somebody else. All of the Sneetches—stars or no—had been fleeced by Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

It was in their shared distress that the Sneetches were reminded that they really were the same.

And here’s how that works—shared distress, while unfortunate, does help dissolve (at least temporarily) the emphasis on how we are different and focuses us on what we share.

Do you remember the sense of unity and common purpose after the floods in 2008? People came together from all walks of life, all opinions to work together to fill sandbags, deliver water, help muck out houses. There was a feeling of “we’re all in this together” and it was really beautiful.

Celebration is a great unifier, too. I expect that Summer Olympics will offer our country a few moments of national pride that transcend the divisions we’re experiencing right now over politics, race, and religion.

Our scripture readings today echo this same problem and offer a solution.

In Mark’s story, it’s pretty easy to imagine that the twelve disciples were excited and proud to be part of their particular ingroup and spent some considerable mental energy on Us vs. Them thinking.

So, when they saw someone who was not in their ingroup doing one of the things Jesus had given them the authority to do—casting our demons—and who was doing it in Jesus’ name? Well, they were NOT happy. John approached Jesus to point this out, probably expecting swift back up, but instead, Jesus responds by saying what could be interpreted as, “Don’t sweat it. We’re all in this together, so its all good.”

Paul has a somewhat similar situation with his letter to the Galatian congregation. Paul had started this church but after he moved on, other teachers arrived and taught them something very different. The congregation was breaking up into factions, lots of ingroups and outgroups and mental defenses against one another were going up. Paul’s solution? Remind them of what they have in common—they are all followers of Jesus, and that identity transcends nationality, gender, or social status.

As a person of faith, I find Paul’s advice very helpful. It’s not only because I am a Christian and therefore proclaim that Christ is Lord, that my most fundamental allegiance and obedience is to Jesus’ way, not my country, or political party, or even my religion or family.

The more I learn about how the human brain works, the more grateful I am to my faith that directs me to something higher and smarter than I, especially when at the heart of that faith is my own belovedness to God, and every other person’s belovedness, too. It helps take me outside of my own thoughts, encourages me to look at things from another perspective.

This belief that we are all beloved, that we belong to one another is, quite literally, counterintuitive. It’s not how our brains were made to function. But it is how we can function. It is a way of thinking and believing and living that God calls us to. And by the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit we can, each of us, live with ever more open minds and hearts, and thereby be part of God’s healing all of creation.

Thanks be to God for this! Amen.