Sermon Series: “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”
Sermon Title: “Don’t Worry. Re-Attribute.”
September 22, 2013
One of the traits many of us dislike in others is a complete lack of ability ever to see that they might in any way be responsible for anything that goes wrong. Whatever it is, it is always the fault of someone else. Must be nice to be perfect.
In the formal study of critical thinking, courses in which have increasingly found their way into required university curricula across the world, the ability to recognize fallacies in how we process information about ourselves for example, is regarded as a foundational skill. There are several recurring fallacy-types. One of those is the “us versus them” reasoning-impairment reflex. As you would gather from the name of this pattern of processing, there is a tendency in it to blame automatically, for everything that goes wrong, a person or people who are not in your group.
Within a few hours after the initial 9/11 attacks, one prominent fundamentalist preacher was on television and radio with a blame-game explanation. The attacks had occurred, he pontificated, because certain Americans had pushed God beyond God’s breaking point thereby causing God to remove God’s protective covering from the United States. Ohhhhhhhhh. So that was why the major attack was on the World Trade Center with tons of professionals working there who weren’t US American. Never mind that! Who were these horrible US Americans among us who brought this unspeakable tragedy upon us? This pompous preacher had no trouble pointing them out. Feminists and homosexuals. Well, anyone could have figured that out with enough reflection.
In this preacher’s “us” group would be Christian fundamentalists who were straight homophobes and who believed that women have a place never on par with men and who are convinced that God has favorites with the United States of America at the top of the list. And who were the thems in this preacher’s mind? Gay and lesbian citizens or straight lesbian and gay friendly types along with women struggling for full gender equality at home and at work and at church/synagogue/mosque.
This preacher’s god was so exacting, why did his god use such an imprecise shotgun method of attack, leaving the majority of the presumed culprits alive and well? Why not, strike down just them and their supporters with a new disease; maybe it could be called femino-homo flu or something like that.
This preacher’s prejudiced perspectives also betrayed his perception that for every effect there must be a cause connected to those who suffered from the ill effects of the crisis or tragedy. The inability to open the mind’s doors to the possibility of pure randomness reflects limited progress on the pathway to mature reasoning. That is not a theological putdown; it is a fallacy to watch for in formal critical thinking.
I’m not saying the 9/11 attacks were random. They certainly were not that, but some evil IS that. The 9/11 attacks were carefully planned, and the reason they happened is because some radicals who hated our country wanted to hurt us. They did what they planned to do. (Incidentally, without a personal testimony or confession of some sort, reasoning on the basis of what we presume another person’s intent is, is also a fallacy in information-processing.)
Jesus had the crowds following him laughing themselves silly because he was poking fun at the sanctimonious, ever-so-pious Pharisees who made it a part of their self-assigned preoccupation to find out not IF others failed to measure up to Pharisaic standards of keeping all the religious rules anyone had ever been able to think of, but HOW. Of course, to them, all non-Pharisees had fallen short so the IF wasn’t the issue; it was simply a matter of HOW.
Jesus found fault with the Pharisees, though—quite a bit of fault it turns out. This is when the crowds who gathered around him to hear his thoughtful and creative teaching began to roll around on the ground in laughter. He told the Pharisees right to their faces that they reminded him of a person who’d tell someone she or he had a spec of something in the eye that needed to be removed, and as they pointed to the spec in the other’s eye they had to reach around the branch growing out of their own eyes.
It’s kinda fun to poke fun at those who can find no fault in anything they themselves do, but it isn’t funny at all to find a sad soul at the other end of the spectrum who holds herself or himself responsible for everything that goes wrong—in her or his life as well as in the lives of anyone to whom she or he is connected. These people have no personal peace ever because they must berate themselves incessantly for causing the constant flow of calamity that tries to undo them and their loved ones.
The Superior Court of Fresno, California, has a comprehensive website with details about many aspects of domestic violence—when to call the police, when to leave, how to make sure the children are safe, and so on. On that site is also a list of some suggested ways to support victims of domestic violence for various individuals or groups who might find themselves in that role. One group highlighted is the victim’s work circle—supervisor, coworkers, HR staff members, and so on. You are savvy folk so this may not surprise you, but listen to the list things not to ask or say to the victim if you are a part of her or his workplace:
- Don’t ask why she or he stays.
- Don’t tell the victim what you think she or he should do.
- Don’t ask the victim what she or he did to deserve the abuse.
Now, if that last one is on the list of DO NOT’S, it must have been asked and reported often enough to come to the attention of social workers and court officers; otherwise, it wouldn’t be on the list. “What did you do to deserve this?” Seriously? Could anyone be more crass or callous than that?
Wait, though. Sometimes those who ask that question are taking their cues from the victims. We would hope anyone with common sense would know better, but not so. What I mean is, the vast majority of victims of domestic abuse—and it’s the same with victims of rape at this point—blame themselves for one or both of the following: 1) for being in a situation where such horrors can occur in the first place; and 2) for making the batterer angry enough to attack.
One rape treatment center explains succinctly the impact of rape:
Feelings of guilt and shame are common reactions following a sexual assault. Because of misconceptions about rape, some victims blame themselves, doubt their own judgment, or wonder if they were in some way responsible for the assault. Feelings of guilt and self-blame may be reinforced by the reactions of others, who, because of prevalent myths about rape, may blame the victim or criticize his or her behavior. You may also feel ashamed. Some victims describe feeling dirty, devalued, and humiliated as a result of a sexual assault. Feelings of shame are often related to the powerlessness and helplessness victims experience during a sexual assault. Shame may also be a reaction to being forced by the assailant to participate in the crime.
Self-blaming leads to self-hatred. Barbara Ann Brennan said:
We base our self-worth on what we expect of ourselves. We demand an impossible perfection from ourselves. Then we judge and reject ourselves when we do not achieve that perfection. We demand a never-ending list of accomplishments from ourselves. As we achieve each one, we ignore and devalue it. We immediately focus on the next hurdle to surmount. We don’t allow time for the accomplishment to sink in or to congratulate ourselves for what we have done or for what we have become through our effort and struggle. We do not give ourselves the gifts that we have achieved or have given to others.
Wow. Keep these two statements of hers in the forefront of your thinking: “We demand an impossible perfection from ourselves. Then we judge and reject ourselves when we do not achieve that perfection.”
The Apostle Paul, once a Pharisee himself, struggled painfully, relentlessly with why he couldn’t live up to the standards he had set for himself—standards he believed God had directed him to set up. I don’t how many so-called sins Paul blasts in all of his writings taken together, but there would be a pile of them. Sometimes, as Paul dictated his letters, he’d get off on a tear, and list sin and sin after sin—take a breath—then do it again. The thing is, Paul was not a hypocrite, though he may have wondered about that with some frequency, and he really did expect himself to live up to every expectation he set up for others. One way to take care of this sin problem is to join Silverside Church where we don’t believe in sin; we believe in jerks and inappropriate behavior, but we don’t believe in sin for the most part. Alas, Paul didn’t have a Silverside; all he had was his Pharisaic background and a secondhand listen to the teachings of Jesus since he never met Jesus—only a handful of Jesus’ followers who lived for several years after Jesus’ execution.
So when Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, he gets rather personal in a few places, and one of those places is in what is now referred to as the seventh chapter of book of Romans. You heard Elizabeth read the gist of his heart-rending confession to his readers. It’s tough for many leaders to be so vulnerable, and yet here Paul was:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I fear that nothing good dwells within me, because I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. I do not do the good I want, but the behavior I do not want is what I do.
An astute Silversider—could there be any other type?—asked me the other day, “Do you think the Apostle Paul struggled with an addiction?” I said I didn’t know, but reading what I just read to you could certainly make someone who has had experience living with or working with addicts wonder. I think the question reveals superior insight and depth of feeling.
Whether or not addiction was his struggle, something he did or somethings he did caused him at least to be frustrated with himself and maybe to hate himself. There’s a good chance of the latter.
In the healthy process of trying minimize worry through various dimensions of re-attribution, one may learn to start the harmful cycle of self-blame, which we have seen may well lead to self-hatred. As well I understand mental health and mental health challenges among those who identify with Christian fundamentalism, I can assure you with no fear of being wrong that after the pompous preacher slammed feminists as well as gay and lesbian citizens in the aftermath of 9/11, some fundamentalist-raised feminists and lesbian and gay citizens who heard him harkened back to childhood times when preachers they had heard had condemned people like them to perdition. They wondered if just by following their hearts and their values they had had some role in angering God to the point that God said, “You crazy extremists, go kill at three geographical locales to make my point to those godless Americans.”
So, the process of re-attribution works like this. Instead of buying in to what you’ve programmed yourself to believe or been programmed to believe about how a careless person like you or a person lacking moral stamina like you, you learn the discipline of considering the possibility of other causes or no causes. Maybe then, Brother Apostle, Brother Paul, there’s nothing wrong with you at all; maybe you’re a human being after all. (And let’s never say, “just human.”) And maybe, therefore, you fall short from time to time of high standards by which you’d like to be able to live at all times.
It is not healthy for recovering addicts to be encouraged to avoid taking responsibility for becoming addicts. At the same time, because many addictions are illnesses, it isn’t healthy or productive to press an addict to say or think, “I’m a worthless scumbag because I let a substance or a behavior control me, because I let a substance or a behavior become my deity into whose demands I will give every time.”
How about encouraging an addict to say something more along the lines of this? “I didn’t set out to become an addict. The last thing I’d ever have wanted to do is to disappoint much less hurt those whom I love. In accepting full responsibility for what I has happened, I must also keep in mind that the weakness I discovered, which encouraged the addiction, clouded my ability to see things as they really were as did professional pressures to perform, financial demands at home, and a sense of failure as a parent. I, nonetheless, am a person of worth and dignity, and I deserve to be able to love myself even if none of those close to me can say at this moment that they love me.”
A rape victim, rather than drowning in shame as a result of blaming herself or himself for what happened, needs to be encouraged to re-attribute cause. Loved ones and professionals need to be able to help or him say, “I am not at fault in any way—regardless of how late I was out or what I wore. The sole responsible party was the rapist. If I choose to forgive the rapist, that is a personal choice I will make, but even in that case, the blame for violating my person will always rest squarely on the rapist. Therefore, there is no reason I should be guilty, no reason I should feel ashamed.”
A psychologist in London who has made a career of working with victims of rape says that one of the key reasons outsiders looking in are willing to blame the victim is because they think if she or he could have prevented this crime then they, the outsiders, can feel protected from suffering the same fate by telling themselves that they’d never do what he did or what she did to get into that situation in the first place. How self-serving is that? If the victim, could have prevented it, what do you say of children who have neither the physical prowess to fend off an attack nor the life experience to know what to do when someone whom they have trusted—a neighbor, a teacher, or a parent—commits the abuse? That silly self-protective mind game only serves to make us more callous to the pain of the victim.
I miss Dr. Pam Cummings around here; I miss her tremendously. She is loving Houston in terms of being close to her son, Paul, but she is hating Houston in the sense that it’s suffocating her spiritually. We hope that doesn’t continue, or else Silverside is going to have to get serious about establishing mission posts in places like Houston, Honolulu, Portland—you know the places we need to be. Well, I have a memento from Pam that hangs on my office door. If you’ve ever been in the office suite when my door was shut, you’ve seen it. It’s a bumper sticker because she knows I hate them, but this one has a message I’d love to display on the highways. It reads: “Non-Judgment Day Is Near.”
How about a community that refuses to practice judgmentalism, either for pseudo-religious reasons or because of a need to gossip, refuses to practice judgmentalism to such an extent that all in the community learn to love themselves so much—botches here and there notwithstanding—that self-love prevails and leads to clarity of understanding where the fault for any problem truly lies if there is a source of fault. Self-loathing would become an impossibility. Thank you, Pam.