“As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” says Proverbs 23:7. It is our thinking that binds us to behavior patterns both as individuals and as collectives. Our collective patterns are called cultures. We are all situated in multiple cultural groups and identities. We prefer our culture and group to any other, and often misunderstand and mistreat other cultural beings and groups. Researchers call this ingroup and outgroup thinking and behavior. As we think, so will we behave.
Outgroup and ingroup thinking and behaviors are common to humans in every culture and every time throughout human history. In our fallen and wounded condition, we are most likely to identify those who are “my people” quickly based on apparent similarities and available visible clues like the color of skin, as well as hair, eyes, and facial nuances. We also quickly identify who is part of “us” by the language, dialect, or accent (hearing) as well as the clothes we wear, and other cues that our senses can quickly observe. The people we are comfortable with and see as like ourselves we assume to be good. They are our “ingroup.” Regardless of the name we call our people, we think of them in friendly and protective ways.
On the other hand, our quick decisions and first impressions of outsiders are often full of error and informed by fear of the unknown or unfamiliar. We think of outgroup members with suspicion and mistrust. Outgroup members are those we see as unlike ourselves and use that unlikeness to excuse our inhumane treatment.
“Outgroup” members are people we are not really concerned about. When they are hurt, we feel no pain. We may believe they deserve their troubles. We even have special titles for “those people.” Our titles for outgroup members are usually pejorative, unkind, and inhumane and we use our beliefs about them to justify mistreatment We believe we have “favor” with God, and that the outsiders do not.
It is common to perceive outgroup members as less beautiful, less virtuous, or less intelligent, both as individuals, but also as groups. It is common to see their cultures as flawed while seeing our own as ideal.
Outgroup thinking and behavior are part of our carnal, unredeemed nature. Jesus came to break these very ties of our sinful human power struggles and to make us all insiders in the Kingdom of God. Then he appointed us to do the very opposite that our wounded egos and cultures normalize. That assignment is to bring other outsiders in with us. We are mandated to love our neighbors, it is not an option. Loving outsiders as much as insiders is the prime mission every believer is assigned while on this earth.
Jesus directly addressed in/outgroup behavior in Matthew 5: 44,47 He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . .If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Aren’t even tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Don’t even pagans do that?”
What can we do?
First, we must change our thinking. We must align our thinking with God’s about ourselves and others. We must humble ourselves to honor the Imago Dei (image of God) in every situation and condition and cultural group. According to Matthew 5:46 having eternal life depends upon it: first, loving God . . . and second, loving our neighbor in similar ways that we love ourselves (and our people). Yes, even immigrant neighbors, imprisoned neighbors, poor neighbors, addicted neighbors, and our physically and mentally unwell neighbors.
Secondly, we must change our behavior. Loving our neighbor who we do not identify with is the second part of the eternal life formula. This is well illustrated by the “good Samaritan” story in Luke 10, where the one who stopped to care and pay for the care of the beaten man was not of the same religion or ethnicity as the injured man, but he was perceived to be “ungodly” and impure by the people Jesus was addressing.
Most western cultures are very individualistic, Americans are among the highest level of individualistic nations. We believe that we have arrived at “blessings” by our own hard work. We take individual responsibility for our goodness and assert individual blame for misdeeds. Individualist cultures do not recognize the harm that collectives of our ancestors inflicted, whereas collectivist people groups recognize the blessings of the labors invested by their ancestors as “standing upon the shoulders of the great ones.” What we/western individualists, often don’t realize is that we, in fact, did not raise ourselves from our bootstraps; we had help. Nor did our neighbors become downtrodden by their own fault, they were placed there by the unjust actions of many others.
Our outgroup thinking can cause us to misunderstand the purpose of our blessings, falsely believing that “those people” deserve whatever has and will happen to them while our own failures were our circumstances, not our character. Outgroup thinking leads us to draw false conclusions about the fault in others and their people group but in ourselves, we see mostly virtue.
Our outgroup and individualistic thinking can also cause us to believe that God’s abundant supply toward us is for the purpose of our luxury, indulgence, and gluttony. We call it “blessing.”
Instead, we must behave as if everything we are and everything we own belongs to God, and we are simply stewards of those things, held accountable by God as to how we invest them in other people.
Micah 6:8 is clear, “. . . what is good is to DO justice, LOVE mercy, and WALK humbly with our God. Our actions must be full of justice. Our attitudes must be permeated by mercy, and our WALK in this world and with God should be a walk of humility and service to others in reverence for God.
These are the ties that will create a new bond, a healthy spiritual bond that will break the chains of bondage and injustice.
*Learn more about Outgroup/Ingroup behavior and Individualism and Collectivism and what scripture has to teach us about these things in my newest book, “Loving Our Neighbors: A transformational communication guide,” Available on Amazon.com.
By Doc Courage