by Dr. Thaddeus Williams
One of the most common ways mental operating systems glitch and crash is when they start processing the world in one and only one way. A Wall Street tycoon starts with an insight—It is good to make money. Before long our tycoon’s insight becomes an idol that warps his mind. He cannot see a breathtaking stretch of beach. Sure, it hits his retinas, but he cannot really see it—the blue on blue horizon, sunrays producing a lightshow on the ocean ripples that looks like ten million tiny cameras flashing, whitewash gliding up and sizzling down the glassy sand, or seagulls surfing the wind currents. All he sees is untapped beachfront property that could, with some investment savvy, go for millions. Given his epistemology, he can only see the world in one color: green...
There is nothing wrong with our insuppressible need for a grand unifying drama. We are designed to live within a big meaningful story. Without one, Dostoyevsky observed, we tend to go “stark, raving mad.” The problem occurs when our grand stories are not as grand as they seem. They don’t pry the world open to us to behold more, but cram the world into a tiny box and lock us inside. They make God’s Technicolor world appear to us in two-tone.
Take the true insight—there are real oppressors in the world and there are people who are truly, deeply oppressed. When that true insight into some things becomes the way of seeing everything, then our story of the world ceases to be a grand story. Just as our tycoon could not really see a beach, he could only see dollars and cents, so we lose our ability to see the world when we can only see the oppressors versus the oppressed.
If we look at history and can see no nuance or beauty, nothing to preserve or treasure, only a long brutal tale of oppressors exploiting and pillaging minority groups, then something has gone terribly wrong with our mental operating systems. We are unable to process so much of history. If we read great literature and we can only see dead white guys writing stories to push patriarchal oppression, then something has gone terribly wrong. We lose the capacity to process so much literary truth and beauty. When we pass someone on the street and don’t see a unique person, but an exemplar of an identity group, when we project all the virtue or viciousness of that group onto the flesh-and-blood person before us, something has gone terribly wrong. We are missing so much of who people actually are.
Before long, as this mental operating system takes over, we can hardly scroll through our Netflix suggestions without the righteous indignation kicking in. Braveheart. A three-hour celebration of toxic masculinity. The Patriot. Shameless American exceptionalism. Sleepless in Seattle. Heteronormative propaganda. Lord of the Rings. Eurocentic racism. The Ten Commandments. Propaganda for a Judeo-Christian theocracy. Scarface? Villainizes immigrants. Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper? Big budget Islamophobia. Alladin, Mulan, Princess and the Frog? Racial stereotyping. Captain America? More like Captain White Privilege.
Dr. Thaddeus Williams serves as Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Biola University and the author of REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History The above post is an excerpt from his book “21 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice” (forthcoming 2019).