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The narcissism of small differences

5.1. 2013 435 Times read

From the editor

In this month’s News Analysis, Harvey Yoder anguishes about divisions and church “divorces” among Mennonites.

Thomas Everett 2013 sm“Today there are 12 different Mennonite subgroups in Rockingham County (Va.) alone, and there are signs of even more church divorces to come,” Yoder writes. ”… I find this multiplicity of divisions beyond embarrassing.”

Yoder goes on to say that what we lose—as we politely agree to disagree and go our separate ways—are important connections that enhance learning and create a sense of needed accountability with each other.

But why do we divide?

I mentioned Yoder’s complaint in a recent Sunday school discussion. Afterward, a friend alerted me to Sigmund Freud’s contention that such divisions can sometimes be a form of excessive self-interest.

Borrowing from an earlier scholar, Freud described it as “the narcissism of small differences.” He observed that communities with adjoining territories—and related to each other in other ways as well—engage in constant feuds and ridicule each other.

So the question is whether the differences over which we argue and divide are “small.”

For some they are; for others they are not. And in most parts of this country there are varieties of Mennonites living in close physical proximity to each other but separated on Sunday mornings by divergent convictions and theologies.

But I have also seen signs that some of us are willing to do the hard work of listening to others whose perspectives and beliefs seem wrong. This hard work is being done mostly by area conferences. Here are two examples:

David Boshart, executive conference minister for Central Plains Mennonite Conference, published an article in the February issue of the conference newsletter entitled “Why I Have Hope for the Church.” In the article he describes a process leaders are using to give and receive counsel in relationship to a policy on marriage adopted by Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis.

Each congregation was asked to send three people “full of wisdom and the Spirit” to regional discussions. Boshart observes that there was a high level of participation. He also says, “Participants … embodied extraordinary wisdom, spiritual maturity, interpersonal sensitivity and open communication. … This was a rare opportunity for our members to talk to one another about agreements and disagreements on matters of faith and life.”

In Allegheny Mennonite Conference, a different process is unfolding as the conference looks at its relationship with Hyattsville (Md.) Mennonite Church. AMC placed the congregation under discipline in 2005, which means the church’s members cannot vote or hold an office in the conference or in Mennonite Church USA. AMC has created a reconcilation discernment committee that will discern what reconciliation means in this relationship.

Most of the stories we read are published in conference newsletters. Invariably, the reports describe conference delegates in table group discussions that are lively and respectful. What is encouraging about this is that the issues being discussed are not “small details.” Those willing to participate do so because of their love for the church. Maybe the opposite of Freud’s phrase describes this new pattern: yieldedness in the face of major differences.

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