There Is No They

There is no they, only us.

I got a reminder of this today, an uncomfortable reminder that I probably needed to hear.

There is no “they.”

This is what I told the guy at the hardware store. More specifically, I told him, “YOU ARE True Value.”

I bought a hose storage unit at my local hardware store about a month ago. It worked well, for about two weeks. Then it started leaking.

Today was the day. I walked the half block, defective implement in hand, to ask for an exchange.

One guy said no, not before we try to fix it. He tried. It’s in worse condition now.

The other guy told me to send it back to the company, that they would replace it. “But I bought it here. How about we exchange it, and you send it back?”

“True Value won’t do that.”

“You’re True Value.”

There is no mystical “them” who is responsible. When you have a True Value store, you are True Value.

When you are part of a church, especially in leadership (but not only then), there is no “they” who will or will not do something.

In those moments when what needs to be done butts up against the policy, or when what they’ve done embarrasses us, deferring to “them” is not going to convince the person in front of you that you are not part of that “them.” That person will only be convinced that you are different when you act, when you do what is right.

I regularly need reminding of this. There is no “them” who is the church, or my employer, or my family, someone else to blame in that organization I’m a part of when I’m as frustrated as the outsider.

But probably the place where I need the reminder most is in dealing with Christians en mass. There is no “they” who are doing those things that drive me bat-poop crazy, only an “us.”

I can’t control “us,” but I can own us. I can take responsibility for how we are engaging, offending, alienating the person in front of me. I can take responsibility for apologizing for our brokenness and striving to rectify messed up situations.

Badmouthing “them,” or blaming “them” rings hollow when we are they. The person standing in front of us, or reading our blog post or our article or our book or our Facebook status knows that we are they, even though we’d like to distance ourselves and conveniently forget.

I need to realize it, too.

12 thoughts on “There Is No They”

  1. I presume you’ve heard of the True Scotsmans fallacy. It operates when people say “those Christians are not true christians, those socialists are not true socialists,” and so on. Until ultimately the only true member of a category is oneself.

    I’ve always thought that at some point if you share a title with other people getting tarred with the same brush is something you’ve kind of asked for. So I try not to use the scotsmans defence myself. Instead i ammend my title – i don’t call myself atheist as it has a particular white and patriarchal history in political opposition to Christianity (and more recently Islam). I call myself non-theist.

    The same identity politics is enacted when Christians call themselves Jesus Followers hoping to distinguish themselves from other Christians. It’s easier than persuading people so many others aren’t true christians.

    To do this though is to give up a fight over legitimacy in terms of Christianity that perhaps shouldn’t be conceded too easily. To use another example just because there is a lot of corrupt and bad advice calling itself “science” should scientists call themselves something else or is the purity and hope of “science” worth fighting over?

    Basically (if I get your post right this would be your topic) I don’t think there is any easy answer to how to own and how to disclaim actions under the shared banner of Christianity. And I appreciate the tension.

  2. I agree to an extent, but I do think there are times that a single person can do nothing and a “They” does form. There was mass corruption among the top leadership at my old church and I (and quite a few others less higher up in leadership) started really fighting against it and trying to make the church healthy again. But due to the church structure we ultimately had no power and some really hurtful things were allowed to continue because We couldn’t change what They were doing. So…I agree with you in general, like if you’re talking about how we discuss the Church (not necessarily A church) in internet forums, but sometimes specific circumstances keep our hands tied and We end up having to walk away from Them.

  3. Your consumer laws must be different from ours. Here the shop is legally responsible to the consumer but has no similar protection from suppliers or manufacturers. Fine for large chains but very unfair for small independents struggling to survive.

    How does this relate to the church? Well, I recall a PCC meeting where it was agreed we should ask someone to do something; as I knew this person better than most, it fell to me to do the asking which I duly did, only to be met with the reply, ‘If they want me to do it they should ask me themselves.’

    I don’t think that the church as an institution (many separate institutions?) is the same thing at all as the Body of Christ but reading your post makes it clearer to me that others are not going to see the difference.

    So how should we answer when people ask for something that individually we feel is right but know full well that church authorities won’t let us provide?

  4. First of all, my favorite part of this is the irony of the phrase “True Value won’t do that.”

    Secondly, I’ve heard this in sort of the opposite direction. I use to work at Camp Such and Such, and sometimes staff members would say “You know—Camp Such and Such should really do this thing I’m thinking of.”

    And the response would be: “You ARE Camp Such and Such. Do that thing.”

    It’s not the same as distancing ourselves out of distaste, but rather, I don’t know, responsibility?

  5. The guy doesn’t share an identify with TrueValue. He isn’t a part of it, he is an employee. TrueValue is an it, not a them. The guy doesn’t have a kinship relationship, he’s got a book of procedures. He’s the prodigal son during his pig-feeding phase. Someday soon he will go back to where his us is, we hope, but right now he’s nobody in particular and there’s no use in talking to him as if he was. The best I can do is make him part of me. That won’t get my hose reeled in, but probably no help there anywhere.

    1. I don’t know if the TrueValue guy is an employee, holds a franchise, or what, actually, I don’t know if Truevalue is a company, or a trademark or whatever, either, never heard of it (them?) before, the point is, as far as the customer is concerned, he is the representative, the ‘face’ of TrueValue. People expect him to behave as TrueValue and take his attitudes, actions, opinions as being Truevalue’s.

      But translate the situation into Christian terms as Daniel was doing them you’ve got to take the relationship between the vine and the branches into account.

      1. So make sure that your church/business is an us, not an it. Good idea. Of course you still couldn’t do just any old thing.

        …. in the meantime, what should you do when you confront a powerless person?

  6. I think some, not all, may be misunderstanding how Daniel is suggesting the employee should have responded. I’m guessing that Daniel is not assuming that a low-level clerk (if that’s what he was) could have changed policy on the spot and exchanged the hose. Instead, his thought process and attitude could have been “WE aren’t able to do that (not True Value)” at the very least. Or at best, he could have gotten a manager and challenged the system, asked for an exchange, etc. I think the idea here is that the clerk (and sometimes all of us) distance ourselves in our minds from what we see as the problem thereby allowing ourselves to not have to become part of the solution.

    1. Ah, hi …. I think there may be a misunderstanding of the nature of the national corporation TrueValue and its relationship to the being that Daniel confronted. TV has deliberately alienated the clerk, placing such people in a situation where they have no power except to conduct sales transactions. That’s largely true even if the person was the store manager: he may very well not select merchandise, set prices, plan advertising, or make return policy. Nobody at headquarters wants to hear what he might have to say. Commentators here seem to want to insist that the clerk assume moral responsibility for TV because he is wearing a blue vest; whereas TV specifically forbids him to do that. The clerk is not a partner. He is a feeder of pigs.

      Rather, the clerk is correctly … realistically … expressing solidarity with Daniel: it’s you and me against the Big Machine. He gets Daniel’s pain, but the situation is what it is. No doubt the best thing for the clerk to do would be to reject that situation; eg, seek gainful employment elsewhere in the Kingdom; but options are limited.

      The person with power in this situation is Daniel. How can he encourage the clerk to quit feeding TV’s pigs and go back home? One thing he can do is work to build institutions that do meaningfully empower associates, and in fact that is what Daniel does for a living. I get that he wants that to be the message here, but I think there is confusion about the nature of a national corporation vs. an ecclesia. It is wrong to demand, as an outsider, that oppressed people change the condition of their oppression.

      The other thing Daniel can do right now is take his business elsewhere. It’s probably difficult to impossible to find a hardware store within a hundred miles of SF or Meno Park that resembles an ecclesia more than a national corporation but we’ve got one out here in the sticks. It’s a few thousand square feet, adequately stocked. It’s a second-generation family business. They don’t exactly know who I am, but the gal at the register knows I’ve been in before. In a nutshell this is why I live here and not in Mountain View any more. Of course we have other problems.

  7. Failure to take responsibility has become a societal failure–I refer you to “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson.”

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