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It’s all about the culture

May 17, 2013

Two stories that were in the news this past week caught my eye and have got me thinking about culture.  No, I am not talking about the culture war or culture in general but, specific organizational or group sub-cultures.

The first story was the IRS scandal where they have admitted to doing targeted harassing of conservative interest groups.  If we set aside the swirling questions of who “masterminded” this targeting and who knew what when this story is still puzzling.  It has become clear that, in addition to those doing the harassing, many mid-level and upper-level IRS managers knew what was going on and not only failed to tell anyone but misled or lied to those who asked questions.

While I am not prone to conspiracy theories as an explanation I do wonder about the culture of an organization where so many can know so much about something so suspicious and nobody, not anyone at all, speaks up and says “Hey, this is wrong.”  The only rational explanation is that a huge number of people bought into an organizational culture that allowed and even encouraged this outrage.

Jump now to the story of rampant sex abuse in the military.  The report has come out that shows cases of sexual abuse occur at a rate far higher than the general public and that the self-policing systems of the chain of command are not just useless, they are covering up abuse cases.  This is shocking.

Here too the culture of the military seems to not only allow this to happen at an alarming rate it also leaves victims with nowhere to turn or, even worse, finding that reporting such incidents can harm their careers.  As with the IRS situation, a red-faced leadership is trying to explain and correct something that should never have happened and dealing with unanswerable questions as to how the military failed sex assault victims.

The common thread in these stories is that organizational culture of these two systems not only failed to prevent wrong-doing they exacerbated it.  We are all appalled by this failure and rightly demanding answers.  But there is another question that comes to my mind.  Am I, specifically as part of an evangelical culture, prone to any similar blind spots that are just as glaring?  It is possible.

In any group that is bound together by mission, be it collecting taxes, defending the country or reaching the world for Jesus, it is easy to form common assumptions, common tactics, common beliefs about what we are doing and how to do it.  When this happens, when there are few dissenting “on the other hand” voices, we have every reason to suspect that our blind spots will sooner or later be exposed.

There could be many examples but I will use just one.  More and more evangelicalism and Republicanism are merging in beliefs, goals and tactics.  But something that starts as having common values can easily, absent cautioning voices, drift into common assumptions about issues and tactics.  I probably could make the same case for progressive Christianity and the Democratic Party but you get the idea.

In fact, I suspect the danger is even greater in a church setting on this and a host of other issues.  Unlike the IRS or the military our “group” is self-selecting and prone to a gathering of like-thinkers.  What should we do about this?  For one, we need to start by admitting that blind spots are possible, perhaps even inevitable, as we group-think our issues.  In addition we should accept, even welcome, contrary thinkers.  Again, sticking to politics, the evangelical church needs to welcome some good, clear-thinking Democrats.  We need to do more than listen politely to those who are outside the church but be open to admit that a few of “them” in our midst should do us some good.

It just occurs to me that there is even a more daring option.  Perhaps a few of us should pack our bags and join “their” churches or groups?  Perhaps a few of us should sit down with progressives or even non-Christians in their group-think sessions and ask “Have you considered…?”  It sort of sounds like a mission field doesn’t it?

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