Life begins with unity. We begin with our family unit, who are, for most, more similar than different. At least until we reach a certain age where we gain some more independence they’ll be of the same socio-economic, cultural, religious, and (more than likely) ethnic background as us. Our extended families will also tend to be more similar than different. Going further, for a host of economic and anthropological reasons, our neighbours will also share many of our traits (be they socio-economic, political, cultural, or religious). If we go to public school in the local area, then it is more than likely that our schoolmates will be more similar to us than different.
We begin in unity. This means that for the early part of our life the lessons we learn are from the people inside our inner circle. These could be lessons about ourselves – for instance learning about our inherited religion, or cultural background. But this also extends to lessons we learn about people outside our circles. For most of us, the first lessons we learn about people who are different to us, comes from people who are different to them. Now this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and it is potentially unavoidable. However, it can be problematic.
It can be problematic when the prejudices, generalisations, or stereotypes held by those around us become our views. And if we don’t actually get to know people from beyond our circle we may find it hard to form our own understanding free from that we have inherited.
It can be very difficult to unlearn the lessons of our youth. Particularly if these lessons come from people close to us, people we trust. The lessons we learn from parents, family or family friends, (and even youth leaders, sports coaches, or school teachers) have a relational element lurking beneath which make them hard to unlearn – we can find it difficult to separate the view from the person. Perhaps we feel that by rejecting the lesson we are rejecting the person, or perhaps over time the lessons we learnt growing up have intertwined into a house of cards and we worry that if we begin to pull at individual lessons the whole thing will come crashing down. Perhaps it is best to just leave well enough alone.
But we cannot leave well enough alone. There are lessons which have to be unlearnt
Lessons of prejudice, exclusion, and animosity need to be unlearnt and replaced with lessons built by relationships, based on embrace and respect.
We could perhaps make an argument that at its core the New Testament is a story of lessons learnt and unlearnt (though it’s never simply a linear path). As a case study, let us turn to Peter’s story of learning and unlearning; for within it we find examples of most of the types of lessons we need to unlearn, their reason for being, and the path out from them.
Unlearning Religion: From the outset Peter had to unlearn his Messianic expectations – that being – his expectations of who Jesus was and what he would achieve. He had inherited from those around him the lesson that the Messiah would be this great military conqueror who would overthrow the Empire in vainglorious battle. He held so tightly to this image that he was willing to stand in the way of the movement, stand in the way of the self-giving, forgiving, and loving march to Calvary. Peter had to let go of a picture of a God based on tradition and his own desires and give over to something he couldn’t control nor understand.
Unlearning Violence: In continuing with the last point, Peter, still not entirely clear or cool with Jesus’ whole plan - cut off a dude’s ear! When the officials came to arrest Jesus, we saw that Peter hadn’t quite learnt all that love your enemies, do not resist and evildoer shtick and went back to the lessons of his surroundings – which celebrated violence and might.
Unlearning Guilt: Earlier on Peter learns from Jesus that forgiveness is pretty central, forgive people 70x7. Yet after he denies Jesus (and there might be some lessons unlearnt in that whole space), it takes Jesus cooking him a morning BBQ and having this whole conversation about love, forgiveness, and feeding sheep before Peter unlearns his guilt and fear and learns forgiveness again – this time to forgive himself.
Unlearning Racism: Even after Christ had died and risen, Peter still had to unlearn his racial prejudices and religious exclusivism and see that God’s grace (indeed even God’s plan) went wider than he thought. However by truly meeting people from outside of his circle and seeing them for actual humans – and getting a pretty on the nose kind of sign – he is able to embrace the other and celebrate their embrace by God.
Unlearning Fear: And then even after he’d learnt all that (and even taught it on to some others in the Jesus movement), we see that when push came to shove and reputations were on the line, he unlearnt what he learnt very quickly. He went back to the inner circle, back to unity – because fear of being an outsider is a hard lesson to unlearn.
Beyond Peter, beyond Scripture, the church has had to continue the process of unlearning and learning – lessons of people we thought out but are in, people we thought were lesser but are equal. The church must continue to unlearn lessons of might and privilege that come from sidling up to the powers of this world, and replace them with lessons of humility, liberation, and love from the margins of the world.
Today, it would be the height of arrogance if I were to claim myself outside of this process… outside of the need to learn and unlearn and surely we would be foolhardy to think that we have no lessons to learn anymore as a church, as individual believers, as individual humans.
The process of unlearning and learning continues: by the grace of God, for the kingdom of God. Because it is when this process stops that the church begins to grow insular, that the church begins to exclude, that the church begins to fade – the kingdom of God is a topsy-turvy kingdom of reversals – a sacred anarchy (Caputo) which defies the usual logic of worldly lessons – where we have to unlearn that the first are first, because the first will be last and the last will be first. Where we have to unlearn retribution and reparation, because we must forgive 70x7 – we have to unlearn reciprocity – for we must extend our hospitality to those who could never repay it. We have to unlearn retaliation because we must turn the other cheek, we must unlearn tribal boundaries because there are no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. In the Kingdom of God we must unlearn status because to be great is to serve, we must unlearn prejudice because welcome are the tax collectors and prostitutes, we must unlearn power, because we follow Christ crucified, we must unlearn the fear of death because Christ is risen, and we must unlearn hate, because God is love.
What is it you are trying to unlearn?
Image courtesy of http://wallpaperswide.com/girl_studying-wallpapers.html