Passive-Aggressive Postures & Evangelical Culture

I’ve been reflecting on why passive-aggressive relational postures seem to be pervasive among American evangelicals.  There are likely dozens of reasons why this is the case.  I’ll only mention two, however, in trying to capture what makes our culture tick and why the notion of cruciformity (living in the shape of the cross) gets confused.

I’m reflecting on middle-class evangelical culture because it’s the culture I inhabit.  I naturally share my culture’s destructive and manipulative tendencies and subtle grasping after power and leverage in relationships.  Exposing these tendencies through critical self-reflection can help us discern how to cultivate fruitful and life-giving relational dynamics.

Yesterday I mentioned the tendency of American middle-class white people to use indirect speech.

A second factor has to do more specifically with evangelical church culture.  It seems to me that many Christians uncritically assume that pure passivity is virtuous.

That is, we assume that when someone insults or injures us, the virtuous thing to do is . . . to do nothing.  If a social interaction goes badly, or if someone offends us, we tend not to say anything in the moment.  We bury our feelings, perhaps even denying them.

We feel we need “to just let it go.”  Or, we need to “just get over it.”  Perhaps we should “turn the other cheek.”

Again, there’s likely a variety of factors that shape us as passive people, but in my opinion our culture of passivity in general fosters the illusion that cruciformity has much in common with passive-aggressive postures.

Such pure passivity, however, can often be selfish, destructive, and have nothing to do with cruciformity.

When we respond to an insult simply by not responding, we typically grow angry and resentful, developing a victim mentality.  This fuels bitterness and malicious feelings, which then bear bad fruit in gossip, slander, the destruction of relationships, and the breakdown of community.

Further, because we assume that direct speech is either rude or sinful, we imagine that directly addressing the issue would be unkind or unchristian.

But pure passivity isn’t necessarily virtuous.  It may be that such a posture is driven by fear, self-protection, lack of trust, or moral laziness.

And while cruciformity may at times look passive, it more often demands that we take the initiative to approach someone purposefully, strategically, and creatively in seeking a redemptive solution to a relational challenge.

At any rate, before getting into cruciform alternatives to passive-aggressive relational strategies, I wanted to explore a few reasons why such postures flourish in the soil of middle-class evangelical churches.

What other cultural features and factors do you think foster passive-aggressive relational strategies?

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5 responses to “Passive-Aggressive Postures & Evangelical Culture

  • Linda Mortensen

    Where is the line between good manners and pure nastiness? It is a sticky business knowing the limits and wanting to appear not-nasty. I suspect that it is this appearance of good manners that the middle class believe will distinguish them from the lower class in the eyes of the upper class. It feels more refined and more mannerly to be snarky in a roundabout way than to come out and speak into the situation exactly what one is thinking. It feels like an upper class way of handling things. And maybe it is. Never having been a member of the upper class, I wouldn’t presume any knowledge on behalf of them.

    The other thing I thought about while reading this particular post is that as American children we were all taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is not only patently false, it is one of the things that kept us from learning how to speak truth in healthy ways and name others’ actions as personally hurtful. We were taught – at public school – that this was a sign of strength. Even moreso at my church, we were taught that this was a sign of spiritual strength to let things go and let God take care of them. Granted, I grew up in a pacifist tradition, so I am not sure what other churches were teaching in the 60’s and 70’s. I suspect that they were not all that dissimilar.

    • timgombis

      Well, Linda, speaking as someone from the upper class . . . Seriously, I think you articulate well the tensions that we’re left in because of the typical way things have been construed for us. To speak plainly and truthfully is to hurt others because we’re being blunt. To not speak plainly is to bury and stuff our own emotions, so we’re always left in a catch-22.

      But there’s got to be a better / different way, right? If we believe that by God’s power any situation can be transformed for good, then there simply must be redemptive pathways out of dark spots?

      That’s what I want to try to get at. I do think we can speak plainly, clearly, and truthfully, and also be creative in speaking in ways that radiate life and open up pathways of goodness for anyone and everyone of good will. I’m trying to get my head around putting all that together, however . . .

  • Jaime

    Tim,
    I’m enjoying this series of blogs, because I know all to well the passive-aggressive character of much of our modern American culture, particularly our American Evangelical culture. For a long time I acted in just such a way, and thought I was living the cruciform life, until some other believers (mostly from different cultures) pointed out that my behavior was not actually very humble, nor was it really advancing the cause of justice.
    I wish I could say that I’ve been cured. 😉 I guess I’ll have to say that I’m recovering. But I am so thankful to those who challenged by assumptions, and showed me that being passive could often be the arrogant, unjust thing to do, because it allowed me to put myself at the center, to feel that I had suffered the greater wrong, and was showing a noble character by being “patient in suffering”. When in reality, I was stewing inside and hoping the other person was going to get their dues someday. (Not exactly the mind of Christ.)
    I still sometimes react in passive ways when confronted with aggression, but when I do, it is a more deliberate choice. I have learned that sometimes the frustration being vented on me, is not about me, so I choose not to react in kind, but rather to try to point out the problem, the frustration. But in the past, I often walked away from the situation and tried to act as if nothing had happened. I have since realized that this is cowardice, and Jesus was never a coward, nor does he call us to be cowards.
    It’s difficult, because I developed a pattern of passive-aggressive avoidance, and that has already developed into a kind of second nature. Now I find myself, having to deliberately confront some issues that I would have just avoided in the past. It’s very difficult, and many times I don’t do a good job. But sometimes, there is a real breakthrough, and real honesty can take place between two people. You find out what the hidden, unexpressed want or need was from the other person and then you are enabled to truly serve that person.
    That’s the thing that is so insidious about our passive-aggressive postures in our churches, is that they prevent us from really being the church, from serving one another, because we won’t be honest about what we really need or want, and yet, we will become frustrated and bitter at others for not giving it to us.
    As a new teacher this last year, I was forced to confront anew some of my passive-aggressive tendencies, and it was a very sobering reminder of the need to live in true cruciformity. I pray that I will be able to do so even more this year.

    Grace and Peace,
    Jaime

    (Sorry about the long comment. This just touched a nerve for me. I’m really enjoying a lot of the issues you’ve raised in your blog over the last year, and I’m thankful that God has been using them in my own spiritual formation. Thank you.)

  • this went thru my mind |

    […] behavior: Passive-Aggressive Postures & Evangelical Culture by Tim […]

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