In 1954, psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues conducted what is now regarded as one of the most famous experiments concerning the origin and nature of conflict.
The researchers invited two dozen boys to a special summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The boys, who were 11 or 12 years old, were randomly assigned in advance to one of two groups. Sherif encouraged the groups to build a sense of togetherness and to create their own identity. One named itself the Rattlers. The other called itself the Eagles.
The groups camped at different sites. For the first few days, neither knew that the other even existed.
The camp staff ultimately brought the Eagles and Rattlers together. They announced a series of contests. The boys would compete for prizes and trophies.
What happened next is still being analyzed almost seven decades later.
The boys enthusiastically dedicated themselves to their own groups and began to direct something like hatred toward their rivals. As the competitions became fiercer, winning became increasingly more important. There was name-calling, trash-talking, and in-your-face gloating. The Eagles and Rattlers vandalized each other’s campsites. Fistfights broke out.
An Us vs. Them mentality overshadowed even the smallest details of camp life.
Sherif later wrote, “When two groups have conflicting aims…their members will become hostile to each other even though the groups are composed of normal, well-adjusted individuals.”
In other words, it matters that I identify with particular groups.
When I identify myself as a member of the such-and-such group, and you’re not part of it, there is a high probability we will misunderstand each other. And probably feel some degree of tension.
Consider for a moment that those boys didn’t have to see each other as rivals. They could have looked for solidarity based on common ground. They could have said, “Hey, we’re all boys. And we’re all about the same age. And we’re all from Oklahoma.” But none of those identities was as important as being a Rattler or an Eagle – random groups to which they had been randomly assigned only a few weeks earlier.
Yes, the experimenters had prodded the boys into creating and clinging to new identities. But it didn’t take much to make that happen – nor for the boys to start visualizing the Other Group as the most sorry collection of human rubbish on the planet.
Just in case we think this only applies to other people, we need to think again.
There are an amazing number of ways we can see ourselves in contrast to other people. The identities we choose will make all the difference in the world.
In my home state of Indiana, there’s a playful Us vs. Them mentality that separates fans of Indiana University and their archrivals at Purdue. I say “playful” because the emotional stakes are considerably higher for the fan bases of Florida vs. Georgia, Alabama vs. Auburn, Texas vs, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame vs. everyone else.
We could say, “Hey, we have so much in common. We all love football.” But it’s more typical for rabid fans to “side-up.” And siding-up tends to generate deep emotions.
People typically distinguish themselves from others through identities of race, class, generation, and upbringing. But nothing is fiercer in the present moment than the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between political affiliations.
It’s the Right vs. the Left. Conservatives vs. Liberals. In their book Prius or Pick-up?, which explores the clash of these American subcultures, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler describe those who are Fixed (traditionalists who are averse to disruptive change) and those who are Fluid (progressives who welcome the re-invention of society).
The two sides stare at each other. Each is tempted to believe the Other is the Enemy. “I love this country, but you clearly don’t. If you get your way, everything of value will be up for grabs.” It’s the Rattlers vs. the Eagles all over again.
As long as Americans gravitate to one of these identities, there will be tension and turbulence – and little chance of reconciliation.
But these aren’t the only identities on the market. These aren’t the only lenses through which we can choose to see the world.
When I look at you, I don’t have to see someone whose next vote will probably cancel out mine. I can see you as a brother or sister in Christ. I can see you as someone who is struggling through life facing all the same problems that I have to face. More than anything – regardless of your race, creed, or religious affiliation – I can look at you as someone who is made in the image of God. Just as I am.
In first century Jerusalem, Us vs. Them wasn’t just a mentality. It was a wall that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the primary Jewish temple. Ancient sources tell us that there were 13 stone slabs, engraved in both Latin and Greek, that warned non-Jews not to cross that barrier. Archeologists have uncovered two of the slabs. Each of them reads: “No foreigner is allowed to enter within the balustrade surrounding the sanctuary and the court enclosed. Whoever is caught will be personally responsible for his ensuing death.”
If you scale that wall, you die.
The breaking news of the New Testament is that there’s now a new temple – a new place to meet God. It’s the person of Jesus. And there’s no longer a barrier keeping some people in and other people out. Because Jesus has died, the old wall is gone forever.
Here’s how the apostle Paul shares that news:
“The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody.” (Ephesians 2:13-14, “The Message”)
Because of what Jesus has done, we can choose to see each other differently. We’re not genetically encoded to remain stuck in our old identities.
It won’t be easy. We’ll have to work hard because changes this big don’t happen automatically. We’ll quickly discover that seeing each other with gracious eyes is a choice that goes against the grain of almost everything we experience in our polarized culture.
But all the resources of heaven are on our side.
And just working hard to think differently is a powerful sign that we care.
Meanwhile, what happened to those two dozen boys at Robbers Cave State Park?
Before their summer camp experience came to an end, the researchers created opportunities for the Eagles and Rattlers to work together. They worked toward restoring the camp’s disrupted water supply, and helped pull a disabled truck. When it was time to go home, some of the boys insisted that both groups ride in the same bus. And one group bought drinks for their former rivals as a gesture of friendship.
We can find each other, too. It will happen as we work side by side on the problems of a very big world.
And who knows? We might just discover it’s a joy to end up on the same bus.