Stinkin' thinkin' is a phrase that is used in the widely successful Alcoholics Anonymous program to describe the kind of denial that goes along with being addicted. The phrase is a challenge to the denial. It means something like “get real, you have a problem and it won’t go away because you pretend it is not there.”
Sadly enough, alcoholics are not the only people who regularly engage in stinkin’ thinkin.’ Few of us are exempt. Political pundits and preachers both venture into hostile territory quickly when they “quit preaching and go to meddling” into people’s denial. Perhaps that is the territory I wander into at this point… But there is widespread agreement that the cultural and political wars fought daily in public and in social media are tearing us further and further apart. The reason that AA can effectively challenge stinkin’ thinkin’ is that it is done by caring people who are dealing with their own denial, and it is done in a face-to-face setting where everyone is on equal ground. The reader will decide whether I can come close to an AA-like challenge to public denial.
It is stinkin’ thinkin’ to believe that only individual rights and individual responsibility matter in society. It is equally stinkin’ to believe that these are unimportant. The importance of individuals is at the heart of Christianity for at least the last 500 years since the Reformation and is certainly at the heart of the unique history and culture of the United States. An individual, a distinct group, or a business may exert influence that either benefits or harms in ways far beyond what is immediately obvious. We all benefit from the influences of innovators like Edison, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and the companies they built. But we are all harmed by corrupt politicians, hate groups and industries that pollute air and water or callously promote the use of opioids in order to build a bigger profit margin.
A single-minded focus on the individual allows someone who truly has no hard feelings about an individual of another race or faith to also turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to institutional prejudices that have powerful impacts on minorities. Such a focus just will not see the extent to which racism is still prevalent and powerful. Such a narrow focus allows people to be offended when football players do not stand for the National Anthem but be distressingly nonchalant when parading Neo-Nazis wave the American flag yet disrespect the very freedoms the flag symbolizes. A narrow focus on individual rights is dangerously close to the belief that “it’s all about me.”
It is stinkin’ thinkin’ to despise government, starve it of tax base but to expect that same government to be reliably helpful when a crisis arises that the individual cannot deal with alone. The Houston group Residents Against Flooding tried for 9 years to enact changes in requirements for how the city would manage runoff water. Studies were done and extensive plans were in government files but were never acted on because of lack of city funds and opposition from powerful private interests. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, where will the dollars come from?
Certainly no one likes to pay taxes, and we all have our grievances with government inefficiencies and foul ups. However, we want good schools for our kids. We expect rapid response from police and fire fighters. We trust that our drinking water will be safe and our roads smooth. And when there is a tornado, hurricane, wild fire or earthquake, we are really glad for local first responders, for FEMA and for federal aid to rebuild. Taxes fund those services — there is no public services fairy that watches over us. Get real. Quit pretending.
It is stinkin’ thinkin’ for religious folks to spend great amounts of time, energy and money fighting about whose beliefs are most correct. I earlier referred to the Protestant Reformation and the changes it brought to Christianity. Many scholars also recognize that a very negative result of the Reformation was the virtual explosion of groups arguing about proper doctrines and beliefs. We more or less chuckle and accept the frequency with which groups split over trivial disagreements. We pretend that God is being defended and that good rather than harm is done. But the harm is real when the meanness drives away both believers and non-believers.
I am deeply saddened and confused at the degree to which many Christians are mobilized to fight about who they don’t want to accept or serve. I am aware that the arguments around abortion, LGBTQ and Christianity are often cast in the guise of religious freedom and an attack on that freedom. Yet I cannot grasp how aggressively excluding people with whom one disagrees can be reconciled with the Jesus of the New Testament. If indeed “by their fruit you will know them” (Matthew 7:16) and if the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is love, joy, peace, etc., I believe there is some stinkin’ thinkin’ going on.
As always, my offer to readers is “let’s talk.” We won’t all agree, but we don’t always disagree as much as we may expect. I believe that the anger in our conversations is obviously fueled to some extent by the things we disagree about. But at least for me, the deeper anger comes in that blind eye and deaf ear which simply refuses to acknowledge my concerns. I wonder if it is the same with you?
The Rev. Gary Batchelor is an ordained Baptist minister and active church member. He is retired after a nearly 40-year local ministry as a hospital chaplain. His particular interest lies in issues of faith and culture.