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A rise in the currency of grievance

Exacerbated by the instability of the pandemic, the currency of grievance has become a dominant force circulating in many churches, as well as wider society, suggests Shaun Lambert. How do we effect change?  

What currency does your church trade in? Rowan Williams raises this question in his perceptive book The Way of St Benedict.[1] He recounts a story from the Catholic writer Donald Nicholl, at that time the head of the Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.[2] Nicholl has a conversation with a visiting English priest about a university mission the priest was involved with. The priest spent time on the mission attentively listening to ‘what people talked about and how.’[3]

How do we establish the currency or currencies of our institution or company, church, or community? By listening to what people talk about and how. The insight emerges in conversation and is worth repeating in full.

 ‘“And eventually,” Aidan said, “one day the penny dropped. What did those people exchange with one another when they met? You’d be surprised – they exchanged grievances. So the currency of that University is grievance.’”[4]
Nicholl goes on to comment that if it is grievances that circulate in the blood of a group of people then grievance is what will emerge.[5] Living in intentional community for the last six months has meant that this story resonated with me. Mindfulness is about self-awareness and self-examination, and so I must ask what currency have I put into circulation?

Reflecting on 26 years of ministry I think the primary currency I have tried to circulate is loyalty, which is linked to Benedictine spirituality. At the heart of Benedictine spirituality is stability, ‘staying put,’ as Williams summarises it.[6] The opposite of forbearance and loyalty is grievance which can lead to disloyalty. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the currency of grievance has become a dominant force circulating in many churches, imitating our social media culture of Twitter and Facebook.
This evidence receives further support from Carey Nieuwhof the commentator on church and culture. In a post back in May he talks about ‘how to pastor a mob.’ He argues we have moved into an era of grievance, of ‘polarisaton, partisanship, and division.’[7]

This has been exacerbated by the crisis of 2020-2021. He says this is as true of church as it is of culture. Dealing with a small, angry, critical group is very difficult for any leader or group of leaders, especially if grievance is their only currency – creating a wormhole that can suck the whole institution down. Grievance is often expressed indirectly, with passive aggression – seeing the other through a distorted lens. At the heart of it is often the covert use of triangulation, talking about someone with other people in a way designed to undermine them behind the scenes. Face to face meeting to deal with conflict the minute it occurs is avoided.

In a separate post dealing with toxic people, Nieuwhof lists a number of behaviours that it is important to name or spot, ‘self-absorption, lying, manipulation, an unwillingness to listen to feedback, assigning blame, refusing to accept responsibility, they’re never wrong, playing the victim, frequent anger, hidden agendas.’[8] Nieuwhof points out the list could be much longer!
From a psychodynamic perspective what is most destructive is that caught up in grievance the person with the grudge disengages from the humanity of the person they are attacking, and projects a fantasy of them which they then seek to destroy.[9] To deal with this negative transference you try and create a real relationship with the person rather than a distorted one. Importantly it is important not to get drawn into a countertransference where you behave in a distorted way. Sadly, sometimes it is not possible to create a real relationship and then you need to put boundaries around the relationship. Grievance, especially when fuelled by envy, can be malign and very destructive: we only have to read the stories of Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, the envy expressed towards Jesus by other religious leaders to recognise this.
Why are we seeing this rise in the currency of grievance? Drawing on the wisdom of Donald Nicholl again, Rowan Williams suggests that many people carry around unforgiveness and resentment, that has built up over many years.[10] They have a bag of stones tied around their waist, each stone a different grudge. These stones are highly polished from a constant getting them out to relive the grievance, nurse the resentment and prelive a planned revenge. The person waits for an opportunity to throw those stones, not just once, but again and again.
What the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have brought is continuous instability and uncertainty which is unlikely to change, with a rise in the currency of grievance. What can we do? Mindful parenting tells us to be the person that we want our children to grow up to be. In the same way we can, along with the practice of forgiveness, be the person who circulates different currencies.

I know living in intentional community in North Yorkshire for the last six months my whole family has been shown the currency of kindness and goodness daily. The wisdom of intentional community has a lot to offer about how to circulate healthy currencies, and how to dissolve the currency of grievance. That wisdom can help all other institutions including local churches and businesses.

One of the questions of intentional community is not what do you want to do, but what sort of life do you want to live? A life that spreads the currency of kindness and goodness is the good life.

Shaun Lambert is a Baptist minister, author, and psychotherapist living on community with Scargill Movement, currently exploring mindful community and mindful church

Image | Visual Stories | Micheile | Unsplash

[1] Rowan Williams, The Way of St Benedict (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).
[2] The original story is told in Donald Nicholl’s journal of his time in Jerusalem The Testing of Hearts: A Pilgrim’s Journal (London, 1989).
[3] Williams, 17.
[4] Williams, 17.
[5] Williams, 17.
[6] Williams, 6.
[7] See https://careynieuwhof.com/how-to-pastor-a-mob/.
[8] https://careynieuwhof.com/how-to-deal-with-toxic-people-7-pro-tips/
[9] See Carrie Doehring, Taking Care: Monitoring Power Dynamics and Relational Boundaries in Pastoral Care and Counselling (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995) for a very helpful discussion of disengagement.
[10] Williams, 15.


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