Fun with Venn diagrams

Reading Time: 7 minutes

This is the text of a message I gave during worship this morning at Middlebury Congregational Church. It’s not a sermon and I’m not a preacher; I believe the message is more universal. The readings are Mark 3:22-26 and Galatians 3:26-29.

Here’s a video of the service from the beginning of the message. I hope you’ll enjoy it; stick around until 38:00 and you can see me literally drop the mic.

Some of you may be wondering about the title of this sermon, “Fun With Venn Diagrams.”

Apparently God was wondering, too, because last night, at a social reception, I was asked to explain.

We were talking to a couple from another part of the state when the subject came up. They’re about the age of our next generation. His family is from Nigeria, hers from Korea. And when we apologized that we had to leave early because I was preaching in the morning, naturally they wanted to know what I was talking about.

Now, God has been helping me through this message for a couple of months, whispering here, revising there, and cutting a lot. But he never gave me the three-minute elevator speech to sum it up. So I flailed for a bit.

“It’s about not drawing circles around people, putting them in boxes,” I said, mixing my metaphors.

“Oh, it’s about prejudice,” our companion said. And I agreed.

Then he asked if I’d ever preached before. I said I had, about 10 years ago. I told the story of the Hackensack Congregational Church, which my family belonged to when I was a child. But it moved to a new building farther uptown, and it couldn’t sustain itself. It disbanded, and today it’s a Korean church.

And so we chatted a bit about Christianity in Korean communities, and Katrina’s mission trip there with our students, and fitting into a community of faith.

But what does it mean?

After that exchange, God nudged me again about the elevator speech.

So today’s talk isn’t about prejudice so much as it is about recognizing the things we have in common with other people.

Today’s Scripture lessons speak to the division and factionalism of our times. You can really hear it in this Good News Translation.

You’re probably more familiar with the first reading. Abraham Lincoln quoted another translation in a famous speech: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

In the second reading, the churches in Galatia were squabbling. Do the descendants of Abraham receive salvation through following Jewish law, as some had been preaching? Or is it available to everyone through faith in Jesus?

It was an important issue for the early church, but it was tearing that community apart. Paul even starts that chapter by asking: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”

Who has bewitched you?

We can ask the same of ourselves on many issues of today. Who has bewitched us? Young or old, male or female, red or blue, pro or anti, black or white—anytime you have two sides—us and them—you have the risk that a healthy debate will turn into endless struggle.

In her 2021 book, “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out,” Amanda Ripley names four fire-starters that can bewitch us: group identities; conflict entrepreneurs who stand to benefit from a fight; embarrassment or humiliation; and corruption.

It sounds like the churches at Galatia had at least three of these. Group identities? Jews and non-Jews. Conflict entrepreneurs? Preachers who said that only those who follow the law of their Jewish ancestors can inherit the kingdom of God. Humiliation or embarrassment? Families who had followed the law for generations were being told it isn’t the path to salvation.

Paul comes down on the side of faith over law, but to do so he looks at the big picture: Forget the differences that drive us apart, and instead concentrate on what we have in common. We are all children of God, and that is what brings us salvation.

The inner circle

Conflict isn’t always bad. Any writer will tell you that in order to have a story, you need characters and some kind of conflict that needs to be resolved. Both of our lessons today came from similar conflicts: teachers of the law against the man of faith. We wouldn’t have those lessons if they didn’t have to resolve their differences.

But what happens when the group identities are unclear?

About a month ago, Barbara and I were at my college reunion when we started chatting with a classmate I’d never met. He wondered how that could be on our cozy campus.

I told him that during my college days I traveled in a few small circles: the campus newspaper, the radio station, and my coed fraternity. He agreed about the limits of circles. He was a swimmer. They know all about going in circles. And they stay in their own lanes.

Then he said: “I didn’t know that fraternity admitted men.”

The co-ed fraternity does require some explanation. Our local house split with its national in the 1950s over a policy that excluded Jewish members. Later we were the first to admit Black members, and one of two to admit women when the college went co-ed in the 1970s. We adopted the motto “Unity in Diversity.”

So you can understand his confusion: He wasn’t part of the circle.

Nothing in common?

Misunderstandings arise when people draw circles to set themselves apart from others, or allow others draw the circles around them. In reality, we aren’t separate. We are all in this together.

We are part of the same team. As a church, that’s the body of Christ. As a nation, we are all Americans. As a world, we are nearly eight billion souls.

The world would be a much better place if we spent less time looking at what makes us different and more time looking for what we have in common.

And one thing we have in common is: We are all different! God made each of us unique. We are minorities of one.

Let me illustrate by giving myself as an example.

Let’s admit it, if I’m on the inside of a circle and you’re on the outside, we both probably feel a little tension just because of that. We’re different.

But no one has just one identity circle drawn around them, or even two. We live in a world of Venn Diagrams.

You remember those things from school. You draw a circle representing a set — a group with certain characteristics. Then you overlap it with another circle showing another group with different characteristics.

If you look at me, you can see that I am an Old. Man. So the Venn diagram of an Old. Man. looks something like this The orange circle represents Old. and the blue circle represents Man. The small area where the two circles overlap shows the subset that has both characteristics. Old. Man.

Now, let’s go binary. What’s the opposite of an Old. Man? This is where I need some help. I’ve recruited some Young. Women.

Hitting the beach

Venn Diagram of Early Beach Boys Song Topics. Source: Pinterest

While they’re making their way up here, let me call your attention to one of the Venn diagrams in today’s insert. It shows early Beach Boys songs that mention cars, girls, and surf.

But it doesn’t show all the Beach Boys songs. If you’re looking for “God Only Knows” or “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” you won’t find those. Venn diagrams don’t always show all the members of the group, just the ones inside the circles.

So although this Old. Man. will fit in these identity hoops, he’s not the only one of his kind in this church. And while two of the Young. Women. might get tangled up inside their hoops, the third one will stand outside and wonder what on earth is going on. Stephanie also happens to be a deacon, so she represents the church as a whole.

The green hoop represents Young. And the pink one represents Woman.

You’ll see that neither of the circles defining this Old. Man. has any overlap with the Young. Women. standing over there. What’s more, the Old. Man., who has been the center of attention so far, is getting upstaged. That’s inevitable, but it can be embarrassing, one of the ways conflict gets started.

So are these two identity groups doomed to the tension of living in separate circles forever? How do we resolve this?

Equal parts of the whole

In her book, Ripley tells stories of individuals getting out of high-conflict situations—gang warfare, eco-terrorism, political vendettas. They reach a saturation point and cultivate a new group identity that is part of a larger whole.

So in order for this Old. Man. and these Young. Women. to find common ground, we have to disentangle ourselves from the circles that we’re tied up in and see ourselves as part of the greater church. I’ll go first, and hand these hoops over to our deacon. And we’ll ask the two Young. Women. to do the same.

And then we’ll all have the hoops to play with during our church social hour. These same ladies are inviting you for refreshments today after worship. Thank you!

A Minority of One

The other Venn diagram in your insert is from Steve Miller’s song, “The Joker.”

In that one, you’ll see that the more labels you add, the more specific you can get where they overlap. You can start naming names.

This Venn Diagram from Steve Miller’s “The Joker” helps you name names. Source: Pinterest

Steve Miller is right in the center of that one. He may not be the only person in the world who is a joker, a smoker, a midnight toker, a picker, a grinner, a lover, and a sinner. But he’s the only one who made a song out of it and hit the charts.

That makes him a minority of one. When you draw enough circles, every one of us is a minority of one.

Even when I was on campus and inside the circles of the newspaper, the radio station, and the fraternity, I wasn’t the only member of that subset.

A House Divided

But I, too, am a minority of one. I was president of the House during an incident of hate speech that tested our motto of “Unity in Diversity.”

Everyone passionately took sides. Some agreed with the speaker. Some thought he was being satirical. Some disagreed but said he had a right to say what he thought. Others were so offended that they called for his immediate expulsion. Still others threatened to quit the House.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. And my fraternity was a House divided.

Yet, that House still stands today, almost 50 years later. That’s because we appealed to all the members as part of something bigger. By seeing ourselves as equal parts of the whole, we were able to keep things together.

When a similar situation came up in a different organization decades later, the leaders worked to resolve it the same way. It was a rocky time, but we did it. Together. That house still stands, too.

Venn Diagram of Republicans, Democrats, and their overlap. Source: CartoonStock.com

In the coming months, as our nation enters into another divisive political season and our church begins its Open and Affirming discussions, remember today’s lesson and the Venn Diagrams.

Everyone is a minority, if only a minority of one. And despite the circles we draw around ourselves and others, we are all part of the same big picture. Be proud of it and do your best to preserve it.

Let me end with Edwin Markham’s poem “Outwitted.”

He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle and took him in!

3 thoughts on “Fun with Venn diagrams

    1. Thank you, Mr. Gifford! When people learn to speak person-to-person rather than group-to-group or identity-to-identity, we will have much more productive conversations.

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