When Elsie, the children, and I moved to Minnesota from California in 1982, we were taken on a driving tour of the west metro by one of the couples on the call committee of the church. We had moved into the comfortable parsonage but were unfamiliar with how to get from there to the church. So the goal of the tour was to acclimate us to our surroundings, show us the nearest supermarket and gas station, and help us navigate our way to the dentist’s office (one of the kids had an abscessed tooth). The couple pointed out various sites and the tour was informative if uneventful except for a remark by the husband. He pulled me aside and said to me that coming from California I was in for a culture shock. The culture in Minnesota was unique and different from anywhere else. One of the differences he pointed out was the Law of Janté. I asked him what that was since I’d never heard of it. He explained the roots of Janté that it was an unspoken code of ethics deeply woven into the fabric of Scandinavian culture. I dismissed it at the time but soon came to realize that Janté impacted my congregation and the people in my neighborhood.
So what is the Law of Janté? If you Google the phrase you’ll find out a lot but it was summarized in the 1930’s by the Danish novelist, Aksel Sandemose in his novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. Here is Sandemose’s summary of the 10 tenets of the Law of Janté all based on the theme,“You are not to think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.”
- You're not to think you are anything special.
- You're not to think you are as good as we are.
- You're not to think you are smarter than we are.
- You're not to imagine yourself better than we are.
- You're not to think you know more than we do.
- You're not to think you are more important than we are.
- You're not to think you are good at anything.
- You're not to laugh at us.
- You're not to think anyone cares about you.
- You're not to think you can teach us anything.
The penalty for violating the Law of Janté was silence, staring, suspicion, shunning, ignoring, shaming, or even hostility. The Law of Janté was primarily the code of ethics in smaller Scandinavian towns, not large cities. Its purpose was to promote unity and harmony within the small community. The problem was when the descendants of those who lived by Janté came to America they brought Janté with them as the unspoken, unwritten standard for how to live with others in society. This butted heads with the rugged individualism which rewards individual achievement and success so prevalent in America from our founding fathers to today.
How did Janté affect me and my church? In every way. My passionate sermons were met by expressionless stares. No “Amen!” No “Hallelujah!” No “Preach it!” No applauding, nodding or shaking heads to indicate they were listening to what I preached. When I commented on the lack of emotional response to my preaching, one of the deacons said that the congregation was internally emotional to which I remarked sarcastically, “Well, could they tell their faces?” He explained that they were used to being emotionally noncommittal because emotional displays made one stand out and were a sign of weakness so they simply give the “Nordic stare.” Yep, now I know what that stare looks like.
The Law of Janté explains why anger in this culture is implosive in nature and expressed as passive-aggressiveness. It’s also a cause for higher than average rates of depression and suicide in Minnesota. If emotions are inhibited and stuffed, the emotional energy comes out sideways through depression and hopelessness. I would challenge us to express our emotions after all “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). If the Savior was emotionally expressive so should we.
Because Jesus is emotionally expressive, we can reject Janté,