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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Disunity in Christ (Part 1)

BTSF has at times offered book reviews to help keep our hearts and minds on justice and reconciliation in the body of Christ. This review of Dr. Christena Cleveland's Disunity in Christ will appear in two parts:

One of the things I appreciate about Dr. Cleveland’s work is the broad scope with which she examines Christian unity. She doesn't ignore issues of ableism, marital privilege, mental illness, and classism within the church.  Though racism is the explicit focus of the BTSF forum, some of these issues are closely intertwined, and are every bit as divisive. 

In her book, Cleveland once again demonstrates her skillful ability to articulate the brokenness we observe around us, and to frame it in the context of scripture and Christian theology. Her conversational and down-to-earth style gives her ideas an accessibility that helps us apply her principles to our own lives. Using the tools of social psychology, Cleveland explains many of the dynamics that cause division within the church.

Right vs Wrong
Cleveland opens her text describing 'Right Christians' vs 'Wrong Christians'--our desire to screen our acquaintances into one of these two categories, based on how similar our opinions are on theology, politics, hobbies etc. The more closely someone agrees with our views, the more likely they are to receive 'Right Christian' status, while 'Wrong Christians' are relegated to the realm of wackos and crazy uncles (see quote in the comments section).

We decide that our own group of friends and family members are unique and interesting, but those in on the 'wrong' side are all pretty similar in the disillusions they hold. Unfortunately, "once we reach this conclusion (and we often so quite swiftly), we are no longer motivated to interact with and learn about the out group. We think we already know everything there is to know about them." (53)

Clearly, this phenomenon holds major consequences for a Church divided along racial lines. Division begets division. We value perspectives that are like our own, never realizing that "people can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation of and on the cross." (21)

Colorblindness in the Church
Cleveland notes that "culture-blindness is simply disunity disguised; it falls short of the unity to which we have been called. Research on colorblind policies in integrated schools shows that teachers in these schools tend not to notice when students self segregate, tend not to notice justice issues such as racial difference in student suspension rates and fail to incorporate teaching materials that represent the diversity of the students." (187)

Too often, churches declare an interest in cultural unity, but what they really want "is a group of happy
minorities who will happily pose for media publication and happily assimilation to the dominant culture without so much as a peep. Everyone wants diversity, but no one wants to actually be diverse." (184)

Cleveland points out that "diversity initiatives are doomed to fail among Christian groups that idolize their cultural identities" (147), but that "those who adopt a multicultural perspective in which group differences are not only acknowledged, but also celebrated—exhibit less racial bias than those who adopt a colorblind perspective." (189)

In an interview with C. Christopher Smith, Cleveland notes that "the cognitive processes that drive categorization are most powerful when they are hidden from sight. Once individuals become consciously aware of these processes...the processes begin to lose their power." This is why it is so important for Christians to move beyond colorblindness into intentional justice ministry. But it takes energy, and what Rev. Jim Caldwell terms 'cognitive generosity' to combat our pre-programmed ways. (61)

Continue to part 2 to read about our our mutual identity in Christ and how we move forward as a diverse community of unified believers.

Disclosure: BTSF received an advance reader’s copy of Disunity in Christ from InterVarsity Press for review.


  1. The quote on 'Right Christian' vs 'Wrong Christian':

    "Maybe to you, Wrong Christian attends a church that allows female leadership. Or maybe Wrong Christian attends a church that doesn't allow female leadership. Maybe Wrong Christian wen to ta Christian college. Maybe Wrong Christian doesn't speak English. Maybe wrong Christian is in a college fraternity...Maybe Wrong Christian is pro-choice. Maybe Wrong Christian takes the bus. Maybe wrong Christian is just annoying. Maybe Wrong Christian is unequivocally pro-Israel." (14)

  2. Once you've bought the book (*cough cough*), you should also check out two other installations that I particularly enjoyed: Elderly vs young kids (p53) and the story of two identical churches in same neighborhood, differentiating themselves on the tiniest of characteristics for the sake of branding (p69).

  3. Another concept that is interesting in the context of racial and economic divides: “Our metaperceptions tend to be overly pessimistic; we tend to believe that what they think of us is far worse than what they actually think. When different church groups are invited to interact they often assume that the other group does not really want to get to know them when in fact this is probably an incorrect assumption. “ (p56)

  4. @StrngeFruit: You use the word metaperceptions: What does this word mean? Does it mean how we perceive others?

  5. Yeah, it's an extension of that: How we perceive perceptions (ie how we think others see us).


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