Disunity in Christ (Christena Cleveland) -- Review

DISUNITY IN CHRIST: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.  By Christena Cleveland.  Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Books, 2013.  220 pages.

            The denomination of which I am a member (and clergyperson) made Christian unity its “polar star” (Barton Stone).  When Thomas Campbell, his son Alexander, and Barton Stone at how the fragmentation of Protestant Christianity hindered the gospel message, they concluded that by returning to the principles of the Primitive Church (that is the Church of the New Testament) reconciliation could occur.   To Thomas Campbell the church was constitutionally and intentionally one, and therefore, he believed: 
Division among the Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils. It is antichristian, as it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ; as if he were divided against himself, excluding and excommunicating a part of himself. It is anti-scriptural, as being strictly prohibited by his sovereign authority; a direct violation of his express command. It is anti-natural, as it excited Christians to condemn to hate, and oppose one another, who are bound by the highest and most endearing obligations to love each other as brethren, even as Christ has loved them. In a word, it is productive of confusion and of every evil work.  [Declaration and Address, 1809]
I have imbibed this message of unity, believing that our divisions are a horrid evil and that the pursuit of Christian unity is part of our calling as Christians.  Because of this commitment I would like to give a hearty welcome to Christena Cleveland’s new book Disunity in Christ.

In Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland also bemoans our divisions, believing that they undermine the message of Jesus.  While most ecumenical conversations focus on doctrine and polity, seeking to find pathways to unity amongst our diversity of church practices and theologies, Cleveland focuses on the challenges of cultural and ethnic diversity to the unity of the body of Christ.  Cleveland believes that the unity of the Christian community is undermined by our predilection to homogeneity and in the United States the reality of white privilege.  As I read through this book I couldn’t help but remember how church growth theorists in the 1970s and 1980s pushed the homogeneous principle as the key to church growth. 

Cleveland approaches this question of disunity and unity from the perspective of a social psychologist.  Since I once made my home in Santa Barbara, I of course was drawn to the fact that the author earned her Ph.D.  in Social Psychology from the University of California (Santa Barbara).   This vantage point – social psychology – is the key to her approach throughout.  Her focus is on how people relate to each other, utilizing research in the field to uncover those “hidden forces that keep us apart.”  She also approaches the question from the perspective of being a woman, a person of color, and an evangelical.  Each of these elements to her life experience helps her look at our penchant for disunity and offer some possible solutions.  Most importantly, she points us to Christ as the center of our identity.

            Although Cleveland believes that we can’t ignore substantive differences in theology and ideology, that’s not her focus.  She’s not a theologian nor is she a church official tasked with engaging in ecumenical talks.  Instead, she focuses on social and cultural realities that tend to polarize people.  These hidden forces often have roots in ethnic, linguistic, and cultural dynamics.  Because we tend to congregate with persons like ourselves, we fall into the trap of categorizing and stereotyping people.  Thus she writes:
People can meet God within their cultural context by in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross.  Discipleship is crosscultural (p. 21).
Thus, if we are on a pathway to maturity as Christians, then we must not rest content with living in homogeneous bubbles, where everyone looks like us, talks us, thinks like us.  We must, therefore, pursue cultural diversity. 

            In the course of the book she addresses the question of why we should be concerned about our divisions, how our attempts at categorizing people distort our understanding of them and pollutes our interactions.  She recognizes that part of the problem is our sense of identity and self-esteem.  Too often, we seek to build our own esteem by denigrating others.  Thus, we wage identity wars.  Quit often Christians engage in behavior found on elementary play grounds.  And how do we resist such behavior?  She turns to “self-affirmation theory.”  For her it means rooting her identity in Christ.  She writes that “when my identity is rooted in the right place, I’m able to listen to opposing viewpoints as a member of the body of Christ:  with humility, with an eagerness to learn from a different point of view, with a desire to connect across cultural lines, with confidence in my identity and without fear” (p. 115).  Of course, we continue be confronted by culture wars that drive wedges between persons who claim to be followers of Christ.  These wars are often rooted in negative images and fear, which need to be countered with positive images.  Cleveland writes that if we’re to remain unified, we’ll have to “override our natural tendency to focus on what we perceive to be negative information about other groups and instead stay alert to the positive information that they bring to the table of faith” (p. 135). 

            One of the things I appreciate about this book is the reminders of how easy it is to let our culture define our identities.  American culture is individualistic.  There are benefits to our emphasis on the individual, but it can hinder our ability to remain connected to others.  We feel less inclined to hear the other and to see them as part of our lives.  This is especially true when we are working cross culturally.  For those who are of European descent – that is white – and who form the majority in America, our individualism keeps us from recognizing our complicity in the marginalization and oppression of minorities.  We see this as well in the current embrace of “color-blindness” among many white Americans.  As Cleveland points out, our appeal to color-blindness often keeps us from seeing where discrimination and privilege continue to keep us divided.

            Much of the book is focused on diagnosing the problem.  In the closing chapters the author begins to offer suggestions as to how we might begin building bridges.  Because her focus is on ethnic and cultural divides, she encourages us to engage in cross-cultural experiences.  The way forward requires our willingness to engage the other and build relationships with others.  She has in mind the creation of multi-ethnic/multi-cultural congregations.  And by that she doesn’t simply mean that persons of color are assimilated into the majority culture.  Many white congregations are quite willing to bring into the fold persons of color, as long as they don’t upset the traditional formats – or expect to be brought into the decision making processes.  Before we get there, however, we might start simply working together as equals, building relationships that will change identities.  Added to this work is the need to deeply root our identities in Christ.  That is, we must recognize that our first loyalty – before family, before community, before nation, is Christ.  It is in Christ that we, the body of Christ, will find our oneness. 

                I greatly appreciate this book.  I embrace Cleveland’s desire to seek reconciliation among Christians of different cultures and social groups.  The perspective that she brings as a woman, a person of color, and as a social psychologist brings an important dimension that is too often missed in our ecumenical conversations.  She gets to the root of many of the causes of our divisions, ones that the typical ecumenical conversations focused on doctrinal and ecclesial concerns too often miss. I also want to commend her for recognizing her own contributions to division.  Too often we fail to recognize our own complicity and desire to stay within a protective homogeneous bubble.    

A question kept popping up in my mind as I read the book.  I wanted to ask the author why it is that many socially progressive and liberal congregations remain ethnically homogeneous, despite great latitude on social and theological views, while we see congregations that are theologically very conservative being quite diverse culturally.  I’m wondering whether there comes a point at which a community can only sustain so much diversity before it closes off one avenue.  Thus, my congregation has great diversity in theology and political viewpoints, but we remain almost completely ethnically homogeneous.  Cleveland alludes to theological differences, but doesn’t go to deep on them.  She places great stress on the importance of our identity in Christ, but what happens when our understandings of who Christ is differ?  I recognize that Cleveland writes as a psychologist and not as a theologian, but it is a question that we likely need to pursue.  In the meantime, I recommend this book as an important contribution to identifying the causes of our divisions, which are often hidden, and finding a means toward reconciliation. 


Robin Hoover said…
Bob, we're not very open as Disciples. Bert Cartwright pointed out to me how much we are truly indebted to the "church universal" and how we pick and choose just what we want and discard the rest. He said that we were freeloaders when it came to our professed obligation and chosen pursuit toward unity. Back in Texas now, I can assure you that many of the Disciples congregations are redder than the even the predominant political stripes down here, that their theology has taken some hard right turns, too. We have some diversity, but it's done in unison. Black church here, brown church there, white churches everywhere.
Robert Cornwall said…
Robin, what you report is sad, but true. We like to think of ourselves as open minded, and perhaps we are, but we continue to worship in our protective silos!
John McCauslin said…
I think in this ongoing discussion there is a failure to appreciate the very high value the ordinary person places on comfort. We attend a church which matches our socio-cultural expectations so we can focus on worship and not on comprehending the indiom in which the worship service is cast. The issue is not so much color or ethnicity or even theology, but shared idiom. When the idiom of the worship service is incomprehensible to us, or when it requires effort just to be interpreted, or when it's practices are strange, alien and discomforting, we will not stay there. We find a worship home where we feel comfortable, among people who share our comfort with the worship style.
Steve Kindle said…
John, you certainly hit on a real issue. I wonder if the answer to your dilemma is to make an effort to get to know other "idioms," by spending time with them, rather than to ignore them because it's discomforting. Aren't we obligated to open ourselves to the stranger?
Steve Kindle said…
Bob, I love your reviews. They really are helpful.

I don't want to dismiss Cleveland's important thesis; we need to hear it and act on it. But I'd like to bring up another factor that is seldom, if ever, taken up by Disciples and addressed tangentially by her. It's the notion that denominations are somehow evil and a major part of the problem of achieving Christian unity. After all, the New Testament is replete with incipient denominations. This antagonism goes all the way back to the Campbells (and before with other movements). Creeds do create division because they were intended to. But I don't believe the answer lies in creating a space where we all agree. That's impossible. But perhaps we can agree to work together. However, I don't see this happening until we get behind Cleveland's program of building relationships. When the effort is made to truly get to know someone, differences often cease to matter. So, stay in your own denomination, or whatever; just respect mine and work with me, and I with you.
Robert Cornwall said…
I think that something of what you're talking about is the premise of Eboo Patel's Interfaith Youth Core. Instead of sitting down and having conversations about what our common denominatior is, they go out and work together. In the course of working they build relationships.

I don't think we have to all agree to do that. We just need to find ways of building the relationships. Otherwise we end up living in echo chambers.

Popular Posts