Monday, 6 March 2017

‘How Divisions Are Killing Us and Why We Should Care’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part two)

In Disunity in Christ’s second chapter, Christena Cleveland explores the dangers of homogeneity, especially as presented in local church settings. Cleveland begins:

In theory, we support the vision of a diverse, integrated and interdependent body of Christ, but we certainly don’t want to venture outside of our neighborhoods to live the vision. (p. 26).

Hence why there are so many different kinds of churches, even within the same denominations. Cleveland is writing from within a US context, but I dare say that her observations have UK parallels. I know that the reason I don’t worship at my local parish church is because (in my opinion) its worship is far too chaotic for me—and you may interpret that as you will. So while I am sure that God has lead my family and me to worship at a particular church, I suppose it is far easier to hear God say that sort of thing about a church when it meets my desired level of familiarity and comfort. Worship should never be safe, of course, but some churches feel safer than others.

And this idea of safety seems to be crucial for Cleveland. The reason why we tend to associate with the familiar and the similar is precisely because we assume that someone like us is not going to endanger or threaten us. Even a single shared experience with a stranger—seeing as I live in London, let’s say the shared experience of a delayed bus—can help to make an uncommon or unwelcome situation more bearable. Cleveland writes,

This idea of shared experiences can help us understand why Christians often form strong bonds with people who share their very specific experiences and keep even slightly different others at bay. Christians are so good at erecting divisions that we don’t stop at the major ones (e.g., race/ethnicity, class and gender); we also create divisions within divisions. For example, while the body of Christ experiences significant intergender (man vs. woman) division, it is also plagued by intragender (woman vs. woman and man vs. man) division. For example, Christian women contribute to divisions between egalitarians and complementarians, stay-at-home moms and working moms (the infamous “Mommy Wars”), feminists and traditionalists, married women who take their husband’s last name and married women who don’t, unmarried and married women, urban and suburban women, black and white women, mothers and nonmothers, and young and old women, to name just a few. The women in these specific groups are profoundly bound by their shared experiences. As a result, they tend to gravitate toward those who share their experiences and away from those who do not. (p. 31, italics original).

I see this dynamic in my own life. When starting my undergraduate studies, I approached someone intending to befriend on the basis that his fashion sense indicated we had a shared experience of a particular genre of music. It turns out that we had much more in common than music and we remain friends to this day. But that proves Cleveland’s point, of course. Shared experiences can unite. However, there is a danger even here:

Since we spend most of our time with people who are demographically and attitudinally similar to us, our most common shared experiences are with people who look, think, act and experience the world like us, which further solidifies our bond with them and increases our liking for them. As a result, we fall deeper into our homogeneity. (pp. 31–32).

So I approached someone on the basis of a presumed fondness for the same musical style—but would I have approached him if, despite his attire, he looked to be a thirty-something (I was twenty) . . . or even black!?

Cleveland highlights the dynamics of group polarisation as found in local churches. ‘Unfortunately,’ she writes, ‘the more we spend time with people who are essentially identical to us, the more we become convinced that our way of relating to both Jesus and the world is the correct way. Over time,’ she continues, ‘our convictions grow stronger and our attitudes toward different ideas and cultural expressions of worship become more negative.’ (p. 27, italics original). And so group polarisation—which is not, of course, a phenomenon restricted to the Church—leads or gives rise to genuine prejudice:

Prejudice tends to result in division between groups and division between groups tends to result in prejudice. What begins as seemingly harmless homogeneity often snowballs into distrust, inaccurate perceptions of other groups, prejudice and hostility. (p. 33).

The upshot of this is that the members of any given group have a tendency to act well towards other members of that group, which is why, says Cleveland, Christians are more likely to show love towards those perceived as Right Christians and not Wrong Christians. We apply the term ‘Christian’ to our particular group of Christians, not to the whole body of Christ. But the whole body of Christ consists of people whom we would regard as both Right Christians and Wrong Christians, and Cleveland draws from Paul’s metaphor of the body to emphasise the interdependence of Christians:

To respond to God’s call fully, we need to express our interdependent diversity in individual churches, denominations and organizations as well as in the worldwide body of Christ. We must be connected to those who are different within our respective churches and we must be connected to those who are different in the larger body of Christ. (p. 39, italics original).

But why? Cleveland refers to studies that show how internally diverse groups are far more creative and effective than homogenous groups because they naturally benefit from a range of different perspectives and resources that non-diverse groups cannot hope to receive. Diverse groups will also not be so prone to groupthink, a dynamic where some members of a homogenous group are more likely not to raise alternative or even conflicting views in order to present a united front. I have to ask: Are PCCs hotspots for groupthink?

To close this post, here’s another quotation from Cleveland:

Leaders hoping to build diverse teams should be aware that in order to fully utilize the wider range of resources and increased learning that diversity offers, each member of the diverse group must be of equal status. Group members with lower status may lack confidence and express their opinions less frequently. (p. 40).

I suppose the difficult task here is to look at the dynamics that continually keep some people from holding equal status with others. Leaders—particularly if they’re white, Anglo-Saxon, male, middle-class, straight, etc.—might assume that everyone in the group holds equal status, but that might not be true at all.

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