Wednesday, 29 March 2017

‘Running for Cover’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part five)

Categorisation isn’t the only hidden force that negatively affects our group relations; matters of identity and self-esteem also play significant roles in segregating people. The processes relating to identity and self-esteem arise largely from ‘our unmet desire to feel good about ourselves’ (Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ, p. 80) and can be seen, for example, in high school/secondary school dynamics:

Most teenagers will do almost anything to gain significance. This includes banding with others who are similar—those who agree with them, affirm them and confirm that they are in fact valuable and good—and together waging war against other individuals and groups. And lest you think that this sort of behavior is solely caused by adolescent immaturity, it is worth noting that social psychologists have witnessed it in full among adults. The truth is that many of us are still stuck in our high school identity wars. (p. 81).

The need to know who we are and that we matter is important. Cleveland notes that self-esteem helps us to consolidate our place in society. Low self-esteem might encourage us to adapt our attitudes and behaviour to further our chances of survival (sometimes literal survival) within a particular group. High self-esteem enables us to deal with disappointments and other negative pressures in life. But self-esteem is also linked to how others perceive us, ‘because our self-concept, the part of our self that holds information pertaining to our identity, is extremely susceptible to outside influences. We rely on feedback from other people to gain information about our identity’ (pp. 82–83). And our self-esteem and identity can be severely distorted when the information communicated to us is primarily negative. This is why, Cleveland avers, we find it immeasurably beneficial to be part of groups that affirm us as valuable:

According to social identity theory, self-esteem is closely tied to our group memberships because our group identities often overlap with our sense of self. For example, not only do you think of yourself as an individual, but you also probably think of yourself in terms of your many group memberships: gender group, social roles groups (such as mother, spouse, friend, etc.), ethnic group, occupational group, church group, even hobby-related groups (book club, fly fishing, etc.). To the extent that these groups are important to you, you will expand your sense of self to include them in your identity. (p. 84).


research on social identity theory has discovered that when it comes to group membership, we do four things to maintain positive self-esteem: (1) We tend to gravitate toward and form groups with similar others; (2) once the group is formed we engage in group-serving biases that defend the group’s positive identity; (3) we try to increase our status by associating with higher-status groups and distancing ourselves from lower-status groups; and (4) if all else fails we literally disparage other groups because in doing so, we elevate our own group. (pp. 84–85).

In short, it is easier and more comfortable to achieve cognitive balance by associating with those who are like us and distancing ourselves from those who are different from us. When these processes occur in the body of Christ—when, say, we draw strength from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s dethroning of mammon but sneer at the US Bible Belt for encompassing Donald Trump’s political girth—when these processes occur in the body of Christ, the body as a whole suffers because we have exercised one part of the body but ignored another. I quote Cleveland at length:

We can’t literally walk away from the “teammates in Christ” that we don’t like or value. So we do the next best thing: we start to identify less and less with them. We stop caring about their needs and struggles. And we stop spending so much time with them in public. Ultimately, we decrease our identification with the church full of the low-status ethnic group, or the not-so-trendy church that is still living in the twentieth (maybe the nineteenth) century, or the socioeconomically disadvantaged church, or the rigid fundamentalist church, or the super liberal church that is sliding uncontrollably down the slippery slope, because to identify with them would make us look bad. We accomplish this by exaggerating our differences with culturally different Christians . . . and by clinging to our subordinate identities (e.g., identities based on ethnic, denominational, theological or political affiliations) while distancing ourselves from our common identity—our identity as members of the worldwide body of Christ. It’s more important for us to feel good ourselves than to embrace other members of the body of Christ. This is how we compensate.
In the end, we may technically share group membership and the label of “followers of Christ,” but we are no longer a team. We are driven by our own needs, not the needs of the entire group. We are teammates in name but not in heart. Our ability to unite with the entire body of Christ is seriously impeded when our primary concern is to preserve our self-esteem. (pp. 93–94).

The way to suppress these processes of associating and distancing is to recognise that our identities are not static and change according to the varying contexts in which we find ourselves. And this in turn requires us to acknowledge that our identities can be expanded and diversified to include those whom ordinarily we might exclude. Cleveland concludes:

We like people with whom we identify and whom we consider to be a part of our ingroup. If we diversify our friend groups . . . and start to invest in friendships across cultural lines, our identity will expand to include those culturally different groups. To the extent that culturally different members of the body of Christ are included in our identity and ingroup, we’ll resist the urge to ditch them when the going gets tough or in order to save our self-esteem. This idea gives me hope that members of the body of Christ can experience significant and much-needed identity shifts that will bring us closer toward unity. (p. 100).


  1. But Christian disunity has always been the case/norm right back during the time of the multi-various early Christian church before the "official" institutional church was formed 1700 years ago. And of course those who got to define the "official" acceptable version did so because THEY WON the culture wars of their time and place - they had the necessary sword-based political power to enforce their new found WORLDLY power, and thus the power to define and murder any/all of the inevitable "heretics" or dissenters. And of course everyone who stood in the way of its imperial expansion via the business end of Constantine's famous Sword.
    There are of course now well over 30,000 different and always different Christian denominations, sects and sub-sects, all of which, in one way or another pretend that their sect is the only "authentic" Christian brand.
    On the other most of them are just money-making scams set up by the people who invented them. Scams in two ways namely: 1. There are substantial tax breaks in being an "officially" recognized/registered institution
    2. Contrary to what PT Barnum said there are thousands of easy to fleece suckers born every minute.

    As an extension of point #1 abov. ALL of the mainstream churches (especially the "catholic" church) are primarily political entities and business corporations, competing for market share in the whats-in-it-for "religious" market-place.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. Yes, I agree with you that Christian disunity has always existed. I don’t see how it could not have always existed, given that we are all fallen and sinful humans. And when Christian faith and politics married in Christendom—well, many things (not everything, but many things) that happened subsequently were, and remain, deplorable.

      But Christena Cleveland’s point is that by consciously expanding Christian identity, the 30,000 different denominations, sects, and sub-sects you mention (is the ‘30,000’ a genuine statistic or simple rhetoric on your part?) needn’t be quite so different. She seems to getting to the heart of what true catholicity should entail: that the Church catholic isn’t just a matter of seeking unity with our contemporaries but of recognising our solidarity and even complicity with Christians of the past. So while all that is within me wants to distance myself from, say, the Church of England’s collusion with the transatlantic slave trade on the basis that I wasn’t around in the eighteenth century, the fact is that, as someone who sees himself as being ‘in Christ’, I am part of the same body that was. And I am part of the same body that has caused or been implicated in various atrocities and moral failures across the world and throughout time. I could distance myself from my fellow Christians, but to do so would contribute to the increase of the 30,000 denominations, sects, and sub-sects. So it’s better to own my past, accept my culpability, and continually strive to live the life of the age to come in the here and now as part of God’s new humanity in Christ.