Saturday, 22 April 2017

‘Culture Wars’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part seven)

“And so I conclude that Scripture teaches that
we should all kiss each other whenever
we meet. Who wants to go first?”
Some issues forever seem to exercise (western) Christian minds; same-sex marriage, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), and biblical gender roles are but three. None of these is unimportant. It is necessary for Christians to meet together to pray through and discuss such matters in order to come to a consensus that seems good to them and to the Holy Spirit. But all too often, such debates are marked by a lack of grace and hospitality. Why is it that so many of our debates degenerate into hostility? Why are our attitudes towards one another often so vicious?

In this seventh chapter of Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland identifies some theories about and reasons for our poor disagreements.

Realistic conflict theory accounts for group conflict in terms of competition. Each group is competing with at least one other group for a scarce resource. This doesn’t rule out healthy competition: sport, for example, presumes the validity of teams or individuals competing for a scarce resource (a trophy, a title, a record). There will only be one winner of the FA Cup each year. But when the groups are not sports teams but communities negatively affected by, say, an economic downturn, resentment arises and scapegoats are made. Cleveland points to research showing ‘that between 1880 and 1930, the lynching of African Americans increased when cotton prices decreased in the South. This is most likely due to the fact that white and black farmers were competing for the same resource: money earned from the sale of cotton. . . . More recently,’ she continues, ‘research has demonstrated that discrimination toward immigrant groups increases when unemployment levels are high. When everyone is vying for a small number of jobs, people are less tolerant of immigrants’ (p. 124). I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I suggest that the current wave of populism and nationalism in parts of the Northern Hemisphere is largely due to groups competing for the scarce resources of power and prestige.

This sort of dynamic is also present in the Church because although most would agree that having right and/or coherent theology is important, Christians often disagree about what constitutes right and/or coherent theology. A liberal theology of same-sex marriage, for example, might be internally coherent and culturally sensitive but, for many conservative-minded Christians, have no biblical foundation. Or one conservative group’s stance on gender roles in marriage and church leadership might be justified by appeal to a range of biblical texts but deemed pastorally insensitive and biblically selective for another conservative group. It is important, I think, for individual Christians and wider ecclesial groups to discern where the differences between them lie so they can learn how to work together for the sake of the gospel of Jesus. But instead of seeking ways to ensure our relations remain healthy even where there is genuine cause for disagreement, our tendency is to argue vehemently for the absolute rightness of our theology.

There are three main reasons why disagreements in the Church are often so intense, Cleveland contends. First, these sorts of cultural threats increase ambiguity. We have a need to make sense of our environment so we can make good choices that will enable us to thrive. We can do this best when there are no loose ends dangling to cause ambiguity. But exposure to different cultures and positions increases ambiguity. The presence of so many models of atonement, for example, might alarm some Christians because multiple models make cognitive closure difficult. Arguably, it also makes biblical interpretation, and perhaps preaching and evangelism, more complicated because certain verses (e.g. Rom. 3:25) are ambivalent in the original languages and open to more than one legitimate translation—and this, too, prevents cognitive closure.

Secondly, cultural threats confuse. Cleveland notes the so-called ‘black sheep effect’, where cultural distinctions ‘are so crucial to maintaining ingroup/outgroup boundaries that group members have a special hatred for other ingroup members who, for the most part, act like normal ingroup members but do not “toe the party line” on one or two important issues.’ (p. 129). Is this partly why Steve Chalke is so often vilified by some Christians for his positions on PSA and homosexuality? Regardless of the claims about PSA found in The Lost Message of Jesus (2004), I recall that the controversy centred on Chalke, a prominent UK Baptist, and practically ignored the fact that the book had a co-author (Alan Mann). Is Chalke one of UK Evangelicalism’s ‘black sheep’, perceived to be leaving the fold?

Thirdly, the fear of negative consequences affects our behaviour. Cleveland recognises that many Christians are essentially experts in detecting negative occurrences in the Church and warning against them: ‘If you believe or do x, then you’re not a proper Christian!’ Focussing on the negative is a survival technique necessary for sensing danger and staying safe. ‘However,’ Cleveland adds, ‘from a kingdom perspective, it is adaptive for members of the body of Christ to stay alert to positive information about others. In order to stay unified, we need 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). This is incredibly difficult for Christians to do, especially in the light of the pastoral epistles’ insistence on teaching sound doctrine; but Church history has shown that sound teaching arises through critical dialogue—and dialogue can only happen when all parties are willing to discuss and even worship together.

Once more, Cleveland is clear that the way forward is to prioritise our identity as found in Christ rather than in our denominations, traditions, or group allegiances. ‘When we perceive culturally different Christians as fellow members of the body of Christ, we will be less likely to perceive them as threatening competitors.’ (p. 136). So rather than saying that someone is an ‘Evangelical Christian’, perhaps we should say that someone is a ‘Christian from an Evangelical tradition’. Rather than saying that someone is a ‘charismatic Christian’, perhaps we should say that someone is a ‘Christian from a charismatic tradition’. And rather than saying that someone is a ‘liberal Christian’, perhaps we should say that someone is a ‘Christian from a liberal tradition’. This is likely to be cumbersome—but perhaps the clumsiness of such labels will make it possible and encourage us all to focus on our wider group identity as being in Christ. As Cleveland says, ‘Once they become us, they will no longer be threatening’ (p. 136, italics original).

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