Tuesday, 11 April 2017

‘Waging Identity Wars’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part six)

People need high self-esteem to function healthily, but, as fallen and sinful humans, we all have a tendency to build our self-esteem by drawing from the wrong sources, or perhaps by drawing from appropriate sources in damaging ways. In the sixth chapter of Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland points out the important role our biases play in consolidating self-esteem and forming both our personal and group identities. And I’ll admit that I was inwardly cringing as she described some of the tactics people use to boost themselves, because I know how easily I use them myself.

Final mark: 19%
Essentially, our biases help increase our self-esteem by enabling us to interpret the world in self-affirming ways. So, for example, we are more likely to engage in activities where we know we’ll not fall flat on our faces. ‘There’s a reason why people who are good at solving math problems but terrible at solving interpersonal problems become engineers rather than human resources managers,’ Cleveland quips (p. 103). I don’t think this is inherently a problem; after all, if I were better at maths than at social skills, why shouldn’t I play to my strengths? But I can also see that this might become problematic if I absolve myself of any responsibility for, say, furthering my relationships simply on the basis that I prefer numbers to people. Cleveland also notes more serious issues arising from our biases: (a) self-serving attributions, where we perceive our contribution as having been vital for a task proved successful, but minimal when the activity failed (cf. The Apprentice boardroom debriefs); and (b) the inclination to compare ourselves favourably against those we think are inferior (‘I may only have got 58% in my taxidermy exam, but at least it’s better than his 19%’). These kinds of behaviours are also practised to safeguard group identity. However, as Cleveland observes,

The problem is that when we rely on group-serving biases to maintain our positive group identity, we tend to adopt a defensive and unreconciliatory stance. Regardless of the situation, in our eyes, our particular group is superior. By thinking highly of ourselves, we naturally think less of others. There might be social problems in the world, but our group is not responsible for them. That other group is the cause of all of the ills. There might be friction within our local community of Christians, but we’re innocent. The problem would be solved if the other church would vote differently, or get serious about living the Christian life, or get their theology straight. (p. 105, italics original).

But, Cleveland continues,

These biases can prevent us from receiving useful insight from those outside our group. . . . If someone critiques our group’s theology or lifestyle or political ideology, we are unable to receive it because we’re too busy protecting our positive group identity. Essentially, our defensiveness disables our ability to humbly receive correction and instruction. (p. 105).

When our personal or group identities are attacked, our first strategy is to defend ourselves by attacking the other—even though, at least in the Church, we are members of the same body, that is, Christ. And our identity as Christians is our primary identity, the one that should shape all our other identities. Thus it is crucial that we Christians in particular work out how and why our own biases prevent us from fostering genuinely Christlike relations with others who claim the same primary identity.

Cleveland concludes her chapter by recalling a challenge to watch a video podcast of a sermon delivered by a well-known pastor with whose stance on gender roles she disagrees. I think what she writes is worth quoting at length:

I knew that if I affirmed my identity as a member of the body of Christ, affirmed my belief that Christ is the head of the body (and not me or anyone else) and affirmed the truth that all others in the body of Christ are connected to me, I would be better able to listen humbly without thinking that I know everything there is to know about gender and Christianity and without desperately needing to boost my self-esteem by derogating Famous Pastor. Because, let’s be honest: it would be useless to watch the sermon with a defensive identity that was entirely rooted in being right about the issue of women in the church and Famous Pastor’s idiocy. I also knew that an identity firmly rooted in the body of Christ would serve to buffer any pain that watching the sermon might cause. . . .
Before listening to the sermon, I read, prayed through and meditated on passages in the Bible that affirmed my identity as a member of the body of Christ and affirmed my identity as a woman who bears God’s image. These passages reminded me that my identity and significance are not based on my ministry ability or what I believe or whether well-known pastors affirm my beliefs or preach hurtful ideas about me. They reminded me that my identity and significance are rooted in my membership in the family of God. My beliefs and calling are important, but they aren’t the most defining things about me. . . .
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. I not only learned more about his viewpoint, but I also found that one of his critiques of my beliefs was pretty well-taken and I’ve used it to sharpen my own ideas. When it was all said and done, I had a better sense of this pastor’s good and caring heart, felt closer to him and loved him more than I did before I watched the sermon. And aren’t those some of the significant goals of unity? (pp. 113, 114, 115).

I balk inwardly at the thought of spending time to sit and reflect on Scripture before engaging with someone with whom I (might) disagree. Who has time to do that? But perhaps this is precisely what I need to do. If our identity shapes and significantly motivates our behaviour, then perhaps a commitment to spending time with God for this sort of reason is fundamental for our relationships within the Church. And perhaps if I spent more time with God with the intention of recognising and appreciating who I am in Christ, I would be less insecure in myself and less judgemental of and snarky towards those who are also in Christ. To conclude with Cleveland:

Quite simply, we must affirm who we really are as the people of God before we can begin to interact with each other as the people of God. (p. 116).


  1. Very thought-provoking, as always! Humility is always the place to begin. Humility is sometimes confused with low self-esteem, which it is not. It is the ability to know the amazing truth that I am forever small - puny, really - yet forever loved.

    The second thought that comes to mind is 'if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out'. If a certain situation causes feelings of superiority (or inferiority) to arise, and it's difficult to manage, get out. Don't do it. God may yet give the strength to handle the situation and you can get back in, but He may not and humility is the ability to recognise ourselves for who we are, good and bad.

    It's the hidden sins that are the hardest to conquer :-/ But we know we already have the victory! o_O

    1. It's difficult walking around having plucked out an eye knowing that others will know you had to pluck it out! We humans are so . . . so . . . well, human!