- that culturally homogenous churches are prone to employing ‘us’ (ingroup) and ‘them’ (outgroup(s)) distinctions, leading to prejudice and division;
- that homogeneity arises from our need to feel safe;
- that we attempt to pigeonhole people according to certain categories in order to conserve mental energy;
- that our prejudices are ‘confirmed’ through our failure to engage with outgroups;
- that while it is easier to identify with members of our ingroup, nonetheless our identities can be widened to encompass outgroups;
- that our biases help us to interpret the world in self-affirming ways but often by deriding outgroups;
- that cultural threats increase ambiguity, create confusion, and fabricate fears; and
- that it is all too easy to conflate our culture(s) with our religious convictions.
The majority of Disunity in Christ so far has been to identify the social forces that prevent different groups, even individuals, from interacting positively with one another; but now Cleveland turns her attention to how these forces might be overcome. This chapter is comparatively long and contains quite a few examples of the sorts of practices and enterprises Cleveland envisages will help local churches engage with other local churches. I will not refer to these examples—if you’ve been following and appreciating my summaries of these chapters, then you really should have bought the book by now!—and remain content simply to outline Cleveland’s ideas.
It is important, Cleveland continues, that we must be aware of our own blind spots, biases, and prejudices if we are successfully to engage in cross-cultural contact. None of us is free from sin, and we must learn to recognise how our own sinful attitudes contribute to group divisions. But there are also four further elements necessary for positive cross-cultural contact.
First, there needs to be a common goal. The idea here is that our ingroup can be expanded to include outgroups if we have a common goal in sight, a goal that can only be reached through collaboration. Cleveland mentions such enterprises as foodbanks, where different local churches work together to serve the wider community. But I suppose it also means that evangelicals and liberals (for example) should help each other reach the common goal that is Christlikeness.
Secondly, each member of the group should hold equal status. I dare say that most people would agree that everyone should have an equal say on whatever important matters are at hand. But in practice, this does not happen—some group members are always more equal than others. This has a serious effect in local church settings, because behavioural patterns and prejudices found at large in the fallen world are brought illegitimately into the body of Christ which should be modelling the new humanity. Cleveland writes,
Addressing power and privilege differentials often involves rejecting powerful societal norms that support status differences. It also often involves the higher-status group’s voluntarily abdicating its higher status. These are both difficult and potentially painful processes that require individuals to closely examine the ways in which their social identities (such as race, gender, economic status, education level) influence the status, power, privilege and mobility that society affords them. (pp. 166–167).
This suggests to me that it’s not enough to allow lower-status people simply to join the conversation; what’s necessary is for lower-status people to be sought out and invited to join and steer the conversation. Some might label this as tokenism; I’d say it’s correcting balances.
Thirdly, Cleveland stresses the need for personal interaction. Homogeneity assumes that members of our group are all the same and that members of the various outgroups are identical, too (though in a ‘Wrong Christian’ way). But genuine personal interaction with different members of the outgroups will enable us to recognise them as individuals.
And finally, appropriate leadership is necessary for constructive cross-cultural interactions. Cleveland suggests that ministers and other church leaders should be at the forefront of these interactions by modelling what cross-cultural bridge-building can look like. The people with power in any given group should take the lead in acts of reconciliation, whatever these acts might look like in practice. And this can have a positive consequence: ‘When a church member sees his or her leader engaged in a crosscultural friendship, the church member will be more likely to follow suit.’ (p. 173). Thus local church leaders, by virtue of holding higher status, should make a conscious effort to invite lower-status voices to join and steer the conversation.
I admit I am probably succumbing to current sociocultural trends, but I think the concept of intersectionality—as I understand it, and putting it crudely, that each of us is privileged in some ways but not in others—needs more to be taken into account here. It seems that Cleveland herself could be read as making an ingroup/outgroup distinction between the privileged and the not-privileged. But otherwise, I think the implications of what she is offering in this chapter are immense and require many of us, including me, to practise true humility.