Thursday, 11 May 2017

‘Creating Positive Crosscultural Interactions’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part nine)

In the previous eight chapters of Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland has shown:

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.

Christena Cleveland
Essentially, in this ninth chapter, Cleveland sees cross-cultural contact as the way to overcome divisions. The assumption here is that while distance creates divisions, proximity leads to reconciliation. The interaction between groups provides the missing details that prejudice otherwise generates and perpetuates. This is possible because positive interaction between groups sees group members as individuals who might not actually conform to the group stereotype, and this, in turn, creates a context in which a common identity can be forged. Cleveland recognises that this is not an easy process to live out, but is sure nonetheless that ‘thoughtful and intentional contact between well-prepped individuals is a key to overpowering long-standing divisions.’ (p. 155). Notice her use of adjectives in this sentence; meaningful reconciliation is not something that just happens. The conditions need to be right for reconciliation to happen, and the cross of Jesus must be central.

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.


  1. Funny how God speaks to people in different ways but says the same thing. I have been thinking about how one would go about setting up a Celebrate Recovery group precisely because church in England is always about the Anglo-Saxon middle-class (sometimes working-class) in my experience, and that it often doesn't include those who are on the margins or who are struggling. Even when it does, they are definitely seen as 'those people' rather than 'us'. Celebrate Recovery broke down all barriers and gave us true fellowship. I'm not saying it's the only way, but it's what God put in my path so... yes I need to explore that idea further.

    Also, doesn't Christena Cleveland have the loveliest smile?! Her smile alone made me want to find out more about her. I may well put this book on my to-read list. Thank you for the very interesting introduction :)

    1. In my experience of sermons, there's very often an implied 'us' and 'them' - we who are Christians/church members need to help those who have mental health issues/addictions/etc. But many of those within the church are those with mental health issues/addictions/etc! There needs to be far more nuance, in my opinion.

      I may well put this book on my to-read list. There should be no 'may well' about it! ;)

    2. I think sometimes we forget that churches are comprised of sinners. Which is a strange thing to forget.

  2. Terry has a lovely smile too. This was often pointed out to him when he was a student. 🙂

    1. Good thing I only smiled once a term, then . . .