Saturday, 27 May 2017

‘The Preeminence of (Identity in) Christ’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part ten)

This is the tenth and final chapter of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. Cleveland opens with a summary of her aims for the book:

Ideally, this book has helped you to understand why it’s so difficult for Christians to break out of the pattern of homogenous churches and antagonism toward culturally different others. And hopefully, this book has also helped you understand that the primary problem is that our identities are too small. We tend to rely most on our smaller, cultural identities and ignore our larger, common identity as members of the body of Christ. (p. 177)

The way to do this is to work on expanding our identity—that is, to expand our identity so that whatever outgroups we perceive exist are engrafted into our ingroup. But why is this important? Or, to adapt the first heading of this chapter slightly, why does a common identity matter? Cleveland gives the following reasons.

When they become we, we naturally like them a whole lot more (p. 178). Cleveland writes:

[One] study found that British college students liked French college students more when their European identity was more powerful than their British identity. However, British students rather disliked French students when their identity as Brits trumped their identity as Europeans.
When our common identity becomes more important to us than our smaller cultural identities, former outgroup members become fellow ingroup members—they are treated like one of us and we instinctively like them.
Plus, when we know that they have also adopted an identity that includes us, we like them more. We love it when other people include us in their group because it implicitly tells us that they want to associate with us. (p. 179)

I find all this very resonant within the Brexit context.

When they become we, we’re more open to receiving helpful criticism from them (p. 179). Cleveland explains:

When we see them as fellow group members, we begin to view their resources as our resources and are happy to receive them, even if that means accepting constructive criticism that temporarily stings. (p. 180)

So what can evangelical Christians learn from liberal Christians? Are liberals willing to listen to evangelicals? If our identity is in Christ and not primarily in our evangelical or liberal traditions, then genuine communication and learning should be a very real possibility.

When they become we, we forgive them more easily and are less likely to expect them to experience collective guilt (p. 182). Cleveland points out that

when different groups attempt to reconcile, they must first confront the past wrongs that one or both groups committed. . . . Forgiveness is crucial to healthy crosscultural interaction; before true relationship can begin, forgiveness must occur. Research shows that crosscultural situations that lack forgiveness are dominated by hostility, vengefulness and increased rumination about past wrongs. But we all know forgiveness is difficult to come by. (p. 182)

When they become we, our diversity initiatives will finally begin to work (p. 184). Cleveland observes:

When we idolize our cultural group identity, giving it higher priority than our common group identity, minority group members are not truly invited to participate in the organization as valuable members of the all-inclusive we. Rather, they are invited to participate in the organization as them—subordinate outgroup members and second-class citizens. Until we relativize our small cultural identities and adopt a common ingroup identity, our diversity initiatives are doomed to failure because we will never fully appreciate our diverse brothers and sisters and they will not feel appreciated. (pp. 184–85)

When they become we, we treat each other better (p. 185). Cleveland comments:

If we are working with a common identity, many of the categorizing processes that were once detrimental to crosscultural relations are neutralized. (p. 186)

Not quite the body of Christ,
but you get the idea . . .
Cleveland stresses that none of this means ignoring or denying our various ethnic and cultural identities and differences. But if our stance is, say, to play the Galatians 3:28 card and say that there is no longer any ethnic difference between us because we are all one in Christ, then we are in danger of allowing the predominant group(s) to assimilate the various smaller groups, where BAME Christians are perhaps expected to be culturally white, or where women perhaps feel the need to ‘become’ men in order to be accepted in church leadership. (This last example assumes that women actually are allowed a place in church leadership in the first place!—some local churches, of course, don’t.) The way forward, Cleveland avers, is to adopt dual identities, where, in a local church context, differences (liberal, evangelical, charismatic, sacramental, black, white, British, American, etc.) are subordinated to the wider group identity, which is the diverse and transposable body of Christ.


Personally, I have valued Cleveland’s insights from social psychology as I’ve re-read Disunity in Christ, and I can only encourage anyone reading my summaries to read the book itself. I believe she has another book coming out soon, called The Priesthood of the Privileged, and I’ll be sure to pick this one up, too.

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