To learn more about “Disunity in Christ,” please read the introductory post. Don’t forget to peruse The Nightstand, which contains resources for those wanting to read more on the topic.
I read a lot. Diverse authors and loads of contradictory perspectives swell from my bloated bookshelves. Some I agree with, some I disagree with, some make me think so hard I’m not sure where I land but often I read nonfiction books nodding agreeably with the passages that reinforce what I already think, scratching notes in the margins of things I disagree with.
Sometimes I love how the language plays, rolling off the page like sticky syrup, words, concepts, and images trapped in my mind.
Often though, I’ll read books and think of someone else who would really benefit from reading it. And usually it’s not because I think they’ll find the words pleasurable. It’s because I think they’re ignorant and uninformed and if only they read this, then they’d really understand. It’s because I think they’ve got it all wrong.
I want to believe I have an open mind but I always scan new books first to see who endorsed it. The church has camps and the Christian publishing industry is no exception. I like to think myself open-minded because I’d read it regardless of my prejudices but I can’t deny they exist. I can’t deny that sometimes I crack the cover of a book knowing I’m going in looking for those red flags that prove they’re not like me, not like the real church, not like Jesus.
The irony is I long for reconciliation and diversity within the church. So maybe it was arrogance to think that Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart would be a great read to recommend to others, but as I read on, I realized that my response isn’t so unique.
We often bypass the need to assess our own biases and preferential treatment of our group ideologies in favor of an “us” versus “them” mentality. My desire was to have others read it, others who don’t seem to make any effort to relate cross-culturally, others I have lumped into one collective group. I didn’t want to apply those same standards of evaluation to the areas of my life where I do the very same thing. And this is exactly what Christena is getting at.
Outgroup homogeneity, or categorizing everyone on the outside of your specific group as the same, is a huge barrier to loving well across cross-cultural differences (p. 51). Cleveland digs into many of the ways we knowingly and unknowingly cling to our cultural perceptions, biases, and group mentalities that further divide the body of Christ. As a social psychologist, she taps into the roots of our division. Not only do we categorize those outside of our group as different than us, and all the same as each other, we categorize ourselves as better, something Cleveland calls “the gold standard effect.” (p. 70)
As I read, I kept thinking of all the groups, people, cultures that have excluded and marginalized me. Of being a third-culture missionary kid at the throat of the Himalayas. Scraping dahl and rice into my mouth with my tiny hands, squatting to go to the bathroom, and living with the watery sway of rice fields on the horizon, I had no idea that Nepal wasn’t home until we came back to America. But when we came home, our former way of life no longer fit. Our experiences in the American church left us confused, frustrated, and eventually bitter.
I was the girl whose parents had snagged an old run down bargain house in an upper middle class neighborhood where the white neighbor kids wore designer labels and I lurked shame faced in hand-me-downs and Goodwill bargains before grunge was in. I remember “ching chong China girl” being chanted at me on the playground as they pulled their blue eyes into a grotesque slant. I remember being one of the only Asian girls in a sea of white faces, throughout school, in church, at blogging conferences.
They were the white girls in ankle booties and skinny jeans, with their organic almond milk lattes and Instagrams filled with pearly white-teethed children lined artistically and filtered in golden light. They were the ones whose homes looked like Anthropologie and Pottery Barn and all things affluent. They were the vacuous and pretty Christians comfortable in suburbia in their monocultural churches, messing about with tidy theology, a good health plan and a 401K. I couldn’t imagine they would get me at all, or want to.
And I was positive they had nothing to offer me if they did.
I remember my Korean roommate in college prattling on in her native tongue and I realized I am too white, too mixed, too other for them also. I had no idea what they were saying, and their prayer meetings that would go on for hours at a time, below the knee length skirts and peter pan collared shirts were as foreign to me as the words they spoke. And when they fermented kim chee in the fridge, the pungent smell floating out and permeating our entire apartment, my white roommates would gag and plug their noses and comment about how gross their food was while opening windows and flipping on the fan in disgust. And I was so glad they didn’t lump me in with that kind of Korean, even though I loved kim chee my entire childhood.
I didn’t want to be seen as less than or weird, something Cleveland mentions when she speaks of “cutting off reflected failure” or CORFing. (p. 89) We try to maintain and balance our self-esteem by associating with groups we find comfortable and affirming of our identity as well as those we see as higher status while shunning or disparaging groups we see as lower status.
I hated that I never seemed to fully belong.
So I hung on to the belief that I was special and different and so very misunderstood and everyone else was the same and therefore easily dismissed.
In an attempt to escape judgment and rejection from others, distancing myself from groups and making them a sea of white faces or Korean faces or any other kind of face helped. They were a bodiless blur, a mirage of sorts, and no one was an actual person. And the more I pulled back the more my biases were reinforced and solidified.
I still do it. More than I care to admit. I can name my prejudices, that visceral response to clusters and pockets of society. That tendency to want to say, that’s just like them to do that and think that and be that. That moral superiority that comes from thinking I get it and they don’t.
I feel it in the city I live in, in the blogging community where I write, in the homeschool community I belong to and the church I love. I carry it with me.
Admitting we’ve got work to do in the body of Christ is such a monumental step to having unity in the church and part of that is recognizing and naming the ways we divide and then doing the hard work of digging up the hidden things that break unity.
Halfway through the book, I began thinking less of who needed to read this book and more about the things I needed to confess. I started thinking of the people who have broken through my stereotypes and prejudices because they have names and stories and I now call them friends. I think of the ways I’ve learned from them and how I cherish those relationships. How they show me a little bit more of Jesus.
I started thinking of all the ways we see each other when we truly stop to look.
Questions to Consider:
- Do you see ways in which outgroup homogeneity (“we are unique, they are all the same”) affects how we make assumptions about people? When have you had unfair assumptions made about you?
- Do you think it’s easier to focus on differences rather than similarities in cross-cultural settings?
- In which groups do you tend to focus more on similarities and which groups do you tend to focus primarily on differences?
- Have you ever associated with a group because of the status you might receive being a part of it? Have you ever dumped a group because you felt they were making you look bad? Do you think BIRGing (basking in reflected glory) or CORFing (cutting off reflected failure) are factors in who you’re more likely to associate with?
- Cleveland gives examples of wrong Christian and right Christian and her realization that her right Christian looks and acts and believes exactly like her. Do you think there is such a thing as right Christian and wrong Christian on the basis of theology, orthodoxy, or orthopraxy? If so, what are the things that make us unified in Christ?
- Have you ever believed your group was fundamentally right or the best? How did that make you feel? How did that affect how you saw other groups?
- How does dominant majority culture contribute to the ways we see minority cultures and how does that power differential affect how we live out the gospel to marginalized people?
- What else stood out to you from the book?
Our February book is The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan. Come back Wednesday, Feb. 4 for the introduction to the book. The discussion post will be Wednesday, Feb. 25. We’ll also be announcing the Second Quarter Books on Wednesday, Feb. 18. For ongoing discussion each month, join The Red Couch Facebook group.