Book of the Year: Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland

I probably only read about 15 books in 2013, but the most impactful and most interesting by a significant margin was Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland. I love psychology. I love theology. I love the church, even when I simultaneously hate the church for a lot of our stupidity and brokenness. So a book that uses social psychology research to help explain why the church is so divisive and how we can do better? That’s pretty much my perfect storm.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve judged other Christians as inferior. I’m not sure I could even count the number of times I’ve done that this week. Especially since I finished my M.Div. and especially when the conversation is online with those I may not talk to often otherwise, it is an incredibly easy approach to fall into. As Cleveland puts it, I sort people into Right Christian vs Wrong Christian. Maybe a few get put in an Undetermined category but that typically doesn’t last long. My criteria for Right Christian tended to be like Cleveland’s: egalitarian for sure, living below your means in order to give to those with greater need, supportive of LGBTQ people, environmentally-conscious, thinks of the Gospel in terms of social change, emphasizes God’s love rather than judgement, etc. I may grudgingly admit that Wrong Christian is indeed a Christian, but the emphasis is clearly on the Wrong – how he or she is most definitely not like me.

Why we do this makes a lot of sense. We all naturally categorize and there’s good evolutionary reason to do this (or intelligently-designed reason for the non-evolutionists). Our brains do not process nearly all that is around us; instead, they fill in the gaps based on assumptions about how the world works. This is true from the law of gravity which is based on a pretty strong assumption to the very-flawed stereotypes we apply to other human beings. I assume certain things about women different than men because, on average, my experiences have backed up those assumptions. I assume differently for white people than black people, Catholics than Southern Baptists, those with a speech impediment than those who could deliver eloquent speeches on the fly. By doing so I am able to save my brain necessary processing time and energy; if we didn’t categorize we would perpetually sit in a state of sensory overload trying to process even the most simple things. Unfortunately, lots of problems can follow when this categorization is done in unhealthy ways. I’ll just pinpoint a few to keep this post from being too excessive.

I may assume that all Southern Baptists hate gay people because a few prominent leaders have made their voices clear, but there are a lot of SB’s who haven’t said that (and I think there’s probably even lots who very much love gay people). This fallacy, one of many that Cleveland discusses, is that we tend to view “them” as all the same while we view “us” as all unique. While making blanket statements about Southern Baptists, I would simultaneously naturally and quickly break down Anabaptists into some of the more legalistic separatist groups, some of the more evangelical-influenced groups, and the one that is really my “us”: the postmoderns. And of course, no two postmodern Anabaptists are the same, but like all Southern Baptists are the same, so are all separatist Anabaptists and all evangelical Anabaptists. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t true and I know it isn’t true; if I’m not paying attention, I make those assumptions to save my cognitive processing.

I might then look down on all Southern Baptists as worse people – or at least Wrong Christians – than my group of postmodern Anabaptists. This comes from a natural drive for self-esteem, another element of our psyche that is perfectly fine and even necessary in and of itself. It comes back to haunt us though because we all know instinctively what the fastest and easiest way is to increase our own self-esteem: put down somebody else so that you are better by comparison. This is why many bullies are bullies: a lot really are hurting and just seeking ways to feel better about themselves. So maybe I’d say that postmodern Anabaptists have got it 98% right – don’t want to be too arrogant after all. At the same time I admit I agree with Southern Baptists 90% of the time (it would be more if we didn’t spend most of our time talking about the disagreements). That means I am a solid 8% better than Southern Baptists. This makes me feel good, so I try it again, even getting as far as the smaller divisions where another group may be 97% to my 98% but I still dwell on that 1% where I am clearly better than them.

I’ll narrow in on just one more before I wrap this up with what we can do about it: the impact of culture. This is partly a problem of modernism but it definitely existed before then and exists today outside of the modern world as well. In short, we confuse our culture with the obvious truth. In the case of Christianity, we have a slew of subcultures in thousands of denominations along with racial subcultures, gender subcultures, sexual orientation subcultures, age subcultures, and more. The more I engage with the same culture, the more I simply assume that the assumptions of that culture are obviously correct.

The good news is that research shows all of these tendencies can be reversed. It just takes conscious awareness and effort. When we catch ourselves categorizing people, we can choose to step back and focus on how we are part of the same “us” rather than looking at others as a “them.” Maybe that is the “us” of Christian (not Right vs Wrong) – the primary theme of the book – or even simply shared humanity. It is important that when I hear what I construe to be an angry defensive judgemental comment about why Duck Dynasty must stay on the air, I first and foremost say these things about the person saying that: he/she is an image-bearing child of God, he/she is loved by God so much that Jesus died for him/her, and (when applicable) he/she is my brother/sister trying to follow Jesus to the best of his/her abilities just like I am. From there, there is definitely room to discuss our differences, but we do so as family, exploring the uniqueness of the “us” rather than battling the “them.”

We can similarly battle our need for self-esteem by choosing to fulfill our self-esteem requirements in other ways than putting down other categories. In the last paragraph I stated two things true about every human. Even just that little bit is profound for self-esteem when you let it sink in. I don’t need to put down somebody for being blatantly wrong about their eschatology so that I feel better about myself if I already know that I am infinitely loved by my Creator. There are lots of other little ways to build self-esteem without putting down others.

Finally, how do we solve the problem of culture? The solution is simple in theory but hard in practice: interact with other cultures. The more I encounter people who are clearly doing their best but think differently than I do, the more that wall of arrogance claiming my culture is clearly the truth crumbles down. I’m not nearly as good at this as I’d like to be; most of my regular interactions are with other young adult, white, Canadians, not necessarily Anabaptist but usually pretty close. I am very fortunate to have had some exceptions in the past and still have some today, but the numbers are definitely skewed. Cleveland talks about how we need to be blatantly intentional about this because just feeling like we should have more friends of different races or sexual orientations or genders or whatever doesn’t go very far in making that happen. This is why I am a proponent of affirmative action steps within the Church and elsewhere: if we just fill in “the best candidate for the job” as if that is really objective, we usually end up ignoring that a diverse viewpoint is often precisely what we need in that job. It’s not tokenism, just bringing in visible diversity to not look as bad, but it is seeing diversity as a value in and of itself worth looking for in candidates.

I highly recommend this book. Even if you aren’t a Christian and don’t care about the ways we are stupidly fighting each other, you could definitely apply the principles to other groups in your life. I really do think that being aware of these natural tendencies, how they manifest in harmful ways, and then learning to apply these kinds of efforts in your life would go a long way in creating a better world.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.