Disunity in Christ

Article by   May 2015
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Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013. $13.99/£9.99

Christena Cleveland's Disunity in Christ is an important read for those who--in an increasingly pluralistic yet no less segregated society--call church their home. Putting us on notice and providing us with exhortation, it alerts us first to the pathologies and aggravations of difference which occur in social groups that might otherwise be expected to find unity in diversity. Optimistic rather than defeated, in every chapter it affirms faith in a common humanity, prompts love that will reach across enmity, and encourages hope for a greater experience of communion.

A social psychologist well-familiar with the ups and downs of church life, Cleveland is able to scrape beneath the surface of group tension to uncover the self-protective patterns which exacerbate our distance from one another. Rather than brow-beat Christians with a theory about their unique social failings, Cleveland describes the tried and true sociological findings which show themselves in a typical congregation. Whether the tendency is as straightforward as 'categorizing' (p. 46f.) or as complex as 'outgroup homogeneity effect' (p. 51), Cleveland describes it amiably and clearly so it is as easy to understand as it is to spot. By naming these divisive tendencies she not only diffuses them but also helps us to see human commonality in the unbounded-prevalence of the tendencies themselves.

This can be surprisingly reassuring when one is approaching a culturally ingrained boundary line with an internal cocktail of insecurity and suspicion: No matter how weird the 'other' may seem, we can be pretty sure they feel the same way about us! With scholarly acumen and well-earned evangelical-cultural awareness, Christena Cleveland delivers perceptive insights that are as humorous as they are convicting. Christian theologians who might otherwise 'over-think' their ecumenical and congregational divisions will do well to read this book with a view to rooting out those divisive elements and social pathologies that are simply part and parcel of acting like typical human beings.

There is a flip side to this observation. I hesitate to call it a critique because it is more a matter of clearing up genre expectations--but it bears noting that Disunity in Christ is not primarily a book of theology. For instance, despite its reliance upon 'common humanity', its deployment of 'in Christ' language, and its reference to 'hidden forces,' this book gives little to no discussion of the image of God, of participation in Christ, or of the principalities and powers exposed at the cross. In other words, this book is less about the in Christ than it is about the Disunity which tears away at the insides of a people who would otherwise have claimed to be united. As such the subtitle--Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep us Apart--is a more fitting description of what to expect. By and large the strictly theological resources for confessing, building up, and practicing unity amidst division are left for another volume.

Indeed, at times I got the feeling that theological convictions were as inconsequential to church unity as the choice of carpet color--but Cleveland is wary of having her book written off in this way (pp. 18-19). In fact, as I pressed on I realized that it is precisely those with strong theological convictions who should read this book. By doing so they will be more able to identify those points at which mere tribalism is being smuggled under cover of theological persuasion, such that the latter is being misused to trump the call to practice uncomfortable communion. Cleveland's point is that theological disputes are to be relativized by the call to love and be reconciled in Christ, not denied (nor shouted!) in an effort to contrive unity. The antidote to disunity in Christ is not uniformity, but diverse communion. This should not be surrender at the first sign of failed-consensus, but should hope and work toward consensus on the basis of a more foundational unity.

As Cleveland puts it: 'The idea of a common ingroup identity that trumps all subordinate identities might seem to suggest that we should all relinquish our cultural identities and ignore our cultural differences. However, to do this would violate the metaphor of the body of Christ, in which each group expresses its unique perspective and function in coordination with other groups and in submission to the head, Jesus Christ' (p. 187). To get there, each of us may first need to confess our addiction to a kind of cultural homogeneity wherein 'familiarity breeds liking, not contempt' (p. 29). Tempted to find quick success in the rallying call of likeness, in the light of Christ's reconciling work we should surrender our hegemonies and admit: 'Everyone wants diversity, but no one wants to actually be diverse' (184). A strictly theological account of disunity in Christ might well be criticized for glossing over the social pathologies that keep us safely aloof from the fray. This book is a corrective for such evasion.

Regardless of whether they have theological categories for understanding their divisions, church people attentive to the conviction of the Holy Spirit will be guided by this book into the naming of habits and thought-patterns that are revealed sinful in the light of Christ. Where our confessions might otherwise remain safely abstract, Christena Cleveland's humbling and incisive insights enable us to be specific and honest with ourselves. She is keen to give our social sins of omission and commission the names given them by the socio-scientific community, and to trace them back to our fallen proclivities of fear, insecurity, distrust, self-protection, and vanity. With grace and skill she helps us to confess such sins by name, and to see our complicity in the exacerbations of enmity that otherwise go unnoticed in a culture more interested in being  comforted than convicted.

It is worth mentioning that at the time of reading this book I was the pastor of a church that was sharing a building--but not much else--with a congregation of another language and culture. Despite the advantages of broad theological agreement and denominational connection, both congregations had struggled for years to find ways to tangibly practice and experience unity in Christ across cultural dissimilarity. Stepping into such a situation made me realize just how much our typical experiences of congregational unity might actually be boiled down to the comforts of demographic similarity. As I read Disunity in Christ I realized even further that if we were to experience unity across diverse congregations we would need to do more than establish a common theological vision. We would also need simply to share more of each other's meals and prayer times, making space for the courageous confrontation of our self-securing proclivities. This is hard work at times, but reading Christena Cleveland's book prompted me to pursue it. I dare say it even helped me to take joy in those awkward moments of cultural difference that arose when our punch-lines, lost in translation, did not land. Such moments would now be an encouraging sign; because people who might otherwise not be eating or talking together were now doing so because faith and hope in Christ had led them to try.


Rev. Dr. Jon Coutts is Tutor in Theology, Trinity College, Bristol, England

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