Disunity In Christ

I think about Christian unity a lot. I’m convinced that unity is one of the first implications of the Gospel though it is often the first implication to be overlooked, reduced, or explained away. As much as I’m theologically convinced about the priority of unity I’m even more convinced emotionally. Belonging to multi-ethnic congregations for the past five years and finding identity within a diverse community of Christians has been enough to convince my heart that unity is far more of a benefit than it is a goal. It’s true that unity involves  hard work but it is also a profound joy.

The challenge and joy of Christian unity is tied up in our belief that unity involves those who are incredibly different than myself. Unity is Christian when the community is made up of diverse others, individuals who were once them but are now us. Most Christians in my experience are great with the idea of diverse unity. We believe our churches to be hospitable to all kinds of people regardless of a person’s race, ethnicity, culture, history, etc. So why aren’t our churches more diverse? The answers generally given to this question just barely acknowledge the real challenges to unity. Instead we default to cliches about cultural preferences and styles of worship. Experiencing the robust unity we read about in the New Testament requires setting aside simplistic answers and acknowledging the real hurdles that keep us from experiencing the formational and joyful community that is meant to define us.

Disunity In Christ

Christena Cleveland has written a book that does exactly this. Professor Cleveland teaches social psychology at St Catherine University and is fluent in the norms and challenges facing churches that strive for diverse unity. Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart takes on some very specific and pervasive dynamics that face any church striving for unity. There are few academics that mine their disciplines for the good of the church as well (and accessibly) as Cleveland does in Disunity in Christ. The result is a book that does three things very well.

First, Cleveland draws heavily from her area of professional expertise, social psychology, to explain some of the reasons we find unity so hard. This was new territory for me. I’m used to thinking theologically and historically about these things. Disunity in Christ provides an entirely new set of lenses through which to examine the obstacles to unity. Most of the book’s chapters are built around insights into social dynamics and psychology, each with clear implications for the church. For example, Cleveland writes about the “gold standard” which involves a strong bias to spend time with those most like ourselves thereby ensuring that we see ourselves as the benchmark by which others are judged. When unacknowledged, the gold standard creates a dynamic in which those unlike us are only truly welcomed once they become more like us.

Second, Disunity in Christ is written by an author who is committed to the church. That is, her language and examples clearly have in mind those within local churches. Cleveland demonstrates an enviable ability to flow in and out of different church traditions, writing to a genuinely diverse audience. It was very refreshing to read an author on this subject who can speak knowledgably and authentically about the differences made by race, culture, and history. No tokenism here!

Finally, despite the overall bend of the book to point out the “hidden forces that keep us apart”, Cleveland manages to keep the tone hopeful.  This is harder than it might sound. The further you dig into the challenges to unity – and Cleveland digs deep – the more discouraged one is tempted to become. While Disunity in Christ is by no means primarily theological, Cleveland writes as a believer- both in the Gospel and its power in the face of even the greatest forces of division. Her hopeful tone allows the reader to take seriously these forces without ever becoming overwhelmed by them.

As the pastor of multi-ethnic church I have a shelf full of books that I turn to regular for insight and clarity when things get muddled. Disunity in Christ has been added to that shelf of valuable books. I expect to return to it regularly.

Dear White Christian Leaders, Don’t Do It.

Last week brought disheartening news from white-evangelical-church-world. A well-publicized men’s conference was reported to have used both women and gay people as punchlines to jokes told from the stage. And, in An Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church, a group of influential Asian American Christians pointed out a bunch of instances of racial stereotyping by different evangelical conferences, publishing houses, and pastors. For those paying attention – and/or on the receiving end of these offensive and marginalizing stereotypes – it seems impossible that these things keep happening. How is it that many Christian leaders of the evangelical-ish variety are continuing with language, images, and assumptions that are so unloving? It’s crazy, right?

Well, yes, except that I get it. The white men who lead these conferences, publishing houses, and – yes – churches are steeped in privilege. This is the sort of privilege that comes when ones (my) race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status place a man at the top of the heap. And for these men (me) it’s almost impossible to imagine what it feels like to have something fundamental about yourself reduced to a punchline. Of course it is theoretically possible to stereotype white men, but there is no real sting in such stereotypes because the power differential remains unchanged. This is why a white man’s claim of being a victim of racism (or that mythical thing, reverse racism) rings hollow. Perhaps he has been prejudiced against, but racism requires that added element of power, something he still retains more of within our society.

Deeply ingrained, subconscious privilege makes it really hard to imagine what it’s like for something elemental about yourself to be co-opted and reduced for someone else’s purposes. I get it. So, from one white man to other white men here’s some unsolicited advice. Don’t do it. Don’t use someone’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender to serve your purposes, whether that’s getting laughs or selling a book. Just don’t. Here’s the thing: If your message is good enough (and if you’re a Christian leader than your message damn well better be more than good enough) than there is absolutely no reason to resort to stereotypes or marginalizing tropes. When you resort to these things you not only appear prejudiced and tone deaf, it also seems like you don’t trust the quality of your own message, as if it has to be propped up on someone’s disenfranchized back.

Another thing. We white men will say and do stupid things. We are, in so many ways, products of our privilege and despite our best intentions we will harm others with our words and assumptions. Time spent submitted to diverse community holds a lot of promise for our own spiritual formation, but we will still mess up. The point can never be for us (or, for that matter, any Christian) to always get it right. Impossible! The point is, however, to be quick to repent and ask for forgiveness when we do get it wrong. When we do hurt those we mean to love. And if the Gospel of Jesus is true for us, than we can really repent and really ask for forgiveness. None of this non-apology if-I-offended-anyone baloney. No, Christians are meant to be an always repenting and always forgiving people so we need not be devastated or evasive when confronted with our sin.

One last thing for my white, male comrades. It won’t be long before we see another well-known leader or pastor goof up in this area. It’s absolutely going to happen. When it does, if at all possible, we need to speak up. We’ve got to call this stuff out even while acknowledging our own blind spots. We can tell our diverse Christian family that we’re not OK with stereotypes and sanitized prejudices. We can contact the offending party and, gently but directly, point out the damage that has been done. And we can do all we can to make robust reconciliation an ever-increasing reality.

The End Of Authenticity

Catechism Painting by Rick & Brenda Beerhorst (C.C.)
Catechism Painting by Rick & Brenda Beerhorst (C.C.)

For the ten years I’ve been a pastor there’s been one priority most everyone I’ve worked with (pastors, lay people, and ministry authors alike) has agreed with: authenticity. This is interesting. For one thing, church folks don’t often agree on priorities yet this one has gone unopposed. For another, how is authenticity a thing that can be prioritized? In an earlier age we might have simply called this thing honesty or telling the truth but somewhere along the way churches were convinced that ours is an age of authenticity. To attract the young and cynical then, churches must wear their authenticity on websites, mission statements, and sermon illustrations.

I started thinking about this as I prepared a recent sermon about worship. I was considering some of the obstacles to corporate worship – a particularly live question in a multi-ethnic congregation like ours – when the priority of authenticity started to seem more of a liability than an asset. Authenticity, as I understand it, means being true to myself. Maybe it’s easier to state it negatively: authenticity is not being fake. I’m all for not faking, but for Christians there are at least two problems with authenticity.

First, though being authentic requires being true to myself, Christians claim that most of the time we barely know ourselves. What, exactly, is it that we are being true to? The prophet Jeremiah was blunt about this: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” If my decisions about how I participate in Christian worship and community are based on authenticity – my interpretation of my needs and desires – then I’m in for a fickle and shallow experience of the Christian life. Not only that but when my starting point is my authentic experience, no matter how altruistic I happen to be on a given day, I cannot help looking for an experience revolving around me.

There’s another problem. Historically Christians have assumed that our experience of Christ and his Kingdom involves a life-long catechesis. Our emotions, thoughts, and even beliefs at any given moment are a poor indicator of our place within the Kingdom and our identities as children of God. Rather, we have expected our desires to be schooled in the practices and habits of this upside down Kingdom. Submission to community, participation in corporate worship and Sabbath keeping, and practicing the spiritual disciplines have long been assumed to be the normal Christian habits necessary forming more trustworthy desires. Leading with authenticity may sound like smart strategy, but it’s hardly leading from our strength.

I’m pro-authenticity. I want to live an authentic life to the best of my limited ability. And I want to participate in a community of people who are learning to tell the truth about everything. As a value, authenticity is admirable and worth pursuing. But as a guide, we can surely do better. Much better.