“Disunity in Christ”: An Interview with Christena Cleveland

Note: Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist with a hopeful passion for overcoming cultural divisions in groups.  She regularly blogs about reconciliation, race and privilege. Drawing from a vast body of research, she uncovers the underlying processes that affect relationships within and between groups and helps leaders understand how to promote an appreciation for diversity and build effective collaborations with diverse groups. Christena earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. from the University of California.  She has published numerous scholarly articles and held academic appointments at the University of California, Westmont College, St. Catherine University and Bethel Seminary. She coaches pastors and organizational leaders on multicultural issues and speaks regularly at organizations, churches, conferences and universities. In addition to speaking, coaching and writing, she serves on the pastoral preaching team at her church and is a volunteer Young Life leader in urban Minneapolis. She recently completed her first book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart

I had the privilege of offering an endorsement of Christena’s book, which I loved as a social scientist. Here’s my plug:

In Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland provides an insightful analysis of why we all say we want unity but find it so difficult to gain it. Combining a humble Christian tone, familiarity with many types of churches and skillful use of social science, Disunity in Christ reveals to us those very human tendencies that keep us divided. Along the way, Cleveland helps us to see, laugh at and rethink our very selves. This book will effectively help any Christian or church wanting a deeper experience of the reconciliation we have in the body of Christ. As a pastor serving a church of some thirty nationalities, I found it an extremely useful analysis of what hurts and helps unity.

Christena was kind enough to answer a few questions for Pure Church.

When and how did you first become interested in diversity issues? What has been the biggest influence on your thinking?

My mom claims that I was born interested in diversity and justice issues! She can tell you some crazy stories about me as a six-year-old, boycotting recess time at school because the kids running the school yard games excluded the blind girl in the class. I guess I’ve always noticed and valued difference and desired to bring everyone into the circle despite those differences.

My neighborhood was my first diversity lab, so to speak.  I grew up in Fremont, California, the 2nd most diverse city in the United States.  With over 9 nationalities represented by the kids of my block, I encountered cultural differences – from holidays and religious observances to food preferences to perceptions of time – every afternoon when we gathered to play kickball in the street.

When I was 8, my dad planted a church in our city – a church that became almost precisely 25% black, 25% white, 25% Asian, and 25% Hispanic. To my young mind, it made perfect sense that I would attend a multiethnic church in a multiethnic city. It was at this church that I began to get a vision for how God desires us to be in relationship with each other, despite cultural conflicts, theological differences and vastly varying worldviews.

The biggest influence on my thinking has been the Gospels. When I examine Jesus’ heart and actions, I see a consistent cross-cultural theme. It seems that everything Jesus did was cross-cultural: the Incarnation, his meaningful relationships with a diverse group of people, his ability to speak to people in a way that affirmed their specific culture, the Cross. By examining the Gospels, I’ve discovered that a significant part of following Jesus involves caring about people whose experiences, cultural backgrounds and problems are nothing like my own.

You begin the book with a delightful discussion of what you call “right Christian, wrong Christian.” What do you mean by that phrase and how does it affect unity in the local church?

I actually went back and forth on whether to include that discussion in the book! In that section, I show my cards, if you will. So, I was concerned that non-discerning readers who identified with my description of “Wrong Christian” would throw my book across the room and never pick it up again!

“Right Christian, Wrong Christian” is all about naming our biases and recognizing that many of us have so succumbed to the tribalism in the church that we’ve started labeling people who are like us as “right” and people who are different than us as “wrong.” The problem is that many of us have little ongoing, meaningful interaction with the people we’ve labeled “wrong Christian.” As a result, our perception of “wrong Christian” more closely resembles a caricature than an accurate and honoring portrait.

Meanwhile, our negative attitudes toward “wrong Christian” blind us to the fact that perhaps we’re not the “right Christians” that we think we are. I see this pattern of instinctively, unequivocally and judgmentally labeling other followers of Christ as wrong or right on a broad level (e.g., in the blogosphere – where cross-tribal engagement only happens when one person/group is protesting another person/group) and on a local level (e.g., in the local church – where individuals within local church bodies stick to people who are like them / agree with them and avoid meaningful interactions with those who are different / challenge their worldview).

Christena Cleveland

Many people feel Evangelicalism has become increasingly “tribal” in recent years. It seems we’ve become adept at placing people in categories. Is this tendency to categorize helpful or unhelpful?

It’s both. As more diverse groups within Evangelicalism gain a voice and a distinct identity, it’s helpful to use categories to keep track of all of the groups! In that way, categories and labels are helpful. But the sinister side-effect is that by using those categories, we erect seemingly insurmountable divisions between us and them.  Before long, we’re no longer thinking of them as a different but invaluable part of the same body of Christ. Instead, we’re thinking of them as wholly and categorically different than us – so different that they are now both wrong and invaluable. What starts out as a mere label to help us distinguish between the wide variety of groups in the body of Christ can easily morph into a monstrous divisions that makes us lose sight of the fact that the most important label is our common identity as Christians.

You write in the book, “The body of Christ is like a bad marriage.” Wow. What do you mean by that?

In my social psychology class, the students and I examine lots of research on satisfied and dissatisfied couples. Some of the most interesting findings show that dissatisfied couples assume the worst of each other, tend to discount positive behavior and tend to attribute negative behavior to global, stable causes like personality.

For example, if a wife in a distressed marriage wakes up early on Saturday to surprise her husband with breakfast in bed, he’s likely to interpret her positive behavior by saying, “She must want something from me.” Or, “She probably couldn’t sleep. She only made breakfast for me because she was bored and it gave her something to do.”

However, if the wife in a distressed marriage commits a negative behavior, say she forgets to tell him that she’s coming home late from work and will have to miss dinner, he’s likely to interpret her negative behavior by saying, “It’s because she’s a selfish person.” He’s unlikely to think that she’s an unselfish person who simply happened to forget to call this time.

So the husband disregards the wife’s positive behavior and assumes that her negative behavior is fueled by stable personality deficiencies. As you can see, the husband and wife never sit down to have a meaningful conversation. Instead, the husband’s perceptions of the wife are wholly based on his assumptions. In a distressed marriage like this, no matter what the wife does, she loses!

I’m sad to say that I see this dysfunctional pattern of relating in the body of Christ. People from different tribes often act like the disgruntled husband in the distressed marriage. We tend to zero in on the “negative” behaviors that other Christian groups are engaging in and we tend to attribute those behaviors to personality deficiencies (e.g., “They don’t value Scripture” or “They’ve become too worldly”). Meanwhile, we barely notice the positive things that other groups in the body of Christ are doing. If we notice them at all, we often assume that their motives are impure, that they have an “agenda” or that they’re not worth listening to because they’re outside our tribe.

What suggestions would you have for church leaders wanting to lead their churches into becoming more diverse and unified communities?

I think one of the most powerful things that church leaders can do to lead their churches into unity is to model unity in their own personal relationships. A church will never be diverse if the leaders don’t live diverse lives.  Engaging in meaningful cross-cultural contact is scary! But people follow their leaders. If they see their leaders doing it, they will likely follow suit. Indeed, research shows that when a group leader models a relationship with a non-group member, the members of the group automatically begin to perceive the non-group member in a more positive way!

Church leaders should start by building meaningful friendships with people outside their ethnic, political, theological, gender, class, age, and marital status groups. When they begin to do this, they may begin to realize that the people who they had previously labeled as “wrong Christian” are now some of their most trusted friends. As part of this process, their misperceptions of them will begin to come to light.

The work of reconciliation is hard, slow, sometimes costly work. You’ve often encouraged people to persevere in the work and take the risks. Why do you think it’s worth it?

The work of reconciliation is the work of the Cross. I love doing it – despite the high costs – because it keeps me on my knees at the cross, asking our Savior to infuse me with his reconciling love so I can share it with others and participate as an empowered co-heir in His great work of making all things new. There really is no better place in the world to be!

Thanks for inviting me to interact with you and your readers! I love interacting with fellow members of the body of Christ and I’m excited to be on your blog today!



IVP is kind enough to offer five free copies of Christena’s book to readers of the blog. Here’s how it works. The first five people to tweet a link to this interview and plug the book will receive a free copy. When you tweet be sure to include my twitter handle (@thabitianyabwil) so I’ll know you’ve done so. I’ll connect with you to get your mailing details and IVP will send you Disunity in Christ. You’re going to enjoy this read!