Breaking Down the Invisible Walls

OVER THE PAST 2,000 years, Christians have found myriad ways to divide the body of Christ. We are now more divided than ever, with more than 40,000 Christian denominations worldwide. Perhaps, in this context, we are asking the wrong questions. Do we really understand God’s desire for the church to be one? Do we as individuals have a yearning for the unification of the body of Christ? Why do we create the divisions we create? Why do we maintain the divisions that already exist? How can we break through these barriers to heal a broken church?

Christena Cleveland sets out to answer all of these questions and more in her latest book, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a young, energetic, and brilliant teacher, speaker, and researcher in the fields of social psychology and faith and reconciliation. For those concerned with reconciliation in the church, which should be all of us, hers is a voice to take seriously.

In Disunity, Cleveland quickly breaks the ice by poking fun at herself and by pointing to her own personal prejudices and biases that have led to her categorically labeling fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as either a “right Christian” or “wrong Christian.” The reader is immediately able to connect with her and realize the ways in which we have created division in our own lives, whether because of race, gender, orientation, education, location, socio-economic status, theology, or political affiliation. It also becomes apparent why we prefer our homogenous groups.

My, what a mess we have made. Most of these prejudices and biases are obvious to us. We are usually aware that we hold them and use them to separate us from people who may be different than us. However, there are also hidden forces that create divisions. This is where Disunity in Christoffers unique insight. According to Cleveland, “many of the processes that create and maintain cultural divisions in the church occur outside of our awareness.” Using her training as a social psychologist, she dives right into them, creating valuable perspective and providing the reader with a foundational understanding of social psychology, and why it is useful to the church.

Thankfully, Cleveland does not leave us there. Through our cultural prejudices and biases, many of us have become experts at identifying problems without offering any solutions. Cleveland wants us to engage in building bridges and dismantling the existing divisions as soon as we put the book down. In the closing chapters she equips the reader with tools for the work of reconciliation. She provides us with a biblical foundation for cross-cultural unity and explains how to overcome our cognitive and emotional biases.

As a young, black Christian from Baltimore who grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal tradition, I have always loved and taken a lot of pride in my culture. Recently, I was thrown into the (white) evangelical world. I felt like Daniel in the lion’s den. I felt attacked and unsafe outside my homogenous group. It was second nature to identify how I was not like “them” and how “they” were not like me. I know God has called me, just like God has called other Christians in similar situations, not to retreat into a safe haven but to take on the uncomfortable task of working toward unity. Disunity in Christ is not only a source of education, but is also a source of hope that the work of reconciliation is possible, necessary, and not done in vain.

Ryan Herring is the marketing and circulation assistant at Sojourners.

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