Misplaced Jesus, Theology — March 14, 2011 at 7:00 am

Otherness and the Broken Body of Christ

by

I have a love/hate relationship with the city of Chicago.

The city is beautiful and diverse but also astoundingly segregated. In fact, Chicago was recently named the most segregated city in America! Due to its 23 distinct, linguistically-isolated ethnic neighborhoods, people can easily surround themselves with similar others and avoid interactions with other ethnic groups. To be fair, ethnic isolation is natural and comforting; we tend to cling to like-minded group members and keep others at bay. However, the Windy City’s segregated landscape discourages mutually-beneficial cross-cultural interactions and is a known breeding ground for intergroup conflict and misunderstanding.

Unfortunately, Christians often act as if the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like Chicago. In theory, we support the vision of a diverse, integrated and interdependent body of Christ, but we sure as heck don’t want to venture outside of our Chicago neighborhoods to live the vision. We have reformed churches, black churches, hipster churches, Chinese churches, Pentecostal churches, emerging churches – but we rarely engage in meaningful interactions outside of our church groups. Instead, we tend to focus on the things that differentiate us from other groups, underestimate the richness and value that other groups bring to the Kingdom of God and foster negative attitudes about other groups. If we interact with other groups at all, we usually do so at a distance and with at least a hint of suspicion. If we are a body, then we are one that is afflicted with an autoimmune disease.

When we become aware of the problem of disunity in the Church, we tend to (1) panic because we don’t know what to do about the problem and (2) blame others because that seems like a good temporary solution. This response only serves to widen the divide.  As an alternative, I offer that nonconscious categorization processes are a significant cause of disunity in the body of Christ. As a social psychologist, I believe that if we become aware of these processes and vigilantly override them, we can move toward unity.

Just like the people of Chicago, all humans have a natural inclination to form rigid groups based on social categories. In general, this tendency serves us well. For example, if a person is categorized into a group (e.g., waitresses), we have a ready-made set of expectations to help us effortlessly interact with the person. If I encounter a waitress at a restaurant, I don’t have to spend time wondering what to expect from her. Based on her group membership, I can make assumptions that help to guide our interaction. With many other things vying for our limited attention, we can save time and effort by using people’s group memberships to make inferences about them. However, the process of categorization, like all shortcuts, has its drawbacks – and it’s these drawbacks that wreak havoc on our unity. Briefly, I give you a few of the unintentional effects of group categorization.

One, we exaggerate differences between our group and other groups.  We do this in order to maintain our group’s distinct identity and at the expense of recognizing and embracing our common characteristics. For example, we might overemphasize a single theological disagreement while ignoring the fact that we agree on the vast majority of theology.

Two, we view other groups as homogenous.  They are all the same. However, we view our group as heterogenous. We are all unique. As a result, we underestimate the rich texture of other groups, are no longer motivated to learn about them and are less inclined to believe that they have anything uniquely valuable to contribute to the body of Christ.

Three, we think that the other group’s perception of us is far worse than it actually is. For example, research has shown that French nationals think that Americans are judging them more negatively than Americans actually are and vice versa.  We incorrectly assume that other groups don’t want to know us and so we don’t make any effort at all.  Meanwhile, they are making the same assumptions about us. Ultimately, no one takes the first step.

Four, we think that our limited perspective provides the entire picture, thus rendering all other church groups unnecessary and/or wrong.  Our customs, language and perspectives become the gold standards against which we measure other groups. In this way, those groups can never surpass our standards and are viewed with suspicion or condescension.

Nonconscious categorization processes lose much of their power when we become aware of their existence. We don’t have to be ruled by them. In fact, we can consistently override them if we are motivated and willing to devote time to questioning and correcting our perceptions and assumptions about other groups. For the sake of the Kingdom of God, we must.

5 Comments

  • Another excellent post, Christena. Have you had any interaction with River City Church in Humboldt Park? They are really a groundbreaking church-based model of racial reconciliation at the grassroots. In fact, River City was the church that really sparked my own passion for conflict transformation. I attended there while I was working as a social worker in Rogers Park. While I witnessed racial disparities and systemic poverty in my work-life, River City really gave me a theological context in which to understand the church’s role in speaking to and interacting with social problems such as these.

  • First of all – agree.

    But once we’re aware, what do we do about it?

    I attend a church that’s urban, liberal and 99% caucasian. People know about categorization processes (to use Christena’s term) and are motivated to dismantle and actively try to correct their thinking. But we’re still 99% white after years of trying to move towards our Others.

    All our outreach ideas feel dishonest. Like we’re doing it from an ideological stance, because we want to diversify our community rather than because we care about all people – but we do care about everyone. So, basically, we do our thing and try to make it open to everyone and try to be as friendly as possible to everyone. But I’d imagine that for non-caucasian’s it’s pretty intimidating walking into our sanctuary. Maybe we’re overthinking it and that’s the problem.

    Anyways, I’m not sure. On one hand, our church is great at reaching out to folks with different sexual orientations without fetishizing them; on the other, it seems that we’re unable to engage folks from other ethnic backgrounds.

    What are your thoughts?

    • Thanks for your thoughts and questions, TT! Without knowing the specifics of your church, it’s difficult for me to assess the impediments to ethnic diversity. There are lots of subtle, but powerful things that the majority/power culture can do to alienate the Other. That said, one thing that I often encourage predominantly-White churches to do is to abdicate their power and status. Rather than trying to get the Other to join them (on their turf, on their terms, in their language, in their culture), they should join the Other. This requires an abdication of status and is quite uncomfortable.

      There are tried-and-true ways for all Christians (regardless or race or status) to interact on the same-level but that requires paradigm shifts and structural changes that are typically uncomfortable for the power/majority group. I hope to write more articles for RE that provide a blueprint for this sort of change.

      Thanks again!

  • I greet you. I have recently concluded that as an autistic Christian, I feel no pressure from any of my groupings. I conclude further that I feel my attention and even sympathies drawn toward the other groupings and individuals. This is odd, but it explains why misfit my groups so increasingly badly, even as all the groups are becoming ever more insular today in America.

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