I would like tell you that I still see all the Facebook posts from the friends I made at Evangelical Bible Camp. That I still smile as I look at the people I stood shoulder to shoulder next to, sweating with our hands in the air as we sang “Open the Eyes of My Heart” goosebumps running down our necks. Their now aging faces pressed up against their adorable little babies.
But unfortunately I have unfollowed most of them.
I’d venture a guess that if none of us ever posted anything about GLBT issues or #blacklivesmatter, we could probably continue to lol our way through life. Swapping old pictures of camp photos with the requisite inside joke.
But when I see them post hateful or intolerant things on the latest hashtag or terrorism attack I feel my blood start to boil.
And as my mouse hovers over the unfollow button, I think about the cute pictures of their kids in Halloween costumes, the amazing cross stiches, you know… their lives.
Because when I decide to unfollow their political views – I also unfollow the rest of their lives.
For the majority of people from my former worldviews this isn’t such a huge loss. You can’t follow everyone right?
And I suspect they feel the same way about me.
But family members (and friends who are practically family) are different.
If you use Facebook with any regularity I’m sure you have someone in your mind. Maybe it’s your cousin or the kid you sat next to in biology class in college. Someone that makes your heart smile except when it comes to religion and politics. Then they ruin your day.
But before you click unfollow or make some snarky comment at the next family reunion. I think you should ask this person to read Christena Cleveland’s new book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep us Apart.
Cleveland is an African American social psychologist who has devoted her life to understanding how and why people respond to difference.
Difference with a Capital D. The Other, The Outgroup, The Black Sheep.
Uncovering the often hidden forces that push us to live in racially segregated neighborhoods. Attend churches filled with people who read the Bible like we do. That thing that makes us want to click unfollow so badly.
Disunity in Christ reads a bit like a Malcom Gladwell book. Social critique hovering seamlessly between pop culture, history, and science. Using examples from sports, theology and race she relies heavily on data collected from a vast array of social experiments into the human response to difference.
What I find refreshing is that Cleveland writes in a way that people from rural Arkansas to the Upper East Side can relate to.
This is a Christian book with biblical parallels and theological concepts. But at its core it reads more like assigned reading for Social Psychology 101 with all the relevant concepts and social experiments: ingroup and outgroup, cultural homogeneity, groupthink, privilege and social status, collectivism and individualism…and the classic self-esteem.
It is actually quite difficult to find Christian books on diversity that rely on good scientific data and are written in a way that don’t alienate people who are new to the conversation of race and gender politics.
Cleveland avoids alienating readers who may be new or suspicious of embracing diversity by sticking to data rather than ideological conjecture.
Instead of blaming people for living in cultural theological bubbles, she explains why our brains prefer to be with people like ourselves. She writes, “We conserve our valuable and limited cognitive energy by spending time with people who are like us and whose behavior we can easily predict. Conversely, our interactions with people who are different from us or who violate our expectations are laden with uncertainty and are cognitively taxing.”
See what she did there? She blamed our brains instead of blaming us.
Like a seasoned doctors telling an alcoholic, “Often times we ask our kidneys to process too much alcohol.” Rather than saying. “Sir, you’re a drunk.”
A subtle, but important difference.
Watch her do it again. “Whether we are trained in psychology or not, we have a strong need to know and understand what is going on around us…Because we are uncomfortable with ambiguity, if we can find a concept to help us make sense of the world, we will cling to it – even if the concept is incomplete.”
Notice how she always uses the plural. With grace and wit she invites the reader into the difficult conversations by putting herself right in the middle of it. It is her authorial hospitality that invites even the most close-minded person to take her seriously.
The problem with most conversations about difference, whether it is women in church leadership or racial profiling by police is that people are usually talking at and/or past each other.
Too often we start by pointing out the failures in the other’s theory about the world, then barraging them with new “better” information. We quickly resort to shaming them for not accepting our “better” information. From there the discussion descends into a shouting (or an ALL CAPS typing match) and pretty soon people are taking pot shots at eachother instead of discussing the issue at hand.
So the next time you find yourself going back and forth between unloading on your cousin in the comments section or finally unfollow-ing them altogether, ask them to read Cleveland’s book with you.
If your looking for a guide book to win an argument this isn’t it. But if your looking for a way to navigate hashtags and the 24 news cycle, Cleveland may help you re-center some of your more volatile relationships.
As Cleveland writes, “If reconciliation work isn’t painful, I’d venture to say that it isn’t really reconciliation work. Reconciliation work requires that we partner with equally imperfect individuals, who are also clumsily scaling the crosscultural learning curve, forgive those who carelessly wrong us, repeatedly ask for forgiveness, engage in awkward and unpredictable situation, and like gluttons for punishment, keep coming back for more.”
Who knows, maybe you’ll even go back and re-follow a few of your old Bible Camp friends.