Standing With Charleston: Solidarity in the Church

Last night's tragedy represents unmasked evil

Last night, a 21-year-old man walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina—a historically black congregation that has been active for 200 years—and began shooting people attending the Wednesday night Bible study.

The shooter, now identified as Dylan Roof, killed nine church members. And he reportedly told victims that he was there “to shoot black people.”

This tragedy brought against both faith and race represents unmasked evil. And it appears to be another incident pointing to the shockingly commonplace sin of racism in our culture. Every few days now we hear of black men and children killed unjustly, and now a terrorist attack levied against believers in a prayer circle.

Those of us within the body of Christ must grieve with our brothers and sisters in Charleston. When the apostle Paul says that “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26), he is saying that when evil visits Charleston, it visits all of us.

When our common identity (Galatians 3:28) becomes more important to us than our smaller cultural identities, we engage in the difficult process of lessening our grip on the identities that we have idolized and clung to for far too long.

But there’s hope. Things don’t have to stay the same. The primary problem is that our identities are too small. We tend to rely most on our smaller, cultural identities and ignore our larger, common identity as members of the Body of Christ. Adopting a common identity is the key to tearing down cultural divisions and working toward reconciliation.

Research shows that many of the categorizing, self-esteem and cultural threat processes that wreak divisive havoc on the Church are reversed when we finally stop thinking of ourselves as us versus them and begin to think of ourselves as one large ingroup. Ultimately, when we come together, we will not see each other as threatening competitors, but as diverse fellow group members.

We tend to rely most on our smaller, cultural identities and ignore our larger, common identity as members of the body of Christ.

A common identity is invaluable in breaking down barriers in crosscultural situations. Here are a few of the good things that happen when we loosen our grip on smaller cultural identities in favor of adopting a common identity as the body of Christ:

When they become we, we naturally like one another a whole lot more.

When our common identity becomes more important to us than our smaller cultural identities, former outgroup members become fellow ingroup members—they are treated like one of us and we instinctively like them.

Plus, when we know that they have also adopted an identity that includes us, we like them more. We love it when other people include us in their group because it implicitly tells us that they want to associate with us. This simple act prevents inaccurate metaperceptions from forming or continuing. When we no longer think of ourselves as us versus them, we are no longer convinced that they don’t like us and don’t want to interact with us.

When they become we, we’re more open to receiving helpful criticism.

Simple categorizing often prevents us from receiving much-needed help from other cultural groups in the body of Christ. These tendencies not only powerfully drive groups apart but also prevent them from collaborating when it is most desperately needed.

Wendi Gardner and colleagues suggest that when we adopt a common identity, we expand our sense of self to include culturally different people and, in doing so, are no longer threatened by their achievements, performance or perspective. When we see them as fellow group members, we begin to view their resources as our resources and are happy to receive them, even if that means accepting constructive criticism that temporarily stings.

When they become we, we forgive them more easily and are less likely to expect them to experience collective guilt.

When different cultural groups attempt to reconcile, they must first confront the past wrongs that one or both groups committed. High-status group members must acknowledge and repent for any role that they have played in oppressing lower-status groups. But low-status group members also have an important role to play—namely, they must do the difficult work of forgiving.

Forgiveness is crucial to healthy crosscultural interaction; before true relationship can begin, forgiveness must occur.

South African archbishop Desmond Tutu insists that for forgiveness to occur, both victims and perpetrators must adopt a single, common identity. Research supports this idea by showing that a common identity fuels forgiveness by helping victimized group members to distinguish between current members of a high-status group and their guilty ancestors. When we adopt a common identity that includes them, we are less likely to lump them together with past members of their group who caused the offense(s).

When they become we, our diversity initiatives will finally begin to work.

Here’s the thing: I rarely come across Christian organizations that truly want diversity. Oh, everyone says they want diversity, but really, what many people want is a group of minorities who will happily assimilate to the dominant culture. Everyone wants diversity, but no one wants to actually be diverse.

Unfortunately, this happens because even Christian groups who hope to attract more diverse members continue to idolize their smaller cultural identity. When we idolize our cultural group identity, giving it higher priority than our common group identity, minority group members are not truly invited to participate in the organization as valuable members of the all-inclusive we.

When we all adopt a common ingroup identity, we invite dissimilar others to participate in the group as first-class group members who have the same rights and power that all other group members possess. Further, we perceive ethnically dissimilar persons as ingroup members who offer valuable insights and perspective. With a common ingroup identity, our diversity initiatives start out on solid footing.

The Church as First Family

The act of adopting a common identity that supersedes all other identities is a daunting, even painful, one. However, research shows that it is the key to true unity.

Not only is Jesus serious about crossing boundaries to pursue us, but He’s equally serious about our crossing boundaries to pursue others.

To embrace our identities in this new, common family, we must engage in the difficult process of lessening our grip on the identities that we have idolized. At first, it will feel painfully unnatural because we have lived outside of our true identities for so long that the truth seems wrong. I guarantee you that we will want to quit.

Much like the apostle Peter who was shocked into a new reality when God asked him to loosen his powerful grip on his cultural values, travel a great distance to the house of “the other” and engage in unnatural fellowship with him (Acts 9–11), we too must embark on a similarly shocking journey if we are to fully experience the reality of the Body of Christ.

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Jesus’ willingness to cross boundaries to reconcile with others is evidenced not only in grandiose acts like dying on the Cross, but also in simple, everyday acts like washing His disciples’ feet.

After Jesus washed His followers’ feet, you’d expect Him to turn around and ask at least one of them to wash His feet. Typically, when we do something nice for someone, we expect the person to do something nice for us in return. But Jesus surprised His followers by telling them to go wash other people’s feet, rather than His feet.

Essentially, He said, “I pursued you in humility and love. Now go and pursue others in humility and love.”

Not only is Jesus serious about crossing boundaries to pursue us, but He’s equally serious about our crossing boundaries to pursue others. He has shown us how to do it.

Adapted from Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland. Copyright (c) 2013 by Christena Cleveland. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

Top Comments

Adeleina Loto-Meleisea

8

Adeleina Loto-Meleisea commented…

I agree in the most part, in terms of seeing one another as humans first. But I think that there should be more emphasis for change within the church psyche. I think this piece seriously tip toed around what one of our greatest flaws is as the church, something that we need to talk openly about. What we need to deconstruct is eurocentricity, and the normalised ideals that have come from that. We don't have to forget or leave behind our smaller identities, and in fact they are not so small to some - for some, they are actually crucial for how God speaks to us. If we then say "no, forget your smaller identity for our greater one as human beings of the church" it has the effect of limiting the ways we hear from God and trying to fit them in to the way that the "church culture" hears from God. And anyone who knows anything about sociology will know that what happens is the minority culture just gets swallowed by the dominant culture; its part of our fallen human nature. So what we're really saying when we encourage people not to be defined by their "smaller" culture is "leave your culture behind, come and join the one of the church which has been developed and shaped around Western ideals." There is no such thing as acultural, even in what we want to think is a church where all are welcome.

Furthermore, the incident in Charleston was not caused by a with lack of forgiveness from the "low status, oppressed" black community. It was caused by a white supremacist who was probably taught to be that way by his parents, community, and school. Targeting the institutional and idolised ideals in those institutions is what's the problem here, and is what should be considered "standing in solidarity" with Charleston. Especially as the church.

Jeremy Jones

48

Jeremy Jones commented…

I still think the church is not responding correctly. We gather together and pray, gather and talk about it. Those two things are very important. But ACTION is just as important...it's going to take action to change things. A lot of the kids, especially in the south are brought up educated in the ways of the racist mind....the only way to change that is to help them unlearn these harmful ways of thinking and educate them on a healthy mindset. Schools should do more to reverse that negative thinking. Churches should continue to teach on equality. Most importantly we need things that bring different racial communities together, interacting. A big problem i've seen is that people of various racial origins tend to stick with their own...that needs to change right away.

6 Comments

Brett

194

Brett commented…

Thankx Christena, i love the picture of the common identity as the body of Christ - oh for that day!

Challenging piece and i loved how you ended it with a different spin on the Jesus foot-washing story - i think when you said 'Everyone wants diversity but no one wants to be diverse' there is some truth in that - i would have probably leaned more towards 'Everyone wants diversity but no one wants to change' which you pretty much alluded to - we want the 'them' to become like us - we don't want a new us and we certainly don't want to have to move to becoming more like them.

Very challening - thank you for writing this - have been finding some gems all over the net on this tragedy and rather than using my own words, been sharing what some of the others have had to say: https://brettfish.wordpress.com/2015/06/19/in-the-wake-of-charleston

Keep on
love brett fish

Adeleina Loto-Meleisea

8

Adeleina Loto-Meleisea commented…

I agree in the most part, in terms of seeing one another as humans first. But I think that there should be more emphasis for change within the church psyche. I think this piece seriously tip toed around what one of our greatest flaws is as the church, something that we need to talk openly about. What we need to deconstruct is eurocentricity, and the normalised ideals that have come from that. We don't have to forget or leave behind our smaller identities, and in fact they are not so small to some - for some, they are actually crucial for how God speaks to us. If we then say "no, forget your smaller identity for our greater one as human beings of the church" it has the effect of limiting the ways we hear from God and trying to fit them in to the way that the "church culture" hears from God. And anyone who knows anything about sociology will know that what happens is the minority culture just gets swallowed by the dominant culture; its part of our fallen human nature. So what we're really saying when we encourage people not to be defined by their "smaller" culture is "leave your culture behind, come and join the one of the church which has been developed and shaped around Western ideals." There is no such thing as acultural, even in what we want to think is a church where all are welcome.

Furthermore, the incident in Charleston was not caused by a with lack of forgiveness from the "low status, oppressed" black community. It was caused by a white supremacist who was probably taught to be that way by his parents, community, and school. Targeting the institutional and idolised ideals in those institutions is what's the problem here, and is what should be considered "standing in solidarity" with Charleston. Especially as the church.

Stephanie

40

Stephanie commented…

I totally agree, but the challenge I face is that there are people who don't see us as a "we"...at the end of the day, my light skin means to them that I'm still the oppressor, so to these individuals, they and I can never be a "we." In my community, I am the minority, so I stay silent because no matter what I say, I "cannot understand." Granted, these are the same folks who are against Christianity and religion, so the idea of a unified body is foreign.

When I speak up, it's typically just to say that "we" are a "we"...and mutual respect goes a long way, but the voices I hear back say that we are individually too different to be an all-inclusive "we."

So, how do I handle this? How can barriers be broken down when new barriers are already built in their place?

Jeremy Jones

48

Jeremy Jones commented…

I still think the church is not responding correctly. We gather together and pray, gather and talk about it. Those two things are very important. But ACTION is just as important...it's going to take action to change things. A lot of the kids, especially in the south are brought up educated in the ways of the racist mind....the only way to change that is to help them unlearn these harmful ways of thinking and educate them on a healthy mindset. Schools should do more to reverse that negative thinking. Churches should continue to teach on equality. Most importantly we need things that bring different racial communities together, interacting. A big problem i've seen is that people of various racial origins tend to stick with their own...that needs to change right away.

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