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.
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.
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.
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