Friday, July 6, 2018

Can a (different) book help the church stay together?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The Anatomy of Peace is a book that the United Methodist Church's Commission on a Way Forward, bishops, and other significant denominational leaders have drawn on in the process of attempting to find a solution to the UMC's decades-long dispute over homosexuality. The significance of the book at this moment in the church is captured by the title of a UMNS story about it "Can a book help the church stay together?"

Yet the book has also been piercingly criticized by United Methodist pastor Hannah Adair Bonner as "an artifice" that allows powerful white men to put words into the mouths of marginalized African Americans and Palestinians without being fully honest about the role of those white men in creating the book and its characters. As Rev. Jeremy Smith writes in a sympathetic response to Rev. Bonner's critique, that obfuscation does not completely invalidate the book's larger point about moving from conflict to peace, but it does raise significant questions about the book.

I will confess that I have not read The Anatomy of Peace and thus cannot comment on the book one way or another.

Yet if you are looking for a book that can help move the church from conflict between competing groups to a new sense of togetherness in Christ and one that takes seriously (and honestly) the perspectives of minority voices, I heartily recommend Christena Cleveland's Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2013).

Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist and theologian dedicated to intercultural and interracial reconciliation in the church. She is also African American and a professor at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School (though not United Methodist herself). This presumably would exempt her and her book from some of Rev. Bonner's criticisms of The Anatomy of Peace.

The book draws on both social psychology and theology to describe the ways in which our natural mental processes and desires for self-esteem, security, and control lead us to distance ourselves from those we see as different from us and how we exaggerate those differences to produce conflict between our ingroup and outgroups. More hopefully, Dr. Cleveland also points out how we can go about overcoming those biases that keep us apart and prevent unity in the body of Christ.

While Dr. Cleveland has cultural differences foremost in mind, she acknowledges that most of her arguments apply to differences of any kind, and she frequently cites theological differences as one type of disunity in the body of Christ. As I read the book, I kept thinking how well what she was saying described the current state of The United Methodist Church.

You should read the book to get the full impact of Dr. Cleveland's argument, but among the solutions she proposes are developing a larger sense of group identity that encompasses opposing groups, using "we" language to reinforce that identity, affirming the basis of our own identity in Christ, and the importance of interacting with those from outgroups.

Ultimately, we do not need to choose between reading The Anatomy of Peace and Disunity in Christ. I would hope that United Methodists can read as many resources as possible to prepare us to discern together how to be faithful and in unity with one another. But I do hope that Disunity in Christ will be one of the resources that United Methodists read.

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