Changing the Way We See Ourselves

I recently watched a movie called Music Within, a biopic about Richard Pimentel, the man who spent years fighting on behalf of Americans with disabilities and is largely responsible for the American Disabilities Act (ADA). It’s hard for most people to believe that the ADA-compliant buildings, elevators, ramps, restrooms, etc., that many of us take for granted were merely a pipedream before Pimental decided to fight for their existence. Early on however, Pimentel faced a fierce, uphill battle. He quickly realized that the American public just didn’t care about people with disabilities; few people were willing to spend money training disabled employees or remodeling their buildings to make them handicap accessible. One day, after receiving yet another indifferent response from a potential employer, Pimentel expressed his frustration to one of his disabled friends, wondering aloud how he could change the way the American public perceived disabled people. His friend’s response was incredibly insightful. He said, “You don’t need to change how they see disabled people. You need to change how they see themselves.” You see, Americans had developed an identity that did not include disabled people; disabled people were outgroup members. So when they were asked to go out of their way to care for a disabled person, they were unwilling or unable to do so. Pimental quickly realized that the best way to get Americans to care about the disabled was to convince Americans to expand their identities to include the disabled. He needed to convince Americans that to be American meant to care about other Americans including the disabled. He changed the way Americans saw themselves, and in doing so, he changed the way Americans saw disabled people. This approach will work for the body of Christ too. Miroslav Volf notes that true reconciliation mirrors the reciprocal interiority of the Trinity. He writes “reconciliation with the other will succeed only if the self, guided by the narrative of the triune God, is ready to receive the other into itself and undertake a readjustment in light of the other’s alterity” (1996, p. 110). We need to relativize our subordinate identities (based on ethnicity, denomination affiliation, education, gender, etc) and adopt a superordinate identity in which to be a follower of Christ means to care deeply and pursue other followers of Christ, including the ones that are different than us or that we don’t instinctively value or like. We need to adopt the belief that to be a follower of Christ means to allow our identity as members of the body of Christ to trump all other identities. We’ve coped with our divisions long enough. It’s time for us to discover our true identities as members of the family of God. In sum, it’s time for us to change the way we see ourselves.

When we change the way we see ourselves, a lot of good things will happen. For one, our diversity initiatives will finally begin to work. In my work with numerous Christian organizations I have come across a curious trend. Pastors and leaders often implement diversity initiatives that are designed to attract minority participants, but when the minorities actually participate, all hell breaks loose. Increases in diversity are often met with more strife, dissatisfaction with the organization across the board, and disgruntled minority participants. Ultimately, the pastors and leaders throw their hands in the air and give up, saying that the challenges of diversity outweigh the benefits. (I continue to be amazed by how quickly they reach this conclusion, but that is beside the point.)

Research suggests that diversity initiatives are most likely to fail amongst Christian groups that idolize their subordinate identities. Due to this idolatry, minority group members are not invited as valuable members of the all-inclusive "we". Rather (and perhaps this is unintentional) they are invited to participate in the organization as "them"– subordinate outgroup members and second class citizens who are bound to be dissatisfied. Until we relinquish our former subordinate identities and adopt a common ingroup identity, our diversity initiatives are doomed to failure because we will never fully appreciate our diverse brothers and sisters and they will not feel appreciated.