Otherness and the Broken Body of Christ

I have a love/hate relationship with the city of Chicago. The city is beautiful and diverse but also astoundingly segregated. In fact, Chicago was recently named the most segregated city in America! Due to its 23 distinct, linguistically-isolated ethnic neighborhoods , people can easily surround themselves with similar others and avoid interactions with other ethnic groups. To be fair, ethnic isolation is natural and comforting; we tend to cling to like-minded group members and keep others at bay. However, the Windy City’s segregated landscape discourages mutually-beneficial cross-cultural interactions and is a known breeding ground for intergroup conflict and misunderstanding .Unfortunately, Christians often act as if the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like Chicago. In theory, we support the vision of a diverse, integrated and interdependent body of Christ, but we sure as heck don’t want to venture outside of our Chicago neighborhoods to live the vision. We have reformed churches, black churches, hipster churches, Chinese churches, Pentecostal churches, emerging churches – but we rarely engage in meaningful interactions outside of our church groups. Instead, we tend to focus on the things that differentiate us from other groups, underestimate the richness and value that other groups bring to the Kingdom of God and foster negative attitudes about other groups. If we interact with other groups at all, we usually do so at a distance and with at least a hint of suspicion. If we are a body, then we are one that is afflicted with an autoimmune disease. When we become aware of the problem of disunity in the Church, we tend to (1) panic because we don’t know what to do about the problem and (2) blame others because that seems like a good temporary solution. This response only serves to widen the divide. As an alternative, I offer that nonconscious categorization processes are a significant cause of disunity in the body of Christ. As a social psychologist, I believe that if we become aware of these processes and vigilantly override them, we can move toward unity. Just like the people of Chicago, all humans have a natural inclination to form rigid groups based on social categories. In general, this tendency serves us well. For example, if a person is categorized into a group (e.g., waitresses), we have a ready-made set of expectations to help us effortlessly interact with the person. If I encounter a waitress at a restaurant, I don’t have to spend time wondering what to expect from her. Based on her group membership, I can make assumptions that help to guide our interaction. With many other things vying for our limited attention, we can save time and effort by using people’s group memberships to make inferences about them. However, the process of categorization, like all shortcuts, has its drawbacks – and it’s these drawbacks that wreak havoc on our unity. Briefly, I give you a few of the unintentional effects of group categorization.

One, we exaggerate differences between our group and other groups. We do this in order to maintain our group’s distinct identity and at the expense of recognizing and embracing our common characteristics. For example, we might overemphasize a single theological disagreement while ignoring the fact that we agree on the vast majority of theology. Two, we view other groups as homogenous. They are all the same. However, we view our group as heterogenous. We are all unique. As a result, we underestimate the rich texture of other groups, are no longer motivated to learn about them and are less inclined to believe that they have anything uniquely valuable to contribute to the body of Christ. Three, we think that the other group’s perception of us is far worse than it actually is. For example, research has shown that French nationals think that Americans are judging them more negatively than Americans actually are and vice versa. We incorrectly assume that other groups don’t want to know us and so we don’t make any effort at all. Meanwhile, they are making the same assumptions about us. Ultimately, no one takes the first step. Four, we think that our limited perspective provides the entire picture, thus rendering all other church groups unnecessary and/or wrong. Our customs, language and perspectives become the gold standards against which we measure other groups. In this way, those groups can never surpass our standards and are viewed with suspicion or condescension.

Nonconscious categorization processes lose much of their power when we become aware of their existence. We don’t have to be ruled by them. In fact, we can consistently override them if we are motivated and willing to devote time to questioning and correcting our perceptions and assumptions about other groups. For the sake of the Kingdom of God, we must.