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Creating positive crosscultural interactions

Creating positive crosscultural interactions

“Creating positive crosscultural interactions”, Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, (Downers Hill, IVP, 2013), pp 152-176.


This article has been written by Christena Cleveland who has background expertise in theology and social psychology. Her interest here is in how to overcome divisions along the lines of ingroups and outgroups. Those divisions can come about through differences in culture, race, status etc. They manifest themsleves wherever there is talk of “us” and “them” and whenever a minority group feels like it does not “matter” and undergoes the experience which Miroslav Volf calls “psychological homelessness”.

Cleveland is under no illusions. One-off event do not of themselves lead to inclusion and a remedy to dislocating differences. She writes: ‘The one-time “unity” event organised by well-intentioned Christians is a worthy idea but probably a step in the wrong direction because such events typically allow group divisions and inaccurate attitudes to go unchallenged”. It is important to do the necessary homework first and lay proper foundations: She writes: “Sustained crosscultural interactions are not for the faint of heart”. There is so much space for creating offence and getting things wrong – which is one way of leading into another of Cleveland’s critical ideas.

Cleveland is clearly working within what we would call a multicultural situation. She does not use the language of our need to be intercultural. She much prefers the language of being / living crossculturally (which should appeal to the UCA in the light of its 2012 document, “One Body, Many Members”)

For sometime we have been used in the UCA to speak of our being cross-cultural in the following terms: (i). we come together out of our different cultures because of the cross of Christ: we do not come together because we wish to be “multi” or “inter(red)”; ii). we are often aware that we are linguistically diverse which begs the question where is meaning and good communication to be found: it is not necessarily in what I say or what you hear: it is in the space in between where our words and body language and cultural customs cross over; the term “cross cultural” is the norm for work on communication, dialogue etc. iii). in order to cross over into the experience of the other (to be empathetic and interpathetic) we may need to take up our cross and follow the way of Jesus who himself was frequently ‘crossing’ over from on territory to another in the gospels and who was, of course, cross-bound; and, iv). there are times when cultures come together that there is injustice and it is only right that there should be a prophetic ‘crossness’ about that situation.

It is that latter, that 4th sense, which Cleveland develops. This is the point at which reconciliation in and through Christ might take place. Once again this is an idea which should appeal to the UCA given the place of reconciliation in the opening paragraphs of the Basis of Union. Cleveland sees the work of reconciliation (which should be accompanied by justice and forgiveness) as both exhilarating and excruciating. It is, she says, “the work of the cross” – hence her commitment to ‘positive cross-cultural relationships” and we might say, by way of reference to the 2012 document, ‘living crossculturally’. To be cross cultural in Christ is more demanding than to be multi- or intercultural.

Lying in the background of her thinking is initially the work of an early groups theorist, Gordon Allport. He recognized that homogeneity is “never harmless”. The way in which to bring groups together in order to reduce prejudice is via contact theory. It is through bringing members of different groups together under certain conditions that negative emotions and discrimination can be reduced. Being crosscultural here might be defined in one sense as an exercise in error reduction. It requires people to see different group members as individuals “rather than nameless, faceless members of a cultural group”; it creates a context “which the different groups are encouraged to form a common identity”.

Cleveland does not specifically refer to the work which has been done on aversive race theory – but, it is evident that her work shares some of the same assumptions. So many good people have inherent ‘bias, prejudice and discrimination’ within them when it comes to relationships across cultures and group. Our institutions might profess that we value equality / multiculturalism; we may say we prize reconciliation and wish to be intercultural but there are deep socio-psychological habits which are to be found in our ‘unconscious’ which predispose us to separate into ingroups and outgroups. The task is to find strategies which will help us to “cross” those barriers.

Cleveland is firm in her conviction that a necessary biblical and theological foundation needs to be established for the work of ‘crosscultural reconciliation’. Such cross-cultural partnerships require “sturdy foundations”. That emphasis on biblical and theological foundations are absolutely critical.

Cleveland then focusses her attention on strategic areas where we need to address our ‘cognitive and emotional biases’.