Book Review: Disunity in Christ

Portia was one of the first people I met when I started college. She was a sophomore with a welcoming attitude, eager to help the freshmen feel welcome. I sat next to her on the bus to band camp and as we chatted about our lives, church came up. When I told her I went to a United Methodist church she was delighted. “I go to an AME church – African Methodist Episcopal. We’re the same!”

Basically, I grew up in the white Methodist church and she grew up in the black Methodist church. Portia could have focused on the differences between us instead of finding our common ground. She chose to welcome me. Twenty years later I still love her for that.

Christena Cleveland’s insightful book, Disunity in Christ, is about that choice: the choice to welcome and find common ground in Jesus, or to divide and define ourselves in opposition to and fear of each other.

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I grew up attending a United Methodist Church. My family had a generations-long connection with Methodism and I loved our church.

I fell in love with a boy who grew up attending a Lutheran Church. His family had a generations-long connection with Lutheranism and he loved his church.

I don’t think I’d ever heard of Lutherans before college. But I married that Lutheran boy, and he went on to seminary, and I joined a Lutheran church.

Changing denominations was a bumpy path for me until I realized it was not so much about leaving one group and joining another, as it was about reconciling two perspectives and understanding my Christian faith more deeply. I am thankful for the way my history has enriched and shaped my relationship with God and others.

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This isn’t just about denominations. It’s about politics. It’s about race. It’s about every way we categorize ourselves and others.

I appreciate that Cleveland explains herself clearly. Sometimes discussions about differences are stymied by our assumptions, our unwillingness or inability to explain what we think. Cleveland is clear-minded and funny in describing the “devilishly subtle” ways we separate ourselves from others. She helps me think about those separations, too.

Cleveland is also honest about her own weaknesses. She uses herself as an example of many of the things she calls us to change. As a reader I felt free to agree with some of her arguments and disagree with others. I felt motivated to learn more, to try something different.

To live justly we need to be capable of living with differences, to see people who are culturally different as God’s gift to us. Cleveland’s book helps us see the path to doing just that.