“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Psalm 133:1 (NRSV)
We live in divided times, do we not? Unfortunately, the divisions in our nation are mirrored in the Church, especially in America. Across denominations and even in many local churches, we are locked in a struggle around our understanding of the Bible and how to read it, and what we are called to commit ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. In many corners of the church, people have aligned the Christian faith with this or that political party, an act that invariably sows division, as well as making the Church vulnerable to manipulation.
In both the political and religious spheres of our culture, these divisions have led to a lot of talk in many circles about how greater unity might be achieved. Fingers are pointed as to who is to blame for our disunity, and many calls for “coming together” are heard. Unfortunately, some of these calls for unity amount to little more than telling those with whom we disagree to “get over it,” which sounds an awful lot like a polite way of saying “Shut up.”
Unity, is of course, a wonderful thing. The scripture that I cited above winsomely ex- presses the longing that many of us have within us for what Martin Luther King referred to as “the beloved community,” where people are in right relationship with each other, and com- mon values are shared and celebrated. The notion expressed by Rodney King in the midst of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, where he pleaded, “Can’t we all just get along,” speaks to not only that longing, but the naïve notion that “getting along” should be fairly easy to accomplish as well.
But unity, real unity, is a tricky thing, and living into authentic unity is really hard work. Part of the problem is that there are counterfeit forms of unity that seem to be the real thing, but are anything but. For example, ways of “getting along” that are based on avoiding controversy and conflict is not real, authentic unity. Neither is it unity when one person or group is required to stay quiet in order to maintain that “unity.” When politeness and “being nice” is valued over truth telling, that is not unity; it is avoidance masquerading as unity.
As the Psalmist says, real unity is precious. It is precious not because people have been stifled, silenced, or shamed in order to keep the peace; it is precious because it is characterized by reconciliation, redemptive love, and “speaking the truth in love.” It is characterized by the hard work of staying engaged with each other even when we profoundly disagree. Any community that is serious about building the Beloved Community will discover that there are many steps along the way that won’t feel much like unity. Angry words will likely be spoken, and indeed, sometimes they very much need to be. In all our efforts, we would do well to remember the wise words of Rosabeth Moss Kanter: “Everything looks [and feels] like failure in the middle of it,” and therefore do not lose heart.
Unity is a wonderful goal. But let us make sure we prize it enough to be unwilling to settle for its counterfeits.
In Evergreen love, Pastor Tom