Rector's Blog Summer Throwback Series: Real Unity
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Editor's note: As part of our When Love Shows Up Summer Throwback Series we are re-posting this blog post which was originally posted on January 27, 2021.
Unity is the buzzword of the month. In the aftermath of the deadly insurrection that capped off a traumatic election season that took place in the midst of the (still ongoing) greatest public health crisis of our time, the cry that clings to many lips is a plea for unity, for a recognition that we are in this together. For some the call for unity seems sincere, others feel a sense of skepticism – especially if that unity comes at the cost of accountability and transformation.
We are built for connection; we are made for each other. So, it makes sense that we take any conversation about unity seriously. But most especially here and now, as Christians in America, we have work to do. Both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have made statements that the greatest threat to the safety and security of our country comes from within – from radical domestic organizations, often fueled by White Supremacist ideals and darkly violent conspiracy theories. We are not ok. But we want to be ok. We really do. So many of us – regardless of party affiliation or ideological identification – yearn to live into the ideals of unity expressed in that sacred phrase e pluribus unum – out of many one. Whether we like the way the word unity is being used or not, we know unity matters. We know we want it.
Those of us who are Christian in America know that we are Christians first, and Americans a distant second. So, any conversation we have about unity must be had through the lens of Jesus Christ and what he means for us. Fortunately, there’s not a lot of guesswork to be done here. Our New Testament Scriptures spill a good amount of proverbial ink on a Christian understanding of unity – its origin, its effects, and what it requires from us. It’s all spelled out in detail in the founding documents of our shared faith. If we are going to engage with our family, friends, neighbors, and enemies about being united, we want to root ourselves firmly in a Christian sense of unity.
The problem of unity is a central concern in the New Testament, because people from different cultural, religious, political, and socio-economic backgrounds are seeking to become one community. Some of the most beautiful language and powerful theology in our faith emerged from this struggle for unity in Jesus’ name. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he addresses the generations-old Jew/Gentile divide saying, “Christ Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."
This is elucidated and even intensified in his first letter to the Corinthian Church, when he tells them that, however different they think they are, they are merely different members of the same body. You might be an arm and I might be a leg, but we’re part of the one body. Notice in Paul’s language, he’s not suggesting unity is a goal, but in fact something Christ has already accomplished. He’s not saying, “we should be one,” he’s saying, “we are one.” This is neither rosy idealism, nor an avoidance of conflict. Paul is playing a different game. He’s not saying, "we should try to belong to each other.” He’s saying, “Because of what Jesus has done in the world, we do belong to each other: Now we have to act like it."
Now we have to act like it.
The Christian striving for unity is, in fact, not a striving for something abstract, strange, and unusual: it is a striving to live into what is already true, to live into reality. The Christian life is a life learning how to accept our mutual belonging. We are not trying to create a future unity, but to recognize and accept our current unity – we are already members of the same body. Now we have to act like it.
For the Christian, the work of recognizing our fundamental connectedness, our essential unity, begins with repentance. It’s at the reading of this word that you shrink back, and it’s my job to remind you that repentance is not about shaming, hating, belittling, or flagellating yourself. It’s about taking an honest look at where you are in relation to God. Repentance is about turning towards God and remembering that you were born from Love and born for Love. Repentance is the beginning of the work because we cannot know where we are going if we don’t see where we are. Repentance reorients us in the Love for which we exist.
And repentance takes us out of the pattern of death that insists, “We will be united when those people start acting right."
Some would say unity looks like us all getting along and speaking kindly to one another. I am very much a fan of getting along. I prefer when we speak kindly to one another. But are we living as if we belong to the same body? As if we share the same destiny? The 425,000 deaths from COVID in this country have occurred in radically disproportionate numbers among the poor, the Black, the Latino, and the indigenous populations among us. I’ve heard people say about the pandemic that “we’re all in the same boat.” But do we live in a country that actually believes that?
Do we live – both individually and as a people – like every one of us is essential? Speaking of essential: we’ve heard that word a lot in the last year referring to people whose work is deemed necessary for the basic functioning of our society. Do we treat our essential workers as if they are essential? Are they honored and cared for in real and measurable ways? Do we have anything to offer the unvaccinated teachers who are being sent into schools to interface with dozens of people other than our thoughts and prayers?
It is evil that we live as if it is better to be White, it is better to be male, it is better to be rich. It is of the Devil that we value some lives more than others. It is anti-Christ of me when I treat you with enmity or condescension. Beloved, we are gifts to one another, born from blessing to bless one another. God’s love in Jesus Christ has made us one. We belong to each other utterly. We are already united. What will it look like for us to act like it?
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