“Every time the Christian church divided or separated, each group lost one half of the Gospel message…” Richard Rohr
I understand that the literalists will have a problem with Rohr’s statement, but the point is essentially accurate: Our divisions are mostly losses, not gains. Since Jesus made unity a climactic request in his final prayer, taking steps toward reconciliation, unity, and love for all people, is perhaps one of the most important things we can be doing. Here are some recent thoughts toward that end:
Here’s a manifesto on unity. I spoke it the week after Charlottesville in the church I lead. We’d set up the sermon series far ahead of time, having no idea that the racial divide of America, already a gaping wound that’s been festering for centuries, would become even deeper. In case you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, here are the talking points:
- Jesus’ last prayer on earth was that those who claim to follow him would display visible unity. He said that visible unity of groups that would otherwise be at odds would become evidence the gospel is real, because it would be unique. The subsequent 2000 years have, of course, proven him right. We humans divide into all manner of category: insider vs. outsider. Jews and Neo-Nazis. Blacks and KKK. Property owners and “serfs” (back in the feudal days), or “homeless people” today. Saved & Unsaved (in spite of the fact that Jesus explicitly warned us not to play at being the “salvation police” in these words). Educated and Illiterate. Young and old. The result is always the same too. Our divisions testify that we would rather be tribal than reconciling. In spite of John Lennon imagining otherwise, we can’t seem to acquire the unity we desire. Jesus knew that our world is longing for visible displays of dividing walls being broken down, and that when those displays are evident, not just on placards and in marches, but in actual relationships, such unity testifies of a deep spiritual reality at the source.
- Visible unity requires truth. Real unity isn’t some sort of “anything goes”, mindless tolerance. For any community to be a community, there must be values that mark the community as distinct. We don’t like this in our highly individualized culture, but it’s true. If a community stands for peace, then violence becomes ‘abnormal’. If a community stands for generosity, then closing one’s heart to the needs of the world is unacceptable. If a community stands for sexuality as an expression of love, then rape, pedophilia, and other sexual power plays are out of bounds. Stand for the truth that every person is made in the image of God, and vilifying any person based on their skin color, sexual orientation, or economic status is out of bounds.
- Truth, though, requires an atmosphere of love if it is to thrive. Air dropping into someone’s life because you see “sin” and “confronting them” is hardly the “speaking the truth in love” that Paul had in mind. Real telling of truth requires a whole package of things. When you’re going to ‘say the hard word to someone’, if you’re not willing to also say: “you are made in the image of God and God’s desires for your life are infinitely more beautiful than you can imagine”, and “I’m committed to walking with you, into the valley of darkness, through it, and into the light”, then don’t bother saying anything. Lacking a culture of love or a commitment to fostering it, you’re not telling the truth at all – you’re just fault-finding.
- Love, though, because it’s love, will always seek truth. We won’t always know truth, not in a ‘bombproof’ sort of way, the way we know the sky is blue. But we’ll always seek truth. That means a real loving community will, at times, be wrestling with differing views, generously speaking, listening, praying, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith…” In the meantime, there will be situations where there are points of disagreement and enough humility to realize that we don’t KNOW (the way we know, for example, that pedophilia is wrong, or that putting a burning cross in someone’s yard, or affirming neo-nazis, or shooting police just because they’re police, are wrong). When that happens, we’re to seek truth “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love”
Some are so good at speaking the truth that they’ve become the doctrinal and moral police for the world, presumptuously claiming the moral high ground and judging all those “down there” who don’t see things precisely like them.
Others are so good at tolerance that they’ve stopped caring about the pursuit of truth, and are passively endorsing unfettered greed, individualism, and various forms of sexual debauchery, all in the name of unity. Such unity, though, is worthless in the end because salt will lose its saltiness, and when the time comes to shelter Jews during the holocaust, or take a stand against abortion, or sex with pixels, they’ll remain silent in their attempt to preserve unity.
Nope – too much tolerance or too much moral policing will steal our unity, one way or the other. It’s time for something different. Time for truth and love, interwoven so tightly that you can’t tell one from the other.
We live in perilous times, because our social isolation and disintegration of family have created a longing to belong. This is fertile soil for crazy tribes, including those wearing religious clothes of all faiths and denominations. Seeking to embody real community, real truth and real love for all people is a lot of work. But it’s our calling if we claim to follow Jesus.